That’s My Jam is a feature where one person from the Selective Hearing staff goes to wax poetic about music that is pivotal to their musical tastes. Whether that would be an album, a song, or anything in-between. We all had to start somewhere.
Released November 6, 2007
- American Dreamin’
- Hello Brooklyn 2.0 featuring Lil Wayne
- No Hook
- Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)…
- I Know
- Party Life
- Ignorant Shit featuring Beanie Sigel
- Say Hello
- Success featuring Nas
- Blue Magic (Bonus Track)
- American Gangster (Bonus Track)
Jay-Z’s 4:44 was released to much anticipation, and it exceeded the buzz. I was certainly taken aback at the album. Wasn’t expecting Jay to be as open and personal as he’s even been in his music. No hesitation to call the album great. It got me to wonder what was his last great album. Let’s go back a decade.
Jay has the stink of Kingdom Come over him, his first album after retirement. Although a commercial success, it was a near-universal panning (although I’ve seen some pockets of people who grew to like the album over time). It was time for Hov to bounce back. Couple that with the promotion run of the movie of the same name making him revisit his time as a drug dealer, then we get American Gangster.
American Gangster is Reasonable Doubt 2.0. While Reasonable Doubt was Jay rapping about his drug-dealing life while he was ostensibly still in it, American Gangster has the benefit of hindsight. This gives the album an arc. Starting with Pray and ending with Fallin’, the album walks through the trajectory of the drug-dealer. Beginning with the aspirations and the early steps, to celebrating the fruits, ending with the inevitable crash of the lifestyle. Not the most unique story arc, especially for him. But the beauty of it is that by the second half, the wisdom strips away the flash and what remains is a man who is fortunate he didn’t succumb to the life.
Pair the nuanced perspective with lush sounds from funk and soul samples from the ‘70s is what takes the album over the top and makes it classic. Not only does it match the era of the movie, but they provide the best dance partner for his lyrics. He never gets too bombastic, even on the more ostentatious songs. The parts compliment each other, allowing the music to groove into your ear then the lyrics make their move. The Marvin Gaye sample on American Dreamin’, the Menahan Street Band sample on Roc Boys, and The Dramatics sample for Fallin’ especially stand out for me.
While some of the political references Jay-Z makes (Don Imus scandal and Jena 6) may not be as urgent as they once sounded, but it’s still poignant. The same can be said about the drug-dealer parable. Jay made me care about it again. American Gangster is grown-up. While all his albums after this felt mature to various degrees, American Gangster is the most complete. Each song does need to be heard alongside one another. American Gangster is as timeless as any of his albums. It was his last great album, till 4:44, anyway.