IN ONE CORNER OF the backstage area at the House of Blues on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Jay-Z is sitting on an arm of a leather couch, facing the wall. He has slung a black hand towel over his head, his aviator shades are drawn over his eyes, and the back of his GIVE TO RECEIVE T-shirt faces his entourage, which tonight includes Jermaine Dupri, Beanie Sigel and Solange Knowles, the little sister of his girlfriend, Beyoncé, who is on tour in Asia. P. Diddy, one of the proud producers of Jay’s new album, American Gangster, fills up glasses of Ace of Spades champagne and distributes the bubbly to the congregation. When Jay gets his glass, he turns to Diddy and offers a Hebrew toast. “L’chaim!”
Minutes ago, Jay was on the stage of the packed club, wrapping up his very first show on this intimate promotional tour. The fans in the house, many of whom paid scalpers north of $1,000 for the chance to see Hova, the God MC, certainly got their money’s worth. Backed by a crack band, Jay dipped into his deep catalog – American Gangster is his thirteenth album —– busting out favorites like “Heart of the City,” “Jigga What, Jigga Who,” “Big Pimpin’ ” and “99 Problems,” which was taken to a whole other level when the band augmented one of the verses with the riffs from AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Given that American Gangster was released that morning, Jay is surprised that the crowd knows the words to his new bangers. “You make the music selfishly,” he says, “then you put it out there and hope that it connects with the people. The third part is going out and performing it – that’s the part I love.”
Though he weaseled out of his self-imposed retirement from rap to release Kingdom Come in 2006, that album did not satisfy his fans. “My intent was to push art forward,” he says diplomatically, but lyrically the album pushed Jay further away from tales of his hard-scrabble youth —– guns, drugs and drama – to address life as a CEO (he is the president of Def Jam) and the inevitable post-retirement malaise. (A collaboration with Chris Martin on “Beach Chair” surely sank the ship.) In that sense, American Gangster is Jay’s true comeback album, full of the soul and R&B grooves he grew up on in the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn. The album also features a dizzying and vivid flow that ought to re-establish Hova as the premier MC, a title that has been hanging in limbo —– yet to be fully claimed by upstarts like Kanye West and Lil Wayne— – since Jay stepped out of the spotlight in 2003.
By continuing his legacy, Jay says he’s “maxing out his era.” He compares himself to Michael Jordan – there will be the “LeBrons”and”Kobes” in hip-hop, but no one will ever duplicate Jay’s successes or longevity. “I’ve got this Elvis thing going on right here,” he says. By that he means that if opening-day projections are correct, American Gangster will be his tenth Number One album, tying him with the King. (Only the Beatles have more, with nineteen.) “What’s great about that,” he says, “is that I’ve never had a Number One single on any of my albums. People buy them for the body of work.”
Jay got the initial inspiration for his new opus when he was enticed to check out an advance screening of the new Ridley Scott film, also called American Gangster. As he sat in the Fifth Avenue screening room in Manhattan, he was overcome with a flood of emotions. Some of it seemed like downright déjà vu, as the rise, the high life and the fall of Seventies Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) played out on the big screen. It reminded Jay of his early days – dodging empty vials on the sidewalk on the way to school – to his teenage years, when he fattened his wallet by slinging crack. One memorable scene features Lucas and his nephew, a promising baseball prospect who sabotages a chance at the major leagues and vows to follow his uncle into the lucrative heroin trade. Jay— – whose own nephews he helped raise – felt Lucas’ disappointment and frustration, and parlayed his feelings into one of the first songs he wrote for A.G., “Sweet,” in which he conveys that it was “crooked policies” and social injustice that led him to sell drugs in the first place. And though he has no shame for his years as a hustler – “I can walk down the hall of mirrors/ In Versailles/And be so satisfied when I look myself in the eyes,” he raps – he is now proud to be a law-abiding role model. In fact, his nephew Ramel Carter, 18, wants to be a rapper. “I tell him to constantly write,” says Jay. “From an early age, I would write every day, nonstop, without fail. I’d write all day.”