In 2003, Jay-Z announced that his eighth studio album, The Black Album, would be his last. The revered Brooklyn emcee was calling it quits after less than a decade since his debut offering, Reasonable Doubt.
Jay Z's departure was captured in the documentary Fade to Black. Fans and rappers alike were saddened by his premature exit; but many, including Hov himself, felt that a comeback was in the near-to-immediate future.
Fast forward to 2006, and Jay-Z returned with Kingdom Come. Hip-Hop rejoiced in the Michael Jordan of Rap's return to the booth, but the album felt like Michael Jordan had returned in a Washington Wizards jersey. Fans felt his three-year hiatus caused Jay-Z to lose a step.
But a crime drama starring Denzel Washington would become the catalyst to him getting his mojo back. American Gangster was released in theaters on November 2, 2007. The Ridley Scott-directed crime biography told the story of Frank Lucas: a notorious drug kingpin from Harlem who made an estimated $1 million per day in the 1970s selling heroin sourced from Thailand. Denzel Washington portrayed Lucas alongside a cast that included Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr., and rappers RZA and T.I.
Jay-Z was able to see an early screening of the movie. Lucas was charismatic, intelligent, and respected by high-profile figures from professional athletes to mob bosses. These traits, in addition to Lucas's ability to corner the market, reminded Jay-Z of himself.
American Gangster Official Trailer #1 - Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe Movie (2007) HD www.youtube.com
Jay-Z also saw parallels between the film and his life as a drug dealer in Marcy Projects. The inspiration he found in Frank Lucas's life story would culminate in Jay's tenth studio album, which shares the same title as the film.
American Gangster dropped four days after the film's release on November 6, 2007. It was executive produced by Sean "Diddy" Combs and The Hitmen, a collective of musicians and producers responsible for Bad Boy Records' in-house production in its heyday. The likes of Kanye West, Just Blaze, and The Neptunes provided additional production.
Jay described the album as a movie with three acts–Act 1: Genesis, Act 2: The Rise, and Act 3: The Demise. The album starts with a narration from actor Idris Elba, who has a supporting role in the Ridley Scott film.
The album's core sound includes strings, horns, and soul samples from the era in which the film takes place. The Hitmen's robust production acted as the perfect backdrop to Jay's account of his past as a drug dealer. Jay would also use soundbites and plot points from the film to emphasize how much it inspired the album.
Songs like "Pray" and "American Dreamin" in Act 1 depict struggling for survival with limited prospects. Jay recalls growing up and observing the respect and spoils that came with selling drugs. The allure of fash cash and fast women were impossible for a young Shawn Corey Carter to resist.
"Roc Boys (And The Winner Is...)," one of the album's singles, acted as a celebratory anthem. This track is a toast to everyone involved in the success of what was then known as Roc-a-fella Records. "First of all, wanna thank my connect," Jay boasts over the blaring horns and classic hip hop drums. The video featured cameos from Nas, Mariah Carey, and various actors and rappers. "Roc Boys" also acts as the peak of Act 2, the height of the ascension.
"I Know" was produced by The Neptunes, featuring Pharrell Williams. In it, Jay equates himself to drugs, showing how an addict's dependency on him is reminiscent of an abusive relationship. "Party Life" was a smooth, tongue-in-cheek attempt at courting the opposite sex, and its mellow vibe represents the calm before the storm.
The songs in Act 3 see Jay assume the role of a villain. The time for celebrating is over, as Jay goes on the offensive to address critics and rappers who've undermined his contributions to the culture of Hip-Hop. This contempt is apparent in songs like "Ignorant Sh*t" featuring Beanie Sigel and "Success" featuring Nas.
The Jermaine Dupri/No I.D. co-produced "Fallin'" is a recap of the fate that met the likes of Frank Lucas, who saw his empire crumble after he was arrested. Luckily for Jay, he was able to find an outlet that prevented him from becoming another statistic. "Fallin'" serves as a cautionary tale to those who are oblivious to the outcome of drug dealing.
The album's closer was its first single, "Blue Magic." The Neptunes-produced track shares its name with the brand of heroin Frank Lucas sold, which was said to have been the best product on the streets during the time. Fans and critics' initial reaction to "Blue Magic" saw them compare the single to Jay's Reasonable Doubt days.
Jay's American Gangster became the number 45 jersey Jordan wore in his comeback that took the Chicago Bulls to three more NBA championships after his attempt at retirement.
American Gangster saw Jay-Z return to his full form. The movie itself received rave reviews and Academy Award nominations, but its crowning achievement would be inspiring Jay-Z to make one of his greatest albums.