Jay-Z's evolution into the bridge between hip-hop and mainstream popular culture has been a long one, but his nostalgic turn worked to make him a figure whose mythos will likely endure into the old age of a generation.
Jay-Z’s 10th studio album, American Gangster, is intended as a cohesive, conceptual companion piece to the Ridley Scott-helmed Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe vehicle of the same name, a biopic of Harlem crime lord Frank Lucas, but that doesn’t really matter, at least for our purposes. I like the record a lot -- more than the three that preceded it, less than The Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt, and Vol. 3...The Life and Times of S. Carter -- and yet I probably won’t bother with the ostensible source film, since I haven’t enjoyed a Scott movie since Thelma and Louise and I‘ve never been nearly as taken with De Palma‘s Scarface as most rappers and rap fans seem to be. But that doesn’t matter either.
Why? Because if you have no prior knowledge of the album’s big-screen inspiration going in, you’ll still get roughly as much out of it as you would if you’d dropped ten bucks to see the flick. American Gangster might be Jay’s best excuse for cold-shouldering iTunes, chatting it up with Charlie Rose, and gradually transitioning from post-retirement productivity into rap’s Randy Newman, but to these ears, this just sounds like a particularly good Jay-Z record. It’s certainly no coincidence that Jay selected this movie to base his new record on. Specifically, high-drama gangster mythology (namely, his own, natch) is his raison d'etre. More generally, though, nostalgia is Jay-Z’s great subject.
On last year’s hit-or-miss Kingdom Come, Jay declared “30 the new 20” -- even though he’s actually pushing 40 -- and meditated on the virtues of Grand Theft Auto PSP and beach chairs, while enlisting his then-25 year-old girlfriend for what sounded like a Dreamgirls outtake better left on the cutting room floor. On the would-be comeback record’s finest moments (the Dr. Dre-produced “Trouble”, most stunningly) Jay sounded urgent, in and of the moment, but for the most part he coasted on a larger-than-life swagger that felt more removed than ever from the street-level narratives with which he made his name. In other words, “when your friends is Chris and Gwyneth”, you aren’t Tony Montana anymore. You’re just Al Pacino.
What The Blueprint also represented, albeit rather more subtly, was the genius logical next step in the evolution of Jay’s charming hustler persona, a finely tuned character that, up to that point, had grown only in baby steps -- “22 Two’s” to “Can I Get a…” to “Big Pimpin’”. Over expertly designed soul samples that would soon make a household name of one Kanye West, Jay made the shrewd move that would define the second half of his career and secure his early canonization: he looked back. He looked back at the first-names that shaped young Shawn Carter (“Mickey cleaned my ears, Annie shampooed my hair / Eric was fly -- shit, I used to steal his gear”); at Richard Pryor and Ike and Tina Turner; at the diverse ethnicities of all the lovely ladies he wants you to think he boned on his way to the top.
Of course, this wasn’t the first case of Jay spinning Dickensian yarns about his hard-knock past, but there was something discernibly different this time around. For one, Jay was nearly on his own on the mic; the album’s lone prominently featured guest rapper was Eminem on “Renegade”, a classic back-and-forth rap duet that he should’ve just saved for the spottier double-disc sequel. More importantly, however, he sounded less like a dude adding touches of flash and color to his memoirs, and more like the narrator of a personal history that has come to feel like it occurred all of a lifetime ago. Or, to invoke Jay’s mentor, maybe it was just a dream, runnin‘ the streets “like drunks run street lights“ and tears he can‘t see coming down his eyes? It’s the closest thing in hip-hop to a grand Proustian statement, and its best line goes like this: “Police pursued me, chased, cuffed, and subdued me, talked to me rudely / ‘Cause I’m young, rich, and I’m black, live in a movie”.
Sure, we can hope against hope to keep in step with the zeitgeist as our hair begins to grey, but chances are, Jay-Z and Nirvana and Green Day and Britney will persist in meaning more to us personally, the same way our parents’ radio presets are mostly occupied by oldies stations that spin Meat Loaf and the Eagles and the Stones in heavy rotation. Someday, probably sooner than we think, “I wanna fuck you like an animal” and “Eazy E can suck a big fat dick” will be blaring from retirement home stereos and grandpa’s tool shed. We’re the “parental advisory” generation -- and, uh, proud of it.
Obviously, “explicit content” predates rap and recent sub-genres of rock and pop, but in the past, such subversive and potentially offensive subject matter was usually either slyly veiled or simply relegated to the margins. The Velvet Underground and New York Dolls may loom large in certain rock histories, but they never moved units the way DMX and Marilyn Manson have. To be sure, there are as many ways of tracing pop music’s elusive, allusive trajectory as there are figures who arguably deserve mention in any attempt at a definitive version. One approach is to focus on the integration of Outsider Music into the cultural mainstream, to try and spot the points at which previously radical words and sounds slipped their way into the status quo.
Grandmaster Flash and Johnny Rotten may have pioneered bold concepts rightly recognized by on-the-ball cultural critics as revolutionary. But it was our generation that invited them to come on in and join the big party, albeit a couple decades late and in the visages of Andre 3000 and Gerard Way. Naturally, we’ll look back at it all through some gloriously rose-colored lens, telling our grandkids about the first time we heard The Blueprint, or how we were cool enough to attend Woodstock -- you know, the one where Red Hot Chili Peppers played and everything kind of went to shit.
As a self-styled master of mythologizing, Jay-Z seems best equipped to the lead the charge and bridge the gap. It’s ultimately the role he was born to play -- not Frank Lucas or Tony Montana, or even J-Hova de Roc-a-Fella. On the new album’s “Blue Magic“, some 11 tracks after one called “American Dreamin‘”, he rhymes with audible conviction, “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster / blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra / I ran contraband that they sponsored / Before this rhyming stuff was in concert”.
Meanwhile, the song ends with a sound byte of Denzel Washington’s movie character name-checking Pepsi and General Mills in espousing the credibility of brand-name recognition. Perhaps it’s Jay’s way of conceding the final destination of so much generation-defining music: in the hands of huge corporations to be used as soundtrack ads for soda pop and frosted cereal. That’s the problem with nostalgia, and with the past in general -- we don’t really own it, not exclusively anyway. Everything’s up for grabs, which is all the more reason to be glad that we still have Shawn Carter in our corner.