The release date? Fireworks night naturally. Boom!
James Young 2007
No mere album, this is a 'conceptual body of genius work' inspired by the upcoming movie 'American Gangster'. The concept is a 21st century blaxploitation soundtrack, and having THE Super Ego of hip hop mastermind an updating of that classic period, and embellish it with autobiographical detail, is a pretty damn mouth-watering prospect. And he has a point to prove; his last venture back from retirement Kingdom Come received a lukewarm response, at best.
So what do we get? Stax of horns, fat, slow grooves, falsetto backdrops, guitar wah, and a whole heap o' strings. Think Shaft slowed down to a strut with Jay Z’s trademark juddering flow laid over. For prime examples of how it all sits together check the laid back groove of "Party Life" or "Say Hello" wallowing in strings and female vocals. Underpinning it all is the narrative arc of the gangster – dreams, hustle, success, and a sense of 'what does it all mean?'
It starts a bit predictably with the tensely strung, P Diddy-produced, "Pray" and "American Dream". They set the scene of the aspiring hustler but it doesn’t really get interesting until seriously sexy "Hello Brooklyn" in which he and super-smooth Lil' Wayne make love to a whole district of New York. It goes from strength to strength from there on in, with the odd exceptions "Ignorant S**t!" and "I Know". The latter's clever wordplay on a heroin theme is at odds with its irksome production.
The pared back, moody "No Hook" prepares the ground for another Diddy production, "Roc Boys", one of the strongest tracks on show. The pump and swagger of the horns provides the perfect playground for Jay’s flow: '…Pink Rosé, think OJ, I get away with murder, when I sing ye', heroin got less steps than Britney, that means it ain't stepped on, dig me'. The other towering number "Success", is slow, driven by heavy drums and organ loops, and so good Nas signed up on second fiddle. It's all rapped up with "Fallin'", and the curtain comes down with regrets: 'But Ni**as never learn till they end up in the news clip, the irony of selling drugs is sort of like you using it'.
Does it stand up? Definitely. His collaborators’ re-invention of funk-soul and Jay Z's charismatic rapping make ideal bed fellows. As if to prove how strong the concept is it muscles aside two of the toughest tracks, which are made to sit at the back of the class as 'extras'. The Pharrell-produced single "Blue Magic" is perhaps too of the moment, but its sparse beat jabs and synth stabs force a cameo. The theme tune "American Gangster" is really going back to his heights, hard and insistent like something off the Black Album but still with that seventies twist. It's bangin' and sees the album out on a high note. The release date? Fireworks night naturally. Boom!