American Gangster may never be seen as Jay-Z's defining moment, but it marks his comeback far more effectively than Kingdom Come ever even tried to.
"This is black superhero music right here, baby!" It's a tossed off line, just something that shows up while Jay-Z is riffing at the end of American Gangster's second single "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is...)", but in a way, it's the mission statement of the album.
So Jay-Z has snubbed iTunes. "As movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles" is the quote being tossed around, though it's a bit misleading; the implication here is that what Jay-Z has put together is an album with a narrative. It's as if hearing one part of it could cause you to miss a crucial bit of context, and that, apparently, is not a chance Jay's willing to take.
Of course, this approach hasn't stopped him from releasing singles or making videos, but apparently, that's different.
The truth is, there's no narrative thread to be found throughout American Gangster. Thematically, the album is a fairly typical hip-hop entry rife with self-aggrandizement, shout-outs to a city or two ("Hello Brooklyn 2.0"), a few guest stars, a battle track or two, an ode to God, and a sexcapade or two. Anybody looking in American Gangster's direction for an album that is going to elevate the genre as a whole is going to be disappointed, because in the grand scheme, it really is just another hip-hop album.
That said, it's a very, very good hip-hop album, and Jay does have a point. While it doesn't feature a common thread, it does sound like a cohesive, sonically consistent album. The deep grooves provided by the multitude of classic soul samples keep your head nodding, and Jay alternates between rapping hungry and rapping happy. Never does he rap bored, a pitfall he falls into when he's putting out product for the sake of putting out product, a habit he's sporadically fallen into dating all the way back to In My Lifetime. His guests add to the mix but never outshine him, and there's never any questioning who the creative driving force on the album is.
What American Gangster truly gives us is Jay-Z through and through. Sure he's a gangster, but mostly he's a human being with loves and likes and pet peeves and needs and a natural predilection for camaraderie. It's superhero music in that Jay's supremacy is never questioned, but it's superhero music that insists on showing off more than just that hero's immense power.
Example: Even a superhero needs to acknowledge that there is something above even him. Without inspiration, without proper direction, all the power in the world is useless. As such, Jay actually begins the album (after a brief intro track) with his ode to the man upstairs, a beautifully intense number called "Pray". Rather than making it a mere part of his persona by sticking it in the middle of an album or saving it for a sentimental conclusion, he starts with it. That placement is telling, as if Jay is putting himself in his place, glorifying that which is above him before he glorifies himself. "I'm not an angel I'm sure / But every night before I lay I drop my knees to the floor and I pray," he says, seeing the drug trade not as a righteous path but a necessary evil. He asks forgiveness while offering no apologies.
It's a wonderfully complex portrait of the dark side of hope, and as brilliant as anything Jay's done in his career thus far. The rest of the album can't keep pace with "Pray", but not much in the entirety of the modern hip-hop game could. Diddy's Hitmen even add just the perfect amount of drama to the production. Even Beyoncé's melodramatic prayers between verses can't drag it down. If any song on American Gangster should be able to be downloaded, it's this one.
"Pray" actually starts an album-long trend, namely that Jay is at his best when his inspiration is made clear. "Ignorant Shit" is a screed against the sort of shock-rap that some of the bigger-selling rappers out there put out for the sake of appearing hard. It comes down hard on the 50 Cents of the world, constructing a hook around seven or eight curse words over what's undeniably the most club-ready beat on the entire album. After he gets done with the ignorant rappers, he moves on to those who were ready to jump on hip-hop music in the wake of the Don Imus scandal: "Are you sayin' what I'm spittin' / Is worse than these celebutants showin' they kitten / You kiddin'?" His punchlines are as clever as ever, and they come fast and furious.
"Hello Brooklyn 2.0", on which Bigg D borrows the Beastie Boys' legendary scream, is a perfect ode to city life on which Lil' Wayne does his thing for a predictably stuttery refrain. Kanye West shows up to play hype man on "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is...)", an ode to success and being on top. Nas shows up to help Jay talk about the downside of success on "Success", and Bilal takes the hook on American Gangster's final proper track (aside from two "bonus" tracks available on all editions of the album) "Fallin'", which sees the superhero coming back to earth in an Icarus-inspired ball of flame.
All of them are focused, all of them see Jay-Z maintaining the spotlight even as his guests try their damndest to deflect some of the attention onto themselves, and all of them feature inspired flows and tight, tight rhymes. Even when he loosens up, as on "Party Life" where he feels the need to explain his punchlines, his charm and charisma get him by. There's simply not a wasted track in the whole bunch.
"Here we go / And I'm a domino / When it all falls down / I'm like Kanye's jaw," he says on the album-closing bonus track "American Gangster", and despite the fact that it's on a track that's been removed from the concept album proper, it still feels like the moral of the story. Jay-Z, as the American Gangster, keeps coming back. No matter how many times he gets knocked down, beat up, busted through, and broken, he comes back good as new, perhaps even better than before. In that way more than any other, that's what makes him the superhero, in a more real way than you'll find in a comic book or an NBC drama.
American Gangster may never be seen as Jay-Z's defining moment, but it marks his comeback far more effectively than Kingdom Come ever even tried to. The more you listen to it, the more powerful it becomes. So, really, iTunes be damned. Get a hold of American Gangster any way you can.