Gangster's Paradise

The American audience has loved characters like Frank Lucas
many times over: He is a man of principle and precision, anchored by his family
but driven by his business. Hollywood’s
crime-centric personas are most successful when softened to a likable level,
where murder is somewhat justifiable — and a hell of a lot more cinematic.

Jay-Z
American Gangster
Rock-A-Fella
{grate 3.5}

The newest album from Jay-Z, easily the most iconic MC of
his day, was magically conceptualized after a sneak-preview screening of Ridley
Scott’s “American Gangster.” It has been hailed as one of Jay’s best albums, a
return to the formula that made his first album, Reasonable Doubt, a hip-hop
classic. In fact, his moody concept album is almost being toted as Jesus
Christ’s return.

But this isn’t really a concept album — especially when you
consider the Jigga man has been rapping about most of its lyrical themes since
1996. Instead, this is Jay-Z doing what he does best: talking sick about moving
coke, reflecting on his illustrious past and throwing around a lot of shit.

Still, the fact that Jay might be rehashing tired topics
doesn’t subtract from the expertise in execution. “Fallin,” the album’s climax,
touches on the same remorse and addiction he addressed back in ’96: “The irony
of selling drugs is sorta like you’re using it/ Guess there’s two sides to
substance abusing.” Still, the song is a rare Gangster gem, thanks in great
part to a haunting beat from Jermaine Dupri and equally haunting hook by Balil.

Not every attempt at revisited introspection is as
successful. While “Pray” and “American Dreaming” aren’t necessarily sore
thumbs, they give little to rave about. Hova’s effortless flow often backfires,
so smooth that its words are easily tuned out. For the same reason, the album’s
lush backdrop doesn’t strike any particular chords of its own; “Pray” is overly
dramatic, with hectic strings that fade in and out of its simple drumbeat and
spoken-word pieces by Beyoncé between verses that create a corny mess.
“American Dreaming” is the equally unexciting counterpart to “Pray,” except in
this case, the drama-attempting instrumentation feels underproduced.

Thankfully, Hova’s latest is no Kingdom Come, so for every
misstep — like the drum-machine grinder “Hello Brooklyn” — there’s more than
enough padding to make up for it. “Roc Boys,” with its triumphant, celebratory
horns, perfectly captures all the glam excess that reputedly accompanies the
success of drug dealing. Jay’s swagger on the track is ridiculous, as he spits
such dope braggadocio as “Heroin has less steps than Britney/ That means it
ain’t stepped on, dig me?” Black superhero music, indeed.

Overall, Jay shines brightest when he’s in celebration’s
liveliest throes, and his beats — from bigtimers like Diddy, Just Blaze and the
Neptunes — follow suit. “Party Life” is the epitome of late-night smooth,
combining a silky guitar riff with equally sultry backup vocals, and Jay
attacks the track like it’s a new-and-improved rendition of “Change Clothes.”

Given the nature of the film “American Gangster,” Jay isn’t
given much room to neglect his roots — so along with hints of his new
kicked-back maturity, the old-timer makes sure to include some crap for
old-school hip-hoppers. “Ignorant Shit” and “Success” will have even the most
bitter ex-fans bobbing their heads in nostalgia, the latter track a paramount
lyrical slugfest with nemesis-turned-ally Nas. The pair wax poetic, lamenting
that success and wealth has got them jaded. The concept is as well-delivered as
it is clever, each MC trying to one-up the other with his signature style. “I
got watches I ain’t seen in months, apartment in the Trump I only slept in once,”
slangs Jay, to which Nas replies, “Old cribs I sold y’all drive by like
monuments/ Google-Earth Nas, I got flats in other continents.”

After relistening to the album a million times, I find my
inner hip-hop head and critical analyst at odds. Overall, this is easily Jay’s
best since the Black Album ­— or maybe even the Blueprint. Still, the whole
“unofficial soundtrack” deal is pretty weak, considering its only evidence is
some Frank Lucas namedrops and overdramatic soundbytes. I can’t decide if he’s using
the whole motif as a poor excuse to be rapping about coke and murder while
pushing 40 years old (albeit far better thanmost) — perhaps because his attempt
at grown-man rap didn’t pan out — or if this is just the best lame-concept
album out there.

But all this is almost irrelevant. What matters is that 11
years after his debut, Jay-Z is beyond relevant; his albums are still
talked-about events, whether the hype is good or bad; and the music, the real
heart of it all, is still thumping harder than ever.

— Andres Reyes

Staff Writer

The real Frank Lucas? This smalltime Harlemite killed his
way to the top of the 1960s heroin trade as an innovative businessman, got
caught, then dimed out dirty cops and criminals to cut his own cell time from
70 years to four­ — hardly the gallant man Denzel Washington plays with velvety
guile in “American Gangster,” Ridley Scott’s newest jaunt into violence and
crime.

“Gangster” is based on a New York Magazine piece about
Lucas’ rise to power. His transformation from article to film — from a starkly
gripping page-turner to a murderous urban deity on the silver screen — tells
volumes. The writing, directing and acting are so crisp and honest that the
film bestows an alluring flavor upon its every set, from crack dens to
mansions, from South Asian titty bars to Harlem street corners.

Surprisingly, the film’s embodiment of blunt-force
attraction isn’t Washington — whose affinity
for bad-assery is hardly surprising — but Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts, the Jersey narcotics cop trailing Lucas. Crowe trudges around
his dank scenery like a broad-shouldered bear, bubbling with a subsurface
brutality that Scott deftly controls to turn every scrap of violence into a
gratifying payoff.

Roberts and Lucas form the film’s centerpiece, both men
acting as commentary on the nation’s standing in the ’60s, the decade-long apex
of U.S.
history — when the hippie faced down the Man, when the little guy faced down
the corporation and when all Americans had to face mass change. The two
mainstay characters stand on opposing sides, but with similar values: Lucas
touts familial honor while Roberts preaches on-the-job morals.

Neither mindset mixes well with its respective milieus.
Lucas’ drug trade, described in-film
like old-school economics, imports the product fresh Asian opium to Harlem’s customers. But even Lucas can’t stop his
formerly understated, family-run hustle from becoming a showy empire.
New-school flash — including Nicky Barnes, personified with pimpalicious zest
by Cuba Gooding Jr. — leaves Lucas worriedly trying to keep his younger
relatives (played by T.I., Chiwetel Ejiofor, Common and others) in line to
ensure the whole family’s safety, but it’s like playing Whack-A-Mole: family,
money and business can’t ever jive.

Meanwhile, Roberts’ headstrong ethics earn him many enemies.
In the vein of “Serpico,” Roberts is all but exiled by his cop buddies when he
turns in $1 million in corrupt cash, instead of taking a taste for himself.
Crowe somberly carries the decision like a concrete block for the rest of the
film, never frantically acting out like Al Pacino, whose many tirades as Frank
Serpico made the character impulsively entertaining. Instead, Roberts
steadfastly holds himself to his moral code, watching as the rest of his life
(wife, kid and job) floats away — there’s a wonderfully played solemnity to the
character.

The rest of the cast is made up of gangster-genre vets, with
the film transplanting bit-part actors of every crime show and film from “The
Sopranos” (Robert Funaro) to “The Wire” (Idris Elba) to “The Departed” itself
(Kevin Corrigan). All of gangster-ism’s stars have gathered around Washington
and Crowe, swirling about to tell one of the most riveting American tales of
drugs, family and the law ever put on the screen.

And while scribe Steven Zaillian’s characterizations are
reason enough to see “Gangster,” Scott’s direction puts the film a cut above
most cops-and-robbers tales. What Martin Scorsese did to stylize and beautify
carnage in “Departed” — the last great crime epic — is undone in “Gangster,”
where Scott preserves Harlem’s violent grit
and grime. Instead of lovemaking to the sounds of Pink Floyd, we get crack
distribution to Sam & Dave. Instead of Howard Shore’s
guitar-plucking score, we get a drum-thumping outing from Marc Streitenfeld and
an awing rendition of “Ave Maria,” played over an end-sequence’s church
setting. “Gangster” is on par with “Departed” in all facets, but delivers in a
more visceral, primitive way.

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