JAY-Z’s tenth studio album American Gangster was originally released November 6, 2007.
It’s not difficult to see how Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter would see parallels between himself and Frank Lucas, the “self-made” kingpin who ruled atop the United States’ drug empire during the 1970s as depicted in the film American Gangster. Jigga came up under O.G.s like Big Daddy Kane and Jaz, only to see them get jerked by the industry. Along with Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, he built his own empire in the form of Roc-A-Fella Records, and achieved so much success that he in effect ended up “ruling” rap music. However, unlike Lucas, JAY-Z did manage “to quit while he was ahead,” enjoy his brief “retirement,” and served as President of Def Jam Records, the label that agreed to distribute Roc-A-Fella and helped launch his career into the stratosphere. But before long, he returned to his recording career to reassert his dominance.
JAY-Z officially returned from his self-imposed hiatus with Kingdom Come (2006), his first attempt to spend the majority of an album tackling “mature” subjects. He talked about his personal growth as he lived and worked through his thirties, the issues he faced as a rich Black man in the United States, beefs he had with various rappers, and social issues facing Black people throughout the country.
Though Kingdom Come initially sold well and was generally well-received, the album ranks in the lower half of his discography. Most of the singles still hold up, and other tracks feature JAY rhyming with renewed hunger. However, Kingdom Come also features some of the worst songs in his entire catalogue (see “Anything” with Usher and “Hollywood” with Beyoncé). He quickly bounced back, released his tenth solo album American Gangster less than a year later. A decade after its release, it’s still the best “post-retirement” album by JAY-Z, and probably in the top three or four albums that he’s ever recorded.
This was also JAY-Z’s attempt to re-assert himself as one of the top artists in hip-hop. Just a couple of months before his “little brother” Kanye West released Graduation on Def Jam, and was basking in the glow of its massive success. Fortunately, JAY-Z didn’t try to emulate Kanye’s sound, opting to return to his roots, spinning vivid tracks about dealing drugs over soulful loops. Except this time, he focused it through the prism of the American Gangster film.