Though I am not easily impressed, yesterday proved to me that even an old-school music journalist with a tape recorder the size of a car battery could be moved by the kindness of a rapper. Though I can’t reveal the “why” of my meeting, I was summoned to a Chelsea recording studio to interview Jay-Z for an upcoming piece.
Walking into a room that was perfumed with the scent of strawberry candles, Jay sat by himself at the mixing board and greeted me kindly. Though I had not interviewed him since a piece in The Source ten years ago during the “Streets are Watching” days, I had seen him a few times over the decade.
In the process of putting the finishing touches and flare to the upcoming American Gangster companion album, the tracks that Jay played this Harlem boy resonated in ways that the film didn’t touch. “I think this record plays like a movie as well,” Jay pointed out in the beginning of our discussion as the flick played overhead.
Given that the first single “Blue Magic” has been in heavy rotation at Gonzales Manor since I saw a screening three weeks ago, I was ready for the 8-track flashback of Hova’s journey. Indeed, there were moments when I felt the songs like “Party Life” (which, as Jay points out, “has that seventies soul feel”) and “Success” (with its ill organ) interpreted the legacy of Frank Lucas and the yesteryear landscape of Harlem better than the big screen version.
The fact that Jay-Z is a New York City boy who grew-up hearing hustler legends about uptown characters like Lucas and Nicky Barnes (while also reading Iceberg Slim novels and looking out his bedroom window) truly comes out in songs like the hardcore head bop of “Rock Boys” and the equally hot “Pray.” Both tracks, produced by Puffy and the Hitmen (who have five songs on the album), have the kind of superfly swagger that is pure 125th Street.
From the suites to the streets (I never tire of that one), the Frank Lucas of Jay-Z’s imagination combined with the stark realism of his own autobiography reshapes the character in a kind of musical/textual metamorphous that is truly inspiring. American Gangster is what us Jay-Z fans who once rocked “Cashmere Thoughts,” “D’evils” and “Song Cry” have been waiting for since he first announced he was going back to rock the mic.
posted by michael a. gonzales @ 12:27 PM