On Friday night, Jay-Z invited a handful of journalists up to Roc the Mike Studios in Manhattan to hear tracks from American Gangster, his new album that’s due out November 6th. Hova recorded the disc in a fit of inspiration over two weeks, after seeing the forthcoming movie of the same name, which stars Denzel Washington as legendary Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas. “I pulled the emotion of the album from the film,” Jay said, explaining that the movie helped him recall his own experiences as a drug dealer in Brooklyn. “I never thought I’d be able to get back in that zone, to be able to relive some of those emotions.”
Over several hours in the studio, the legendary MC and CEO of Def Jam Records played the album and explained his creative process while the film ran in a constant loop on a plasma screen, as it has during the whole recording process. Jay also opened up about his feelings on the Don Imus controversy, the current state of hip-hop and the recent 50 Cent-Kanye showdown. Before it was all over, Jay was toasting “L’Chaim,” to round after round of Patron shots, as guests including Beyonce stopped by to check up on the proceedings.
The album follows an arc that echoes aspects of the film and also Jay’s life. Opener “Pray” describes a young boy in school who sees that the girls love the drug dealers, and that the cops look the other way — police corruption is a major theme of the film — and decides to follow their examples. “I’m goin’ in, so pray for me,” says Jay. “Pray” is one of six tracks produced by Diddy and his legendary team the Hitmen, who, coincidentally, had already been working on several songs inspired by Seventies blaxploitation films. “It fit the time period and everything,” said Jay, who adds that other producers, including Just Blaze, Jermaine Dupri, and the Neptunes work around Diddy’s soul-sampling template.
“Roc Boys” will likely be the album’s next single (after “Blue Magic,” which dropped last week). It’s a horn-heavy banger, on par with Jay’s best, including “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “’03 Bonnie and Clyde.” It describes the hero after he’s achieved success on the street: “Think O.J./I get away with murder when I sling yey.” “That’s him at his height,” said Hov. “A celebration of the whole shit.”
“I Know” explores a darker side of the drug trade: “I know what you like/Iâ€™m your prescription/I’m your physician/Iâ€™m your addiction.” “On one level, I’m using a lot of heroin references,” said Jay. “On another level, it plays like a song about an addictive relationship. On another, too-much-wine-one-night level, it plays as if the game is talking to me, about my addiction to it. It’s really fucking weird, but the music’s good and you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to.”
“Ignorant Shit,” which features Beanie Sigel, is a track that was held from the sessions for The Black Album, which Jay resurrected because it fit the current album — and recent controversy about the language in hip-hop: The hook is “Ignorant shit, fuck, shit, ass bitch shit.” “That’s the downfall,” said Jay. “Every great movie has its ‘I’m out of control’ moment.” The song also takes lyrical shots at Imus and censorship — more on that to come.
Jermiane Dupri produced album closer “Fallen,” a mournful, potent track about the hero’s downfall. “The album plays like a cautionary tale, but it’s not really true because I’m a bad motherfucker,” said Jay, grinning like a bad motherfucker. With Beyonce on his arm, generously doling out Tequila for his guests in his studio, it’s easy to see his point: He escaped the drug trade while so many before him — fictional and otherwise — did not. “I really made it. I’m better than Al Capone — he didn’t make it — Michael Corleone, Scarface. I’m iller than all them niggas.”
Stay tuned for more from the listening, where Jay holds forth on Imus, MIMS, 50 Cent, and Kanye West.