It really all began in 2006…
November 21 of that year, Jay-Z turned his 23 jersey inside out and returned as Jordan 45.
His rap career all but “ended” as Hova announced his retirement in 2003 following the release of The Black Album. Remember that farewell concert November 25 of that year? It was the first hip hop show at Madison Square Garden in years at the time, and it signaled the end of his career as a performer. It was time to move on now. As he said himself, “What More Can I Say?”
“I’m not a businessman I’m a business…man.”
Following his “retirement” (yeah right), the man also known as Shawn Carter exchanged his Yankee hat for a suit. He took over for L.A. Reid as President and CEO of Def Jam. Not long after that he purchased a stake of the Nets for $1 million becoming the face of a brand new franchise in his hometown in Brooklyn. It was also an end of an era as Hov’s iconic rocord label Roc-A-Fella records which independently sparked his career along with Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and Dame Dash was sold to Def Jam completely. The Jay-Z that we knew who rapped about “Money, Cash, Hoes” and his drug dealing days in Reasonable Doubt was now grown up. He left hip hop telling us to change our oversized jerseys for a collared shirt (but keep the Yankee fitted) just as he was doing the same himself.
Throughout those years he sprinkled in some guest verses along the way. Some of his Def Jam artists got huge pick ups with some rare verses from the now retired rapper. Memphis Bleek got the first one with an entire track in “Dear Summer” in 2005. Then Jeezy (“Go Crazy”), Kanye West (“Diamonds Remix”), Bun B (“Get Throwed”), Lupe Fiasco (“Pressure”), his girlfriend Beyoncé (“Upgrade You”, “Deja Vu”) and even his one time foe Nas (“Black Republican”).
He later left his role at Def Jam and announced his return in Kingdom Come. The album brought excitement to hip hop fans who yearned his return before great disappointment. The album just didn’t feel like the Jay-Z many have known to love over the years. “Did he become too corporate?” “Is he now out of touch?” “What the hell is he talking about anyways?” “This is now the Hova that we have come to know and love!”
The reality is we weren’t ready as a society for that kind of grown up album. With the exception of tracks such as “Lost Ones,” Show Me What You Got,” and the Dipset diss track “Dig A Hole” fans were left largely disappointed.
What does he do now? He no longer lives a life where he can rap about the same things he’s been rapping for the last 15 years.
In 2007, Denzel Washington starred in a film based on the life of Frank Lucas. It was called American Gangster. The story is of a New York City gangster who smuggled heroin into the United States and took over Harlem with the most potent supply he named “Blue Magic.” That story took Jay-Z to a brand new place. A place he had not been in years. An avenue where he can write about guns and drugs, mix it in with classic samples from the 1960’s and 1970’s and bring the quality that his fans desired.
It was exactly what he needed. After watching the film, that inspiration began to return. The fire was burning once again, and it was time to get back into the studio.
As highlighted in his interview with Charlie Rose, Diddy was instrumental in making this project a reality. To create an official soundtrack to that film needed the right feel to it. A sound only the Hitmen can produce. The production group once made hits for 112, Notorious B.I.G., Mariah Carey and even Jay-Z himself. They were now back together and ready to make a splash.
While begging to be executive producer on the album, Diddy handed over the sounds in what would later become the album.
“He called me and I’ve never been to his studio before,” Jay-Z says. “Everything happens for a reason. I get there and he’s playing all these lush samples and all this 70s soul music – which relates straight to the movie.”
Diddy later says.
“‘Man…I have nobody to give it to. Biggie’s not here and I can’t just give it to anybody’,” Jay remembers. “So I asked him, ‘What do you do with all this music’ and he said ‘Man I’ll just play it in my house and run around with my socks on!’”
Those beats are what became American Gangster. The album takes you in a roller coaster just like the film itself.
It all starts off with some dialog from the movie mixed with the voice of Idris Elba. Which is followed by the words of Beyoncé followed by the intense music matching with a choir urging “pray for me.”
“Your gangster is not defined by how low your jeans fall by your waist, but more how your genes stand up to its expectations.”
Laced with samples from artists such as Barry White, Marvin Gaye, and The Isley Brothers the project instantly takes you on a musical ride back into the 1970’s as Jay-Z finds that lyrical punch and swag that was missing in his 2006 comeback.
Features include Lil’ Wayne, the return of Beanie Sigel, and the second collaboration between himself and Nas. “No Hook” reminded us of a modern day “44 4’s.” “Party Life” felt like a track where you can relax, sit back, and enjoy a cigar.
One of the most anticipated tracks on the album was “Ignorant S***” which originally leaked back in 2004 with three verses on a Don Demarco mixtape. The Black Album leftover was tweaked and then added a fresh out of jail Beanie Sigel in their first collaboration in years.
American Gangster solidified Jay-Z’s icon status as an artist following the disappointment of him coming back from retirement. People were excited about him as an MC and lyricist once again. After a step back, it helped catapult him to a new level where he was now respected as artist and mogul. It also cemented Diddy as one of the most talented producers of our generation. His direction musically created the perfect direction to lay parallel to the theme of the film.
His 2007 project is considered one of his top four albums to date, and one of the most complete of his career. All he needed was the inspiration to fuel the fire once again.
“Blue Magic, that’s a brand name/Like Pepsi, that’s a brand name/I stand behind it, I guarantee it/They know that, even if they don’t know me anymore than they know the Chairman of General Mills.”
Enjoy American Gangster below.