Thursday, November 1, 2007

Respect My Gangsta: Appreciating 'American Gangster'


Like my boy DSuper who recently discussed the flaws in the "Puffy's presence worsens American Gangster" argument, I too have some issues with the cynicism and otherwise frivolous critiques being hurled towards Jay-Z's latest effort.

For starters, let's get one thing out of the way: American Gangster is not better than, or at least "on par" with Reasonable Doubt.

Aside from the similar cinematic themes of the bonafide hustler mentality/status, sylistically speaking: American Gangster doesn't even come close to the '96 classic. I shouldn't even have to be saying it... But critics have placed a huge brunt of their abhorrence for American Gangster solely on the fact that it isn't a sequel to Reasonable Doubt. Now come on! Jay-Z is incapable of fully retracing and recreating that emotive state. And it's not just him! Ask Nas. Ask Snoop. Ask Em. Ask DMX. Ask KRS. Ask Guru. (Granted, I'm only listing emcees who come to mind quickly because I either have posters or magazine clippings stuck on the walls I'm staring at while writing this piece....given more time, plenty more would come to mind...lol) So my point is: Why hate on the album, an album released in 2007, because it sounds different from the chef d'oeuvre sound of the 90's? (Get it? We're talking about cinematic east-coast gangsta rap classics. Chef. That's right! Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... meh, moving along...)

My point is this: Too much time has been spent on comparing AG to the 90's style, when it should be juxtaposed and sized up against fellow recent releases. Take 50 Cent's Curtis for instance (I hear the shudders already). The album is a failure and was a total disaster. (I say "was" because it "was" on my hard drive. Not anymore.) American Gangster blows Curtis out of the water. But who got more promotion? Whose album was continually shoved down our throats (next time I'll try not to use "blows" and "shoved down..." in such close proximity) every which way we looked? On the other hand, American Gangster, especially considering the fact that it's a Jay-Z (umm.....MTV's "G.O.A.T.") project, hasn't been getting much promotion at all. At least compared to Curtis (or even Kingdom Come for that matter). So like the saying goes, "Don't believe the hype." So what's the verdict?

American Gangster > Curtis (one of 07's biggest releases)

Okay, well I mentioned 50, so it's only right that I mention... Kanye. Of course! Now, I like Kanye's album. Not as much as his first two, but it's still pretty good. But if I had to pick the better Hip-Hop record between Jay and Ye's 2007 efforts, I'd roll with Hov on that one. Prez Carter's album, while not perfect, is chock full of metaphors, double (and triple) entendres and raw emotion. Yeezy sprinkles in some of these ingredients in the pot as well, but not enough for a full serving size. In the struggle to outdo 50 Cent in sales, Ye was forced to go from Hip-Hop to Hip-Pop. Jay wins. Ahem, Cam lost. (Sorry, but "Cam lost" is a must nowadays.) So what've we got?

American Gangster > Graduation > Curtis

That about sums it up.

Now let's list a few more big-name releases of 2007 to see how it all lines up:

Finding Forever
Ultimate Victory
Underground Kingz
T.I. vs T.I.P.
From Nothin' to Somethin'
Shock Value

AG is better than at least half of those albums (can you guess which ones? lol).

In writing this article however, it was never my intention to stack American Gangster up with all those 2007 releases. All I'm gonna say is this: American Gangster is not an artistic disaster because it's not as good as Reasonable Doubt. Heck, Finding Forever is nowhere near as good as Comm's 90's classics (or even 2005's BE for that matter). T.I. vs T.I.P. is, in my opinion, Mr. Harris' worst album to date, but it doesn't make it a terrible release. And so on...

The moral of the story is this: when analyzing the effectiveness or quality of an album, a person, a group of people (and so on...), don't make this ranking based on the qualities of predecessors, ancestors and such, but by their peers, their contemporaries. Of the 6 billion+ people walking the face of the earth, who can stake the claim that they possess equal (or greater) intellectual, moral and spiritual loftiness as, say, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As far as I know, nobody. Does it mean that quality is dwindling in this growing world of quantity, advertising and mass consumption? Perhaps. But we shouldn't continue to downgrade the best that we've got because it doesn't attain the same levels of virtues of the classics.

Take it all for what it is and cherish it.

Now, don't get me wrong: don't be a mindless drone, shelling our your hard earned spinach (word to Kweli) every which way. Socratic debate is crucial in achieving a level of satisfaction and understanding. But it also means that we've got to make our judgments wisely. In a growing age of bumper sticker politics, we're too quick to judge. Let's take a little more time to reflect. American Gangster leaked this past weekend, and critics jumped on it faster than a Rudy Giuliani attempt of further capitalizing on 9/11. I myself was a bit quick to judge AG, as I was up in the A.M. chattin' it up with Rizoh only minutes after the first leak hit the internet. But tracks like 'Ignorant Shit', as Riz himself has recently documented, are worthy of recognition, particularly on that ol' conscious tip. Pay attention:

'Ignorant Shit':

"I missed the part when it stopped being 'bout Imus/
What do my lyrics got to do with this shit?/
Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me/
So that ain't to blame for all the shit that's happened to me/
Are you saying what I'm spittin.../
...is worse than these celebritants showin they kitten, you kiddin?/
Let's stop the bullshittin'.../
...'Til we all without sin let's quit the pulpittin'/"

'Say Hello':

"We ain't thugs for the sake of just being thugs/
Nobody do that where we grew at, n*gga duh!/
The poverty line we not above/
So I come in mask and glove 'cause we ain't feelin' the love/
We ain't doin' crime for the sake of doing crimes/
We movin' dimes cause we ain't doin' fine/
1 out of 3 of us is locked up doin' time/
You know what this type of shit can do to a n*ggas moms?/
My mind on my money, money on my mind/
If you owe me 10 dollars you ain't givin' me 9/
Y'all ain't give me 40 acres and a mule/
So I got my glock 40, now I'm cool/
And if Al Sharpton is speaking for me/
Somebody get him the word, and tell him I don't approve/
Tell him I'll remove the curses/
If you tell me our schools gon' be perfect/
When Jena 6 don't exist/
Tell him that's when I'll stop saying bitch/
BIIIIIITTTCCHH!!/"

Those two verses are two of the greatest of '07, right up there with Pharoahe Monch's 'Terrordome', Kanye's 'Big Brother' and 'Everything I Am', and only a handful of others (at least in my book).

Which brings me to my conclusion:

In 2004, I went out and copped the brilliant Hip-Hop documentary 'Soundz of Spirit' (Jog9 Productions). Featuring interviews with artists like Andre 3000, Common, the Blackalicious boys, Jurassic 5 and others, Talib Kweli made the following statement that changed the way I listen to and appreciate "commercial" music:

"...stuff about underground and commercial. That's one thing that I'm really fighting with because that's my struggle now: to tear that down because it's an illusion and it's destroying the music. Record companies don't know how to market and promote their artists because they're caught in these boxes, you know, and it's just a shame... As artists and audiences, what we can do is embrace the culture fully. Not just say "well, I'm down with 'real Hip-Hop' and I embrace graffiti and b-boying", or "I'm down with 'gangsta rap' and I only embrace you if you talk about shooting somebody", but embrace the culture fully. Buy everyone's album, if you can afford it, y'know what I'm saying. Go out and buy the album. Listen to it, participate in it. One thing I always try to do is I point out positive songs on quote-unquote commercial rapper's albums, or gangsta rapper's albums. Like, Fat Joe's got a song on his new album called '[Born in] the Ghetto' which is incredible. You'd think it's a Black Star song, the things he's talking about. Jadakiss redid 'Optimistic' by Sounds of Blackness on his album and no one talked about it, you know what I'm saying? Jay-Z, you know, talks about his mom, talks about his pops, talks about Mumia on the Volume 3 album, he talks about "they got me feeling like I've got the soul of Mumia." No one mentions that. And what we've got to do is we've got to pay attention to that, and when you see those artists, let them know: "I appreciated when you did that." Because what happens is all they get from the media, from the fans is, you know, "you're not 'real Hip-Hop' because you're doing thug music or you're doing gangsta music", so [the rappers'] reaction is like "Well, you know what? Fuck you too! I'ma rap for the people who are listening to me, and I'ma say the shit that I think they wanna hear." But if you come up to them and be like "I really appreciated it when you did that song about your mom" - you know, when Styles P on his album does a song dedicated to his brother who got shot, it's an incredible record. Even if you don't like anything else on the record, even if he's talking about shooting people for the whole record, buy the record for that song, and put it in your car. Play it for people. ... We do more to destroy the culture than anybody does. By just following the lead of the media instead of leading the media..."

...2 of BK's finest...
...I rest my case...





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9 comments:

  1. Excellent article, man! You made some very good points! Personally I think American Gangster is a great album (minus a few tracks -- did he sell his soul to Pharrell?). You've got a great blog; I visit almost daily. Come check me out at http://kevinnottingham.com.

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  2. Great article. That first jay verse is pure fire.

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  3. Straight... on .. point!
    Good to see that there still are people who 'get' hip-hop. I really do not understand how it came around that everything in hip-hop got so negative. I always felt that hip-hop was a culture that was all about uniting people (and not the least that people making part of this culture).

    Respect!

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  4. Classic post! Thanks for the shout out!!!

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  5. This was a great read, but I've got this to say...

    "But we shouldn't continue to downgrade the best that we've got because it doesn't attain the same levels of virtues of the classics."

    I take offense to the accusation that I "downgrade" Jay when I criticize him. It's the same inane "player hating" rhetoric people use to ignore valid criticism. Why shouldn't we compare those who are supposedly the best now with those we've concluded were the best in their day? How else do we know if we're evolving, remaining stagnant (which we are) or spiraling downward?

    As far as the two quoted verses go, I take issue with the first 'cause (1) it sounded rushed and off kilt when I listened to the track and (2) I cannot ride with someone when he's saying he's more inspired by Scarface (the character) than by Scarface (the man). The 'Say Hello' verse reads better, but I'll have to listen to the track.

    Kweli is the best MC to speak about Hip-Hop since KRS started, and I generally agree with him on everything, but I still take issue with rappers who'll release nothing but tripe for singles (though I know their labels have a hand in that, I do), filling radio stations with a barrage of crap I just cannot bring myself to listen to and refuse to pay for.

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  6. Thank you all for the comments! ;-D

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  7. Fair criticisms Rolando, but here's my response:

    I still think Reasonable Doubt is a better album than American Gangster, and I stated that, but at the same time, it's damn near impossible to compare albums from different eras. I take offense to the fact that people have dismissed AG because it's not as good as Reasonable Doubt. I mean, just because one album is better than another, doesn't mean "the other" isn't good.

    As far as the verses: 1. I didn't feel that it was rushed and 2. What's wrong with the movie meaning more to him than the rapper? He's being honest. And come on, Scarface the movie is generally more widespread to people than Scarface the rapper (most people don't even know he exists). Scarface the movie meant more to me too... lol

    And about the Kweli comment, read it carefully. He's basically speaking to people like you. Now don't get me wrong, I won't support a group like, say, D4l, because they make no conscious material at all. But it's good to support the conscious side of commercial artists. Because like Kweli said, if these artists are met with criticism for "not being Hip-Hop", they'll say "well f*ck you too!" Rappers need to know that they are appreciated, otherwise they will continue putting out radio trash.

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  8. Okay, I'll admit that 'Face the rapper wasn't a household name even in his prime, and if Jay's verse means that, before his rap gig, that the film had more of an impact on him then I can't blast him for that. I still ain't feelin' that song though, lol.

    What I believe we say to artists who put out a mediocre track to radio by buying their albums anyway is that we don't care about what they're putting out. Their whole marketing approach is about throwing as much shit against the wall as possible and seeing what sticks onto the public subconscious, and when we buy their newest release despite the dung they've flung at us, what we then relay is, "We want more dung."

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  9. that is a nice quote from kweli from soundz of spirit,
    but it's insane to think regular people should buy an album full of crap for 1 good song.
    there should be a way to strong-arm the label to release that 1 good song instead of the negative ones.

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