An extended interview with Jay-Z ran in The New York Times last week as part of a piece on the upcoming feature film "American Gangster". You know the routine - excerpts of the story in bold, followed by my own commentary.
"Inspired by the Fire Joe Morgan website":
Jay-Z, the rap superstar and president of Def Jam Records, has quietly returned to the studio to record an album of new songs inspired by the forthcoming movie "American Gangster," his first "concept" album and second CD in less than a year.
"…quietly returned…", says one of the most read newspapers on the planet. OK, I'm nitpicking. Let's see where this goes.
Following the underwhelming critical and commercial reception for his "Kingdom Come" CD late last year — and as Jay-Z grapples with whether to stay on in his post at Def Jam — the tie-in to a major motion picture gives him a chance to rebound strong and extend his reach to a wider audience.
Hasn't Jay-Z already reached out to a "wider audience" in recent months? The first single to the aforementioned "Kingdom Come" album was "Show Me What You Got". The video for this indescribably sh*tty song debuted simultaneously on MTV and BET and featured Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr, whose respective demographics are about as "wide" as you can get from the target of Hip Hop.
The video was also featured during halftime of an ABC Monday Night Football game, with truncated versions of the video airing as part of a Budweiser commercial campaign. "Kingdom Come" was marketed to pretty much every upright American last fall, whether you'd heard of Jigga or not.
At the same time, it could help Universal Pictures excite younger moviegoers, whom it will need to make money on a costly film with a troubled history. Though it's not uncommon for films to be released alongside "inspired by" albums, it is rare for them to be recorded by a single artist, let alone by a major star who had no role in the movie.
Jay-Z is 37 years old, which, in rappers years, is essentially "B.C.". He has no more sway with "younger moviegoers" than you or me. Did any of those myriad Death Row Records soundtrack releases in the 1990s make you want to see "Gridlock'd", "Gang Related" or "Above the Rim"? And, they ALL starred Tupac! Tupac!
The movie, set for a Nov. 2 release, depicts [Denzel Washington's] Frank Lucas character as an underworld Horatio Alger and an innovator who, despite keeping a low public profile, rose to such power that he was able to defy the Mafia bosses who had traditionally dominated the New York drug trade before being brought down by a special narcotics task force. Jay-Z said he thought his fans would be struck by the image of a black man reaching such heights of success, even on the wrong side of the law, much like such ruthlessly efficient Al Pacino antiheroes as Tony Montana and Michael Corleone.
Setting the bar kind of high, aren't we, Jay-Z? First off, I have my doubts that any rap fan will be "struck" by anything about this movie, since every major label rapper of the last ten years has been featured in a direct-to-DVD release with roughly the same plot as "American Gangster", "Scarface" and "The Godfather". Second, any cinematic impact that Tony Montana or Michael Corleone once had has been commercialized and bled bone dry by their transformation into video game characters and rap's lyrical-reference caricatures.
[Director Ridley Scott] said he cast the rappers T. I., RZA and Common in supporting roles, hoping to appeal to a younger audience. But Brian Grazer, the film's producer, said that Mr. Washington also pressed him more than a year ago to consider asking Jay-Z to do the film's soundtrack.
Christ, I could've cobbled together an entire post on this quote, alone. Fine, I'll spot you T.I. The guy's undeniably charismatic even if he's got nothing interesting to say. RZA's commercial shelf life was extended a few months by a couple of "Chappelle's Show" cameos in 2003. Talented? No doubt. Recognizable? No way. As for Common, he's got more crossover appeal than RZA, but that "younger audience" sure isn't buying his music.
Speaking of the young'ins, I'm glad that Brian Grazer, 56, was successfully won over by Denzel Washington, 52, and agreed to hire Jay-Z, 37, to helm the soundtrack. They've obviously got their fingers on the pulse of the playground, the video arcade, the baseball card shop and wherever else one finds kids into Hip Hop.
Instead Jay-Z offered to make his own album and release it in conjunction with the movie; Def Jam is also releasing the film's official soundtrack, which features songs by Bobby Womack, the Staple Singers and Sam & Dave.
Mrs. Bootleg just pre-ordered eight copies of the official soundtrack. My wife's the only woman on earth who's in her 30s, with musical tastes from the 30s.
Though Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, said he'd never heard of Mr. Lucas while growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, he still glimpsed much of himself in Mr. Washington's portrayal: "The way he carried himself. The way he went about things. The way he wasn't loud, but he was very strong."
Whoa, whoa, whoa…this entire article has been about the inspiration that Jay-Z has milked from a man he's never even heard of? How does Jay-Z know that Lucas "wasn't loud"? How does he know how he "went about things"? His inspiration is Denzel Washington's performance, which is akin to all those "X" hats that everyone wore 15 years ago leading up to Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" movie. Most of those kids had never heard of Malcolm X, either. Inspiring.
Echoing the "stop snitchin' " campaign among some hip-hop fans and artists, however, Jay-Z hastened to dissociate himself from Mr. Lucas's decision to cooperate with the authorities to get a more lenient sentence.
"Me, I believe you choose your path and you walk your path, and whatever happens you got to accept it," Jay-Z said.
In "No Hook," a song on the new album, he says:
Please don't compare me to other rappers. Compare me to trappers.
I'm more Frank Lucas than Ludacris. And Lude is my dude, I ain't trying to dis.
Just like Frank Lucas is cool, but I ain't tryin' to snitch.
I'm-a follow the rules, no matter how much time I'm-a get.
I'm-a live and die with the decisions that I'm-a pick.
Really, Jay-Z? Good or bad, guilty or innocent, you're going to "live and die with the decisions" that you pick? In 1999, you allegedly stabbed a record executive and pleaded "not guilty" when you were dumb enough to get caught. You had witnesses, alibis and alternate timelines that all "proved" your innocence. So, why'd you ultimately plead guilty to a (misdemeanor) charge out of that incident?
Now, I don't know what happened and I'm not saying you did anything. But, it seems you were willing to fight like hell to beat the consequences of the alleged "decisions" you picked. Too bad Frank Lucas didn't have your lawyers.
His decision to record "American Gangster" is a surprise, given that his last album was released less than a year ago. "Kingdom Come" sold about 1.5 million copies, his lowest figure for a full studio album since 1997. [Jay-Z] ventured that "Kingdom Come" was a little too "sophisticated" for some listeners.
"Too sophisticated"? The "Kingdom Come" album? Here's my initial reaction to that delusional nugget via a quick e-mail exchange between me and our old friend, That Nick'a Guy:
Nick'a: "Is it possible to have that much money and no perspective as to your version of sophisticated vs. most people's version of what sophisticated is?"
Aaron: "The new "sophisticated" = terrible first single + an unreachable standard set by Jigga, himself + only (MAYBE) four good songs on the entire album.
Yeah, it went right over people’s heads."
Jay-Z, I love your work and you've had a great career, but damn, son.