An Ode to American Gangster: JAY-Z’s Only True “Concept Album”
Ten years ago, JAY-Z got an advanced copy of Denzel Washington’s upcoming film “American Gangster,” the story of Frank Lucas. Jay was so moved by what he saw, he got in the studio and started recording. What would come from that, was a new album that he too would title American Gangster. And it was and still is, completely different from any Jay album.
Granted, the film’s subject matter makes that statement hard to believe, but the difference here is: for the first time, Jay made a concept album. Sure, he’s had albums with THEMES like the coded drug vernacular in Reasonable Doubt, the soul and triumph of The Blueprint and the introspectiveness of The Black Album, never had he made an album that tells a cohesive story from beginning to end until American Gangster. Around the album’s release, when speaking about the album, Jay would claim that the album itself plays like a movie that details the conception, the rise and demise of the hustler (do your Googles). Here, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this classic album, I break down the album into its 3 acts, providing song-by-song (sans the intro). Sit back, cut the album on, and enjoy the ride. Get into your comfort zone.
Act I: The Hustler’s Conception
This sets the tone for the whole entire album. The first thing heard is a prayer from Jay’s wife (which continues in between verses), Beyonce right before Jay gets into the bars. He promptly informs the listener “This is the tale of lost innocence”. Hov spends the first verse reminiscing on seeing his mom chain smoking as his father left the house to find the murder of Jay’s Uncle Ray. In the second verse, he details seeing drugs and drug dealers as he’s walking to school, then fast forwarding to his own early actions as a hustler. “I didn’t choose this life, this Life chose me. Around here is the shit that you just do.” By “Pray”’s conclusion, Jay pegs the listener: “Bad drug dealer, or a victim, I beg? What came first, moving chickens or the egg?…this is why I be so fresh. I’m tryna beat life ‘cause I can’t cheat death.” Everything that Shawn Carter had seen in his young life led him to this pivotal moment. If you still aren’t clear on what path Jay has chosen to take, it’s made crystal clear in the next song.
Over a smooth Marvin Gaye sample, Jay lyrically takes a step from having one foot in the drug game to walking all the way through the door. He spits”We need it now, we need a town…we need a place to pitch, we need a mound/For now, I’m just a lazy boy daydreaming in my Lay-Z-Boy” and “Mama forgive me, I should be thinking bout Harvard/but that’s too far away, and niggas is starving/nothing wrong with my aim, just gotta change the target.” Bars like these are important to the narrative because Jay is telling you this isn’t something I’m just doing because it’s cool (yet). At the early stage, Jay is feeling like he has to take on this life as a necessity. He expresses lament “I need a personal Jesus, I’m in Depeche Mode” and even gives himself third person advice “You’re now in the game, where only time can tell. Survive the *drought*, I wish you *well*”.
“Hello Brooklyn 2.0” Feat. Lil Wayne
This record feels like a complete disruption in the album. Prior to this, everything felt smooth and calm, but “Hello Brooklyn” is nothing but booming bass that’s reminiscent of The Beastie Boys. This song serves as Jay’s “Coming of Age” moment where he steps out into the world as a hustler. “Like a mama, you birthed me. Brooklyn, You nursed me/schooled me with hard knocks, better than Berkeley.” Hov talks about going from Brooklyn to Virginia to “get dinner” and only rolling in Lexus cars now. He also slips in up-to-date bars like “My fine ho, we got some victims to catch. So in a couple years, baby, Ima bring you some Nets”.
No more of that shy shit. That innocence Hov spoke of in “Pray”? Gone. This record feels cold and dark. “I’m so for sure, it’s no facade/“stay out of trouble”, Mama said as Mama sighed/her fear: Her youngest son being victim of homicide/but I gotta get you outta here Mama or Ima…die…inside…/and either way, you LOSE me Mama, so let LOOSE of me.” There’s a certain cold-hearted vibe in Jay’s tone and delivery all throughout this song, even going at real life friend-turned-foe, Dehaven in the closing bars “So fuck Dehaven for caving, that’s why we don’t speak/made men ain’t supposed to make statements/End of the story, I followed the code, cracked the safe/other niggas ain’t in the game, so they practice hate.” See, what has happened here is, Jay has already changed as a person by the 4th track on this album. He went from a young and protective, possible “victim” to a no-nonsense drug dealer. And with that, we transition into his next phase.
Act II: The Hustler’s Rise
“Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…)”
This is the part of the hustler lifestyle that usually gets glorified the most: The riches. The money. The jewelry. The women. Jay touches on ALL of that here in all of his glory. “Rich niggas, Black Bar Mitzvahs. Mazel Tov, it’s a celebration, b*tches!,” Jay spits with so much joy. He’s now seeing the fruits of his labor, and ain’t shy about bragging about it: “Take what the Forbes figured, then figure more, cuz they forgot to include what I did with the raw…”. A lot of pride and cockiness in this stage of the story, but always remember that pride comes before the “Fall”…
“SWEET! Though, it’s pain…/if I woulda grew up to be a doctor, my nephews woulda grew up to do the same…” From the very first second of this song, Jay experiences a Hustler’s Hangover. Last night was a party, but this morning he’s struggling with the ramifications of his life. People are watching him now, but he brushes it off: “I could walk down the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles and be so satisfied when I look myself in the eyes/No shame, no sir/Just big boats, I’m tearing the coast up/tight coupes like I’m wearing the roadster.” And despite the level of cool in those bars, this is the first time since he because a hustler that levels of doubt start to creep into his mind. “Shall we dance wit the devil for a beat?/I pray to God I ain’t got two left feet/do the Hustle, put ki’s in the street/then I’m ballroom dancing, ki-ki’ing in the suite…SWEET.” He ends the song with “Couple mistakes here and there, not always right/but I’m always real, that’s how I sleep at night.” It’s like he’s justifying his lifestyle to himself, but still can’t let go since he hasn’t seen any real pitfalls (yet).
“I Know” Feat. Pharrell
“This is about LUST,” Hov quips in the first verse of this song. And this is true. However, and more importantly, this song is about addiction. A casual listen to the song would sound like a man seducing a woman that he’s got a hold on, but a deeper look into the lyrics show that the song is really about heroin addiction: “Just for one night, baby take me in vain/vein”. Filled with clever double entendres, the placement of this song matters in the narrative of the hustler because Jay is at he point where he’s addicted to the lifestyle. It’s no longer just about providing for family. He’s addicted to the thrill and the feeling of selling drugs the same way the person’s he’s rapping to is addicted to the thrill and the feeling of taking them. He knows it and he’s embracing it.
This is more celebration here. This is Jay in pure “You can’t tell me shit” mode. “Sippin on my Pinot got me cooler than Pacino and De Niro put together/my real life is like ‘Casino’”. The record oozes of coolness and confidence. Jay is talking like he’s untouchable here and like he’s got it all figured out. And even if he does at this point, the listener (and he) will quickly find out that he does not.
Act III: The Hustler’s Demise
“Ignorant Shit” Feat. Beanie Sigel
Here is where Jay starts to lose his cool, as the title of the song would suggest. When you come and become a success, especially in the streets, that’s bound to bring about enemies and envy. And Jay reacts to this newfound pressure pretty harshly: “And with that said, I will kill niggas dead/cut niggas short, give you wheels for legs/ima K-I-Double L-E-R, see y’all in hell/shoot niggas straight through the ER” this energy hasn’t been present YET up until this point. The partying is over and now Jay is dealing with some real shit, and it’s bringing out a dark, much more sinister side to him.
In the previous scene, Jay rapped “Scarface, the movie did more than Scarface, the rapper to me”. And he doubles down on that by chanting “Say Hello to the bad guy!” in the chorus to this gorgeous dark record. The whole song is a giant middle finger to his critics and enemies alike, while Jay radiates a large sense of “I don’t give a fuck” in his verses. Hints of Jay sensing a potential crash in this roller coaster ride he’s been on comes through in lines like “I’m no lame and you gonna know my name/before I go, the world gon feel my pain.” He still keeps a sense of his new-found ignorance about him disguised as justification in lines like “My mind on my money, money on my mind/if you owe me ten dollars, you ain’t giving me nine/y’all ain’t gimme 40 acres and a mule/so I got my glock 40, now I’m cool.”
“Success” Feat. Nas
You know when you spend so much time wanting something that you know probably isn’t good for you, but you ignore that until you get it? And once you get it and have a lil fun with it, you realize that it wasn’t even really worth it? That’s “Success” in a nutshell. After a clip from the film American Gangster stating “You can be successful and have enemies…you can be unsuccessful too, and you can have friends”, Jay aggressively snaps “I used to give a fuck! Now I give a fuck less! /what do I think of success? It sucks, too much stress!” Everything that Jay had been striving to get and bragging about throughout the whole album seems to plague his existence currently. “Is this what success all about?? A bunch of niggas acting like bitches with big mouths?/All this stress, all I got is this big house/Couple cars, I don’t bring half of them shits out”. Jay’s whole tone in this song is almost anger mixed with regret. Almost like he despises his new life. Whether or not he’d trade it all to go back to a simpler time remains to be seen, however. Because by the time he realized he wasn’t even happy with the things he had risked everything for, it was too late.
“Said where I would stop before I even started/When I get to one brick, then the game I would depart with” is the opening to the first verse in the narrative’s conclusion. And everything you hear after that song is a result of Jay not keeping that promise to himself. In a moment of clarity, Jay says “The irony of selling drugs: It’s sorting like you using it./guess it’s two sides to what substance abuse is” (Refer back to “I Know”). Much like Frank Lucas did in the movie that inspired this album, Jay didn’t know when to quit. He started off with one intention, ended up getting caught up in the life and everything that came with it, and It led to his downfall (in this case, being caught by the police). He speaks on the realities of what comes with the fall: the woman who was with him has left to pursue a college degree, the town now belonging to “the squares” that say they wouldn’t make the same mistakes that got HIM there, along with lawyers jerking him for his money while commissary is low. “Fight and you’ll never survive/run and you’ll never escape/so just fall, for grace.” He’s lost everything, when he had it all.
End Credits: Next In Line
The crazy thing about American Gangster is that after the conclusion of those three acts, the bonus tracks (“Blue Magic” and “American Gangster”) come on. And if you don’t really think about it, it just feels like two dope songs as a bonus. However, really listen to what’s happening here. Those “squares” that Jay spoke of in “Fallin’” have come to take his place now that he’s gone. The cycle has continued. The first line in “Blue Magic” is “So what if you flip a couple words? I can triple that in birds”. As if to tell Jay that he dropped the ball, and someone else is coming to run with it. For the new hustler, “Blue Magic” would serve as the conception and “American Gangster” would serve as he rise of the hustler, which Jay outlined previously. However, the listener can only assume that they too will meet the same demise Jay met in “Fallin’”
“I want the sky baby!” is repeated in the final song, “American Gangster.” In his own way, Jay-Z gives a warning all throughout the album that he could jump as high as he could to grab that sky, but in time he’ll learn that gravity is bound to pull you back down. Just fall, for grace.