Selling points

Jay-Z ties his fortunes to American Gangster
By BEN WESTHOFF  |  November 14, 2007

VIDEO: Jay-Z, "Roc Boys (The Winner Is)"

Jay-Z’s new album shares its title with the new Ridley Scott film about Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas. It even has an “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” seal of approval. Beyond that, the film and the album have little in common.

The film is a morally complex rumination on corruption and sin — a shoo-in for Academy Award nominations. The CD is a transparent attempt by Jay-Z to reposition himself as a hip-hop outlaw by rehashing his gangsta past. And though it’s clearly a reaction to the lukewarm reception 2006’s Kingdom Come received, it’s likely to encourage just as many calls for his (permanent) retirement. Sure, Jay’s American Gangster gives Lucas a few shout-outs, and there are places where it makes reference to the film, but the disc is mostly about Jay-Z — the younger, less-upstanding Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter, who captured the hip-hop zeitgeist 11 years ago with the street tales of Reasonable Doubt.

Jay-Z got involved with American Gangster in the hope of bouncing back from Kingdom Come. The beats on that album were lackluster, but the main problem his fans had with it were linked to the persona Jay exhibited, as he eschewed Super Fly to become a kind of rapping Donald Trump, favoring the Dow over dope. “I got the right stock, I got stockbrokers that’s moving it like white tops,” he rapped on “30 Something.” He even committed hip-hop blasphemy by voicing his distaste for rims.

Give Kingdom Come points for honesty: Jay was rapping about the world he’d come to know as a music-biz titan who’d risen to become CEO of Def Jam. All the same, it sold less than any other Jay-Z album. So in the interest of jump-starting sales, Jay has changed personas again, trading his seat in the boardroom for an ’80s-era street corner in the ’hood.

“First of all I want to thank my connect,” he raps on “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is),” the album’s centerpiece. “The most important person with all due respect/Thanks to the duffle bag, the brown paper bag/The Nike shoe box for holding all this cash/Boys in blue who put greed before the badge.” It’s a contrived conversion — an all-too-blatant attempt to resurrect the hunger of Reasonable Doubt, even though the film’s subject offers a plausible excuse for his shift back to street tales. “C’mon, I got that ignorant shit you need,” he raps in “Ignorant Shit” (a track featuring Beanie Sigel, the Philly rapper who was beating an attempted murder charge while Jay-Z was climbing the corporate ladder), “Nigga, fuck, shit, ass, bitch, trick plus weed/I’m only trying to give you what you want.”

Jay got involved in the film after an advance screening, which is said to have inspired him to write a flurry of songs, many based on scenes in the movie. Or perhaps his real inspiration was the opportunity to tie his new album into a big-budget blockbuster. Whichever, he doesn’t appear to have paid much attention to the subtleties of the film’s plot or the complexity of its message. For one thing, comparing his relatively modest career as a drug dealer to the multi-million-dollar international operation that Frank Lucas lorded over is a major stretch. More important, the bravado of Jay’s American Gangster stands in contrast to the ominous tone of the film. In particular, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Lucas has a depth that Jay-Z can’t touch. The Lucas of American Gangster was anything but a good-time guy. He doesn’t wantonly seduce women, he frowns on flashy dress, and, in one of the film’s more revealing scenes, he frets over the bloodstains in an expensive alpaca rug after shooting a partygoer in front of hundreds of witnesses.

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