First Listen: Jay-Z – American Gangster

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Jay-ZProving once again that retiring is the best way to drum up interest in your work, America’s Richest Rapper (TM) returns with another surprisingly interesting album. Okay, sorry, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, everything Jay-Z’s done is basically stellar, except for last year’s lazy, aimless Kingdom Come. For American Gangster, though, Jay-Z has some inspiration: the upcoming Denzel Washington vehicle of the same name. Now, this isn’t the soundtrack, but Jay-Z says each track on the album was inspired by a specific scene in the film, which he then reinterpreted through an autobiographical prism, focusing on growing up in the projects in Brooklyn. Understandably, this is emotional territory. Check out the Marvin Gaye sample in “American Dreamin'”: “Oh no/I never give up,” he sings, in a loop from 1976’s “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” that sounds more like a plaintive cry against greater and greater odds as the song goes on.

But don’t worry, the album isn’t all tearjerkers; the very next track, “Hello Brooklyn,” with the ubiquitous Lil Wayne on guest vocals, is all thudding bass and handclaps, with Jay-Z telling the borough “I ain’t mad at you.” While Diddy and the Neptunes take production credit on much of the album, “Fallin’,” a highlight featuring dramatic strings and a Motown-style chorus, was produced by Southerner Jermaine Dupri. On it, Jay-Z’s lyrics come fast and furious, with complicated, tongue-twisting internal rhymes, and a final denouement: “Fightin’, you’ll never survive/Runnin’, you’ll never escape/So just fall from grace.”

The title track is listed as a “bonus track” on Wikipedia; I’m not sure what that means, since the song is awesome. A funky, horn-filled sample gives it a kind of ’70s vibe, with appropriately snazzy metaphors: “The way I shine, it’s like a zillion-dollar light bill.” Jay-Z has been known for pushing the sample envelope, but on Gangster he sticks to classic soul, creatively cut up, and it gives the album a driving, urgent focus. Are we talking another Blueprint, or even Black Album? Well, probably not, but it’s another fascinating chapter in the Jay-Z saga.

American Gangster is out November 8th on Roc-A-Fella, but it’s leaking over here at mylifemyhiphop. Get it!

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Fact:

In-depth journalism that investigates the powerful takes real money and is so damn important right now.But it doesn’t take a Mother Jones investigation to know that billionaires and corporations will never fund the type of reporting (like they do politicians) we do that exists to help bring about change. Instead, our mission-driven journalism is made possible by people power, and has been for 46 years now since our founding as a non-profit.

In “TITLE TK” Monica Bauerlein writes about the perilous moment we’re in, and why it’s so important that we raise $325,000 by the time November’s midterms are decided so we can be ready to throw everything we have at the big issues facing the nation no matter what happens. Please help MoJo’s people-powered journalism with a donation today.

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