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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Jay-Z reminds listeners that swagger is a liability

Published: November 16, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

Jay-Zs album, American Gangster, proves to be a compellingly honest and refreshingly creative artistic effort. Among other things it gives us the true perspective of someone who made it in the crime world, many times, in such a relatable way that one feels guilty yet vindicated in agreeing with the criminal persona displayed on the album.

Each song is its own isolated story, a snippet in the life of Jay-Z juxtaposed to that of Frank Lucas. That is to say, Jay used specific scenes in the movie America Gangster, which relates the true life story of rise and fall of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, to frame his own experience.

We see actual things that happened to Jay, through the lens of the movies events, which is a premise that can not fully understood or appreciated until after having seen the movie, at which point you can literally point out every aspect of the movie Jay is using to reflect his own life experience.

A huge part of this persona is honesty. This is established at the get-go with the album introduction where we are informed That being as gangster is not how many rocks are in your watch/ but how many rocks [of cocaine] that you move on your watch and that swagger is not a must, showing off is a liability, as it will get you caught.

From a purely musical perspective this album hits high notes in every octave. The narrative style is amazing as each and every story we see through Jays eyes. Whether we are in the guise of Jay himself or whether we take on the form of heroin going through someone's veins , each song is told from the first person perspective so that we are never removed from the action, the decadence, the fear, the success, and ultimately ,the reality of the song. Furthermore, when we get Jay, we get uncensored, back-in-the-90s Jay.

On the song No Hook he implores us not to compare [him] with other rappers[as he is] more Frank Lucas than Ludacris. The lyrics are amongst the best of Jay-Z's new age go-over-your-head style of rap. Lines like, You know what game this is, move coke like Pepsi, dont matter what the brand name is from the song Pray are sure to keep the lyrically obsessed satisfied and the more relaxed listener astute to the subtleties throughout each song.

In terms of subject matter we see a broad range of Jays expertise from the party song I Know which tells the story of addiction, from the perspective of the drug, the song Ignorant S!@t where Jay parodies himself and makes the point that ignorance, violence and profanity are not what he prefers to put in a song but are demanded by the status quo, to the song Falln where Jay, in the manner of a fallen Greek hero, contemplates his own demise and downfall from success and traces its reasoning back to his own fallacies.

This is definitely not a light playlist. Granted, if one listens with deaf ears to the lyrical content, cadence and deliberate disregard for the usual form (the song No Hook is performed without a chorus) then the album is just another album. This however is like calling a work of Beethoven another sample of elevator music. Without appreciating how or why the elements of the music are put together we miss the element of the masterpiece and are just left with a superficial and not so unusual shell. My advice for listening to American Gangster is to pay attention;

look past the shell.

The next step in Jays American Gangster project is to produce his own line of short films. Instead of your usual music videos, Jay is coming out with a short film for each album song (a la Daft Punks Interstella 5555) with narrations (so far only from himself) and intertwining events that culminate to some ending.

As I expected Jay-Z is doing big things with this project. I could mention that Jay is supposedly retired, but Ill leave the jokes to myself, I'm personally really glad hes back to making the type of music his fans have come to expect of him. His work is an honor to and powerfully told extension of the artistic portrayal of Frank Lucas in the movie American Gangster.