When artists attain the increasingly rare combination of commercial success and critical acclaim, the effect can be paralyzing. Having the recognition of your peers as one of the best ever and the status of an international pop icon often put a strain on the creative process. For superstars like Eminem and Jay-Z, a self-imposed retirement seems like the most practical solution.

But it’s only a matter of time before their creative impulses reignite. In Jay-Z’s case, the spark came after viewing an advance screening of Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster.”

The film, a biopic of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas, prompted Jay to recall his formative years as a drug dealer. In an interview with BlackTree TV, he described his reaction to the screening: “It took me back to a place that I hadn’t been for a minute. It just sparked all these ideas, and all these thoughts and all these emotions that I wasn’t dealing with.”

Taking advantage of his renewed creative juices, Jay returned to the studio to formulate a concept album loosely based on Lucas’s story. Just as Eminem produced some of his most potent work during the filming of “8 Mile,” Jay’s excursion into the past resulted in an album that measures up against his previous classics.

With “American Gangster,” Jay offers his own interpretation of the film’s rise-and-fall narrative. He shies away from establishing a concrete plot or placing his character in a specific time period. Instead, he focuses on capturing the emotions behind the “genesis, rise and demise” of the hustler. On “American Dreamin’,” Jay exudes the eagerness and desperation of a teenage drug dealer: “It’s not like we’re / Professionals movin’ the decimals / Know where to cop? nah, gotta connect? No / Who in the f know how to be successful / Need a personal Jesus I’m in Depeche Mode.”

Skip forward to “Success” and we find Jay as a kingpin lashing out at his detractors. While the song stands on its own as a ferocious album cut in the vein of “PSA” or “22 Two’s,” it’s the track’s interplay with the film that gives it its depth. In addition to opening with an excerpt from the film, Jay spends the entire second verse alluding to a scene where Lucas ruthlessly murders a rival hustler: “I’m way too important to be talking about extortin’ / Asking me for a portion is like asking for a coffin / Broad daylight I off ya on switch / Ya not too bright, goodnight, long kiss.” While the sampling of film dialogue forms a direct connection between the two works, it’s the subtle references embedded in Jay’s lyrics throughout the album that turns American Gangster into a true companion piece.

In an effort to reflect the tone of the film, Jay-Z not only emulates Lucas’s gangster demeanor but also absorbs his intense commitment to quality. Just as Lucas deals strictly with the purest heroin, Jay demands that his producers conform to a distinct sonic vision. The result is a collection of stellar beats from some unexpected sources.

Sean C and LV of Bad Boy’s Hitmen set the tone of the album by producing five of the first six tracks. With the input of Diddy, the pair crafts a lush, sample-based sound that transcends the template of typical soul loops. With the addition of live instrumentation, the duo’s frequent breakdowns and cymbal crashes are given an added flair. The boastful “Party Life” is punctuated by an ethereal eight-bar bridge eliciting a candid, freestyle-esque fourth verse from Hov.

What’s even more surprising than the Diddy-helmed production team is the partnership of hitmaker Jermaine Dupri and No I.D., a Chicago veteran known mostly for his work with Common in the ’90s. The odd couple collaborates on the aforementioned “Success” and the album’s final track, “Fallin’.” Based on an irresistible Dramatics sample, “Fallin’ ” is a bittersweet conclusion to the album’s narrative arc.

When comparing Jay-Z’s latest offering with past efforts, it becomes clear that much of American Gangster’s appeal lies in its synthesis of Jay’s most compelling traits: the precise lyricism of Reasonable Doubt; the consistent, soulful production of Blueprint; and the thematic drive of The Black Album. The near-whisper delivery that dominates Kingdom Come is relegated to appropriate usage on a couple choice tracks (“American Dreamin’ ” and “Party Life”). The album’s weaknesses are minimal – a Lil Wayne cameo that’s more “Barry Bonds” than “Hollywood Divorce” and the inclusion of The Black Album leftover “Ignorant Shit,” which, despite its added verses, is still old news for most fans.

In contrast to his peers’ attempts at recapturing their earlier days (Raekwon’s current project is titled Only Built for Cuban Linx II), Jay’s approach to American Gangster is effortless. By revisiting his past in an unforced manner, Jay-Z has proven that aging rap icons can still cook up classics — as long as they stay inspired.

Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars


American Gangster


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