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Jay-Z: Manifest Destiny (The American Gangster Story)

THE PRELUDE: THE AMERICAN GANGSTER STORY

It would seem like Jay-Z is about to do what he once rapped about on the intro track, “The Prelude, ” of Kingdom Come, his 2006 “comeback” album.

The game’s f**ked up

N***a’s beats is banging, n***a your hooks did it

Your lyrics didn’t and your gangster look did it

So I would write it if y’all could get it

Being intricate’ll get you wood, critic

On the Internet, they like, “you should spit it”

I’m like you should buy it, n***a that’s good business

The mogul and Hip-Hop veteran seems genuinely concerned about the state of Hip-Hop, even though he’s got a rep as a staunch, cold business man.

“When a guy says – and this is definitely no disrespect, because everybody has their place – but when a guy says, “I can make a mil saying nothing on a track,” you know you have reached a bad place,” he says referring to Mims’ recent hit “This Is Why I’m Hot.” His brow furrows. “Not only did you think about it, you said it. So, [Hip-Hop] is way past salvaging. So, I’m just gonna do what I do. I’m just gonna go over ‘there’ – way over there. This is why this is what it is. I’m going so far over there.”

“The Prelude” ends with Jay exclaiming, “The real is back!”

So, with American Gangster, is Jay-Z’s 2006 lyrical prophecy coming true a year after its scheduled appearance?

ACT 1: THE CELEBRATION

It’s a celebration!

On a Friday night, Jay-Z is in his full glory at the recording labyrinth known as Roc Da Mic studios in mid-town New York City. The evening is in full swing and the Patron is flowing into tall, lanky shot glasses. The options in the room are quite limited, but most attendees are either 1) dancing 2) nodding their heads or 3) reciting Jay’s rhymes. Some occasionally look up at the “American Gangster” movie that has been playing continuously during the session.

At 6 pm, one Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter explained — to a small group of journalists — the intricacies and the artistry of his forthcoming 10th album, American Gangster, which drops November 6.

The “American Gangster” movie (in theaters on Nov. 3) provided the perfect segue for Jay to venture back into those dark places he once resided as a former drug dealer. He then bonded his vision with the movie that features Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, T.I., Common and Cuba Gooding Jr.

“Who you become as [a] person, you have layers on it. With a basketball player, you didn’t want to go to practice so you not a basketball player, you a dope dealer, then you become a rapper – you put layers on stuff,” he explains, responding to a query from AllHipHop.com’s scribe. Jay-z has displayed a number of layers, evolving from street dealer to artist to executive. “I never thought I would be able to get back in that zone. I’m just not that type of person [anymore]. I grow. The movie allowed [me] to re-live those kinds of emotions – naturally.”

Right now, about 10 pm, Jay-Z performs “I Know” with the vigor and passion of a young lion, explaining the Pharrell-produced song’s double and triple meanings. The lush tune is about a woman at war with heroin, but to the untrained ear, it plays like a man serenading a hesitant female. At times, he’ll stop a song like “I Know” and explain the verse if he doesn’t think people get it. “That record comes from a twisted mind,” he jokes. There are other moments when he explains even if attendees do comprehend.

The music is fresh and Jay is…exultant. His people are joyful. When Beyoncé strolls in, well into the session, the former Destiny’s Child member and Hov hold hands for a few moments before she starts partying to the sounds bumping out of the studio woofers. Jay’s long time friend Ty-Ty and engineer Young Guru are spitting each and every new song word-for-word, proof they’ve ingested this album several times. Eventually, producer Just Blaze strolls in to offer his co-sign. Matthew Knowles, Beyoncé’s tycoon father, even stops by, receiving an ovation like Norm from “Cheers.” No one in the room can really resist the energy being generated, so they simply submit to it.

Seriously…it’s a celebration.

American Gangster isn’t about Shawn Carter becoming Superman to save Hip-Hop in 2006’s Kingdom Come. It’s not about paining fans with a dramatic exodus as with the Black Album (2003). Over the last year, there have been those that have quietly questioned whether or not Jay is still the god MC he professes himself to be. They pondered why he doesn’t just bow the hell out. He’s traveled from the Marcy projects in Brooklyn, achieved so much and now seemingly enjoys a view from a distant mountaintop.

ACT 2: THE EXPLANATION

Jay-Z has had his peaks and valleys, but his tenure has extended over a decade of resolute consistency – from his nine previous albums to countless guest appearances to mixtapes. Why keep on fighting the good fight? That answer lies in part within the opinions of those aforementioned detractors, he says during the discussion period earlier in the evening.

“That’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of the challenge. You want to test it. It’s music. What happens? Right? At the end of the day, it’s music. It’s subjective and it’s music. You didn’t like Kingdom Come? Ok…I’m still breathing,” he explains as the small crowd begins to swell into laughter. “If you die, or get brain [damage]… Let me take that back. You get brain damage if you go too far in boxing. If you go too far in rap, you just say, “Yo…I like Reasonable Doubt.” More laughter.

Jay-Z is snail-slow to compare Gangster to his classics, despite his exuberance. Still, he’s confident enough to mention it in the same breath as the two albums widely considered his finest works.

“For me, the music, the lushness…it’s like Blueprint-esque,” he says, choosing his words cautiously and deliberately. “But the story lines and the way it’s put together lyrically (mumbles ‘Its almost like a sacrilege for me to say this’) it’s like between Reasonable Doubt and Blueprint – a mix of those two albums.”

He started recording this opus sometime in September and only began to truly focus on American Gangster two weeks ago, he claims.

When journeying though the album, Jay-Z rarely homes in on one song, but describes them in groups. It’s as if he doesn’t want one to outshine the others.

He begins to explain a song that correlates with a scene in the movie.

“In ‘Success,’ there is the scene [in the movie] where he shoots the guy in front of the [restaurant]…”

Suddenly, he starts spitting lines from the song.

“I’m way too important to be talking about extorting /Ask me for a portion is like askin’ for a coffin.”

Then he resumes the answer as if it weren’t just sliced in two by a rap bar.

“…where the guy tries to extort him in front of the diner,” he says moving to the next few songs. “ ‘Pray’ is the corruption with the cops. ‘Fallen’ is, his fall from grace. [The album] is all of the pieces and bits of emotions I pulled from the movie.”

But this American Gangster isn’t a soundtrack, even though it probably could have been if the movie producers had heard it earlier. This is inspired work at its finest. And Jay maintains that fans should consider the story he weaves as a “cautionary tale.”

“The last song is a song called ‘Fallen’ and that’s everything just falling apart,” he says, eventually reverting back to his brash brand of bravado. “[The album’s conclusion is] not really true and s**t, ‘cause I’m a bad ma’ f**ker. I really made it and s**t. I’m better than Al Capone – he ain’t make it. Michael Corleone [from “The Godfather”], Scarface – I’m iller than all them n***as.”

The room remains silent.

“Y’all gotta give it to me,” he coos…charming them into laughter. “That’s some very true s**t.”

ACT 3: THE CONSTELLATIONS

Jay-Z says he never intended to record an album this year, but due to some seemingly divine design, the stars aligned perfectly for the Def Jam president.

First, he got a call from Universal’s soundtrack executive Kathy Nelson, who felt that he should see “American Gangster,” a movie that weaves the bloody tale of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas. “She thought it was something that I need to see. She had some type of intuition and she just reached out,” he expounds. “That started everything in motion.”

Word traveled fast.

Incidentally, AllHipHop’s own rumor guru illseed was the first to publicly reveal that Jay-Z was recording a new album in the AHH Rumor section after receiving a tip on September 16.

Chronologically, Sean “Diddy” Combs, the head mogul of Bad Boy Entertainment, was the second star to fall into alignment for Jay-Z. Now, things musically began to take shape in Daddy’s House, Diddy’s recording facility.

Jay-Z explains, “When I saw the movie, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should do it, maybe I should do it.’ Puff had called me and he’s always like, ‘Let me do an album, like executive produce the album.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m an executive my damn self. Stop talking to me like that.’” The room giggles again.

“I believe in Karma and all that ‘everything happens for a reason [stuff],’” he continues. “So, he called me like, ‘You gotta come to the studio. I never call you to come to the studio. You gotta come to the studio.’”

After finally meeting with Diddy, Jay-Z said he was also introduced to a cornucopia of beats that his Uptown counterpart and his former production team The Hit Men had crafted years ago. Oddly, Diddy didn’t even know that Jay-Z was contemplating an album, nor did he realize that he was about to lay the foundation for American Gangster’s rich 70’s soundscape.

“I go to the studio and he’s playing all these tracks. And it hit, the [70’s] time period. But, he didn’t know about it [the album]. I’m like, ‘What are you doing with all these tracks?’ He’s like, ‘I just don’t have anybody to give them to.’ I was like, ‘Let me get those and it really set the [tone for the album],’” Jay admits.

Diddy and friends would go on to produce “Roc Boys,” “Pray,” “No Hook,” among other joints. With a solid groundwork, both sonically and thematically, Jay quickly pulled in others.

“[Diddy’s tracks] pretty much set the foundation and [other producers] had to produce into the sound that was already there,” he said. “Like JD [Jermaine Dupri] did ‘Fallen’ and that’s not a typical JD record, but it fits right into the album. And he did ‘When The Money Go’ as well.

Atlanta’s DJ Toomp (“Say Hello to the Bad Guy”), Kanye’s mentor No ID (“Success”), The Neptune’s Pharrell Williams (“Blue Magic” & “Hello”) and former Roc-a-Fella in-house maestro Just Blaze (“Ignorant S–t”) all provide backdrops to American Gangster. Nas, singer Bilal and Beanie Sigel all round out an album that could go down as one of Hov’s best.

THE CONCLUSION (AKA The Beginning.)

Jay-Z never really left, but he’s back.

American Gangster is an album, not an event per se. Many of Jay-Z’s previous works seemed bogged down with the pageantry of the pre-fight anticipation, from the retirement to the return. It’s an album that should morph into an event, where fans of the Brooklyn native will commemorate and doubters will likely be silenced.

The album wasn’t even finished at press time, which is also a testament of how poignant this impromptu gala is. Even when the New York Yankees lose to the Cleveland Indians, nobody seems to care too much.

Jay’s path to victory will involve a number of post-release events, which will organically support the album and extend the creativity.

“What I really plan to do is shoot [American Gangster, the album] as a movie. Like a better ‘Streets is Watching.’” he says, piquing the interest of the writers. “Doing it like a musical. Real stories and get somebody in there that’s [going do to]…real writing. Someone to shoot it like ‘Godfather.’ I know that’s a little ungracious, but that’s how you gotta place it to get somewhere near.”

And, when asked if he planned to act in this movie, he responds briskly, “Yeah, yeah. I mean, who else gonna do that s**t?”

And then there is the obligatory tour, which always creates fervor with fans.

“I really look forward to touring, because of the music…the musicality of it all. I’m looking at a band right now. I’m looking to tour this summer. With all that instrumentation that’s in that album, forget about it. Forget about it,” he says trailing off.

By the end of the night, well after 11 pm, after repeated listens to American Gangster, attendees have immersed themselves into the lyrics, hidden codes, the samples and even picked their favorite records.

After a mention from a writer, Jay fesses up that he might leak “Roc Boys,” one of the album’s standouts, but he’s got his artistic reservations.

“You gotta put records out there to let people know [there is an album coming out], but I really want [American Gangster] to stay as one piece of work. I don’t want just one single out there,” he says, dismissing that he’s becoming a “weirdo artist.”

“But it should be heard as a body of work.”

He’s even considering placing the 80’s-themed, Rakim-influenced “Blue Magic” – the lead single – as a bonus cut, because it weakens the CD’s cohesion. There’s even a with a song with powerful Marvin Gaye sample Jay had stashed until finally letting the room hear. He just doesn’t quite know what to do with that song.

He does know what he wants with his career. Jay-Z once courted retirement from rapping. Hell, he went to the altar, but got a divorce three years later. Even in his late 30’s, he’s looking younger than the American Gangster promo pics on iTunes. He takes time to pull his pants up like a younger Hip-Hop head.

But, Jay recognizes there is more at stake and only a grown man can tackle the nonchalant notion Mim’s expressed on “This Is Why I’m Hot.”

American Gangster is pertinent to the present landscape for several reasons. Without the overabundance of hype, with how present people adore this album, Jay-Z’s 10th will represent a true test of the marketplace. There’s no fight night hype of an opposing artist, not even his own. [“I respect (LL Cool J). He’s a legend. I’m not doing that.”] There are no histrionics here.

It will also do something Kingdom Come could not. How this CD fares, will dictate if quality – regardless of content – is really what people want in a slumping sales market.

Furthermore, those notions of retirement are over, Jay stresses.

“Ahhh…I’m like the boxer. You know the boxer…boxers don’t stop.”

Pop the cork.###-2007 – AllHipHop.com

The Trailer to “Blue Magic”

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