Writer Jeff Chang described the central question of Kingdom Come, Jay-Z's much-discussed post-retirement album from 2006, as being what more could Jay say. Interest in this response was certainly high: Fans gave the record one of the year's biggest opening-week sales figures and the industry heralded it with a Grammy nod.
But critics responded with far less generosity. Punctuated by the bold Rick James sample bouncing through the title track and the ability of the single "Show Me What You Got" to simultaneously move crowds and promote Jay's new champagne, the album wore resources on its sleeve before revealing anything of substance. Though few questioned Jay-Z's relevance as a cultural phenomenon, many found his triumphant return an ironic affair that mirrored the midlife misstep of his much-referenced hero Michael Jordan -- a return to old stomping grounds with diminishing returns.
Hard to imagine Jay didn't take that reaction to heart when he returned to the studio shortly thereafter to begin recording his tenth full-length, American Gangster. Taking a cue from the Ridley Scott film of the same name, about the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, one of America's most notorious drug "businessmen," Jay-Z crafted an album around the film's central theme: hustling.
Though Hova had arguably maintained the hustler persona through all his records, not since his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, had he delved so explicitly into the psychology of peddling drugs as a means to ascend. Given the epic stature of that first record, anticipation understandably swelled again: American Gangster would finally declare what more he had to say.
In this basic sense, American Gangster is a resounding success: It lives up to its hype. The beat selection, personal insight, wit, and overall coherence surpasses that of Kingdom Come and fulfills many of the expectations that the latter album failed to meet. Hell, even Jay knows this and repeats his Black Album marketing by making available the American Gangster a cappella for DIY remixes. Would he even consider doing the same for Kingdom Come?
Fortunately, American Gangster's merits are not limited to simple (and not entirely relevant) comparisons. Though it is highly self-referential, it is not just AG > KC, nor is it a re-up of Reasonable Doubt. Instead, it's more like a tenth-anniversary director's commentary. With age and distance between Jay's youthfully restless days and now, he reflects (with dramatic flair, of course) on the rise and pitfalls of his career. In the process he reinvigorates the topic that has become the gold (or white) standard for many current hip-hop stars (Young Jeezy, T.I., the Clipse, et. al.) and repositions himself with a new perspective: reluctant hustler.
In a nod to the film, he uses the three-part-narrative structure to outline his career arc. "Pray" to "No Hook" introduce the "gangster Sean Corey" and his street hustles; "Roc Boys" to "Party Life" celebrate his success while gradually revealing cracks and conflicts in the dream; and "Ignorant Shit" to "Fallin'" resolve the story with the modern incarnation of Jay-Z: confident and defiant. It also frames his constant ambivalence about succeeding at the expense of another. While the structure and revelations should be familiar to even the passive Jigga fan, the album feels less resolved and more nuanced because his life story remains open-ended. (In fact, as this piece is being written, he continues to broaden his reach as he resigns from his post as president of Def Jam while simultaneously brokering a distribution deal with Apple/iTunes.)
Therein lies the true worth of American Gangster: the moment to reflect that may allow Jay-Z to finally reintroduce himself.