“American Gangster” by Jay-Z (2007)


And now we must reverse course.

As I finished writing up my piece for “American Girl”, I looked at all of the songs I’d kept at 4 stars, and two tracks in particular gave me the second-thought feels: George Michael’s “Amazing” and Hov’s “American Gangster”. I’m comfortable leaving “Amazing” at four as I type this (minds can and will change), but “American Gangster” has been stuck in my head all day, and I’m trying to figure out why I didn’t rate it 5 stars in the first place.

Jay-Z can be VERY hit or miss. His catalog is incredibly frustrating. For every, say, “99 Problems”, there’s a “Justify My Thug”. It’s frustrating. Jay-Z is a dope MC. But he’s a dope MC who often makes music that leaves me scratching my head. “American Gangster” is Jay at his best–and also strikes a nice balance between street-smart Jay, world-weary older Jay, and straight up badass Jay.

American Gangster the album was a pretty significant undertaking. It was a soundtrack as memoir, almost…and the movie in question had nothing to do with Jay himself. Still, as much as the “I used to deal drugs” narrative has led to a lot of lazier Jay-Z lyrics,  the eye of the tiger was very much present on most of this album.

The title track closes the album, and it’s remarkably celebratory, particularly if you know the way most crime stories end (in film as well as in real life). Jay is living it the hell up here. Everything about “American Gangster” is triumphant. The strings (which are live!) strut, the sped-up soul singer in the background sounds like he’s having the time of his life, and the lyrics are celebratory and pinpoint sharp. It also has the least to do with the plot of the film. Jay celebrates his resilience. He calls himself Muhammad Hovi, name-checks R&B trio Guy and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, successfully recycles a shop-worn Biggie reminiscence, and even compares himself to Kanye West’s jaw.  Sharp as fuck.

Black Superhero Music indeed.

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