AMERICAN GANGSTER. Grade: A. "Storytellers: Jay-Z" debuts on VH1 on Thursday at 9 p.m. EST.
Jay-Z has never suffered from a lack of ambition, but what he takes on for his new album "American Gangster" (Roc-a-Fella) is a lot, even for him.
Not only does he set out to build a concept album that can stand next to the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe movie that he clearly admires, he wants to raise hip-hop's standards, while also fighting those who twisted the racist comments of Don Imus into an indictment of hip-hop. Throw in the sudden fall-off of his last album "Kingdom Come" and the questions about whether he has lost his touch and Jay-Z - Young Hova, Mr. Roc-a-Fella, Def Jam's President Carter - has himself a challenge.
No worries, though. Jay has it under control, completing "American Gangster" in a handful of weeks after seeing an early screening of the movie in late August, no less.
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"This is black superhero music right here, baby," he declares in "Roc Boys." And he's right.
"American Gangster" is bold, both in concept and in execution, with Jay-Z telling the story of a Brooklyn teen getting into the drug trade and then getting stuck in it. Jay does it in character, as if it were a series of monologues crafted into a one-man play. However, it is no one-man effort, as the musical backdrops - many crafted by Diddy and the Bad Boy Entertainment's production team The Hitmen, as well as Pharrell Williams, Jermaine Dupri, Kanye West and Just Blaze - are often just as remarkable.
"American Dreamin'" comes early in the story, as Jay rolls out his hopes and dreams over a gorgeous sample from Marvin Gaye's "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again" that provides a hazy aura of innocence. He offers some playful rhymes ("I need a personal Jesus, I'm in Depeche Mode ... It's like Tony La Russa on how you play your cards") and some serious ones ("I wish you health/I wish you wheels/I wish you wealth/I wish you insight so you can see for yourself") in a flow that matches the song's neo-soul vibe.
The songs get brasher and his flow gets darker as the story unfolds. On "Roc Boys," the album's victory lap, Jay packs in as much boasting as he did when he was coming up, back in the "Reasonable Doubt" days, over a dramatic, horn-filled funk celebration.
When things start to fall apart, in the ominous "Success," which features onetime rival Nas, and the fiery "Fallin'," where Dupri welds together `70s soul and the Dirty South bounce, Jay's delivery is fast and furious, rapping, "Fight and you'll never survive, run and you'll never escape, so just fall - from grace."
As strong as the songs are on record, they sound even more potent live, which Jay proved at a recent taping of a VH1 "Storytellers" in Brooklyn, backed by a 12-piece band. That power wasn't lost on him either, as he booked the band for a short national tour to promote the album.
As if "American Gangster" wasn't compelling enough, Jay-Z adds one more layer with "Ignorant --," which could easily be the album's most popular track if the chorus wasn't a string of expletives that radio can't play.
The song was an outtake from the sessions for "The Black Album," but it's reworked here to fit in the story and to fit as a commentary on the current attacks on hip-hop.
Jay goes in and out of character, offering a disclaimer ("We're all actors ... Don't fear no rappers, they're all weirdos, De Niros in practice, so don't believe everything you hear") followed by gangsta rap stereotypes filled with swearing and violence.
He takes those who seized on the Don Imus controversy to criticize hip-hop to task, saying, "I missed the part when it stopped being about Imus, what do my lyrics have to do with this --? `Scarface' the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me."
The result is a true guilty pleasure and he knows it, teasing, "You like it, don't front."
That could apply to all of "American Gangster." For as much as people want to root for the underdog and knock off those at the top of their game, sometimes you also have to appreciate greatness when it comes.
There's a writers' adage that advises, "Show, don't tell," that Jay-Z has taken to heart. In his recent work, he's been concerned about telling everyone how great he is. On "American Gangster," he shows it - crafting not just the likely album of the year, but one that will likely go down as one of hip-hop's greatest.