"This is black superhero music," Jay-Z proclaims in his excellent new "Roc Boys." That means live horns, grooving on some kind of Afro-beat riff over Seventies rumble-in-the-jungle funk, while Jay-Z tosses off boasts like "Pink rose, think O.J./I get away with murder when I sling 'ye." It might be the hottest song on Jay's new American Gangster, but it has plenty of competition. The superhero is 1970s Harlem hustler Frank Lucas, as portrayed in the new Denzel Washington flick. Inspired by the movie, Jay turns it into his own superfly Seventies crime epic, casting himself as the lead. It's the same old story he's told since Reasonable Doubt. But having a fictional character to play around with gets Jay out of his post-retirement rut. Lucas may not cut it as a hero — but it doesn't matter as long as he gets Jay feeling like one.
Jay returned last year with Kingdom Come, which you may or may not remember. Kingdom Come was hardly the creative flop it was cracked up to be, but it never had a prayer of living up to everybody's hopes. People don't just expect new records from Jay — they expect epochal events, game-changing statements. Yet Jay's retirement put his myth-building on pause, kind of like Bob Dylan's motorcycle crash in 1966. Jay stands where Dylan did in the late Sixties; he wants to get back to making music without getting stuck under his own legend. So Frank Lucas fires his imagination the way John Wesley Harding did for Dylan — an old-time outlaw who's kind of a tool, not to mention a failure, but an easily romanticized figure who helps push the artist outside his own head.
American Gangster definitely doesn't have any fluff like Kingdom Come's "30 Something" or "Beach Chair." Jay sounds relaxed, no longer worried about impressing anyone. Instead, he follows the story from the uptown dope-king ambition of "American Dreamin' " to the big-payback crash of "Fallin'." He evokes the 1970s drug underworld, playing on old-school heroin brand names in "I Know": China White, Black Rain, 9 1/2 Weeks. He indulges in the dense wordplay that was missing on Kingdom Come: "I need a personal Jesus, I'm in depeche mode/They say it's celestial, it's all in the stars/It's like Tony La Russa on how you play your cards." He connects to the Frank Lucas era in terms of music ("Papa was a rolling stone/It's in my ancestry") while indulging in his usual fly-life boasts about the view from the top ("I got watches I ain't seen in months/Apartment at the Trump I only slept in once").
The music has the Seventies vibe of The Blueprint, led by Puffy, who oversees five tracks with his reassembled Hitmen production squad. Puff keeps the Harvey's Bristol Cream flowing through "Roc Boys," "Party Life" (with a killer Miami disco sample from Little Beaver) and "American Dreamin' " (with a Marvin Gaye chorus and fierce live drums from Mario Winans). No-ID produces the crazy organ loop "Success," which also has a verse from former Jay nemesis Nas, who dubs himself the "Ghetto Othello, Sugarhill Roemello." "Hello Brooklyn" is a surprise duet with Lil Wayne, of all people, crossing the Mason-Dixon line with a wiggy Beasties bass sample. Jermaine Dupri does "Fallin' " with a soulful hook from Bilal, while the Neptunes give up the Eighties-synth mega-cheese of "I Know" and "Blue Magic" with its shouts to Rakim and break dancers. Just Blaze contributes "Ignorant Shit," an outtake from The Black Album that's spruced up with a funny Don Imus dis and a defense of hip-hop lyrics: "Are you saying that what I'm spittin'/Is worse than these 'celebutantes' showing they kitten?" This obviously has nothing to do with the concept; neither do references to the Jena 6 or dope that has "less steps than Britney." But then the concept is really just a spark to get Jay started. Forget Frank Lucas: The real black superhero here is Jay, and with American Gangster, Gray-Hova is back in black.