Mostly, though, Lucas is depicted as a calculating businessman who’s spared life in prison because he cops a plea. The real Jay-Z knows all about the world of calculating businessmen and cutting deals. But he overlooks that link on the album, presenting himself instead as a high-roller who adheres to the gangster no-snitch code. Moreover, the eventual fall of Lucas, so pivotal to the film’s message, has no analogue in Shawn Carter’s story. Sure, there’s a track on American Gangster called “Fallin,’ ” but it’s one of the album’s least-inspired, most-cliché’d raps, and it’s delivered in the second person: “Now you’re tumbling, it’s humbling, you’re falling, you’re mumbling/Under your breath like you knew this day was coming.”
“Fallin’ ” name-drops GoodFellas, The Godfather, and Casino. But those films — like American Gangster — dealt seriously with the downside of the gangster life. Jay glosses those complications. Still, committed Jay-Z fans are likely to have an easier time with this album than Kingdom Come. Which is what Jay intended. He flips lines sure to give even skeptics goosebumps. “Fast-forward freeze-frame on my pistol,” he spits on “Pray.” “Fist full of dollars, ignorance is so blissful.”
Jay’s more musically inspired, too. The album is meant to evoke the ’70s, with soul grooves accented by jazzy horns, and it largely forsakes dance-floor bangers in favor of a more laid-back flow. Nonetheless, the energy level stays high, thanks to a relative who’s who of A-list producers including the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, DJ Toomp, and Just Blaze. Yet it’s the production work of Diddy and his team the Hitmen that stands out. They’re responsible for almost the entire first half of the album, which has the disc’s most memorable tracks, “Pray” and “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).”
One of American Gangster’s bigger mysteries is why so little of the Jigga Man’s music made the cut for the film. It’s been reported that Washington encouraged Brian Grazer, the film’s producer, to include more Jay-Z. Grazer passed, however, hoping to give the film a sound more befitting its era by including vintage tracks like Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” and John Lee Hooker’s “No Shoes.” Although Jay’s gangster odes may increase the box office by appealing to a younger demo, to include them would have trivialized the film’s message and seemed anachronistic.
One wonders what might have happened if Grazer had consulted on the album. Maybe he could have got Jay to sharpen his hazy view of street life. Maybe not. Grazer and Scott believe that maintaining a work’s integrity is as important as commercial viability. That idea seems foreign to Jay-Z. In “Moment of Clarity,” from The Black Album, he seems to rap out his philosophy: “dumbed down my audience and doubled my dollars.” His American Gangster is in the same vein. Jay would no doubt deny that — but check out his ’80s-era “Hawaiian Sophie” video on YouTube, in which he mugs in G-rated fashion in front of a cheesy green-screen island effect. As an artist, Jay-Z’s portrayal of street business isn’t nearly as convincing as his love of show business.