Next, Jay called on Pharrell Williams, No I.D., DJ Toomp, Just Blaze and Jermaine Dupri to build around what he established with Puff. The result, Jay explained, is in the lyrical bloodline of his debut, Reasonable Doubt (“Heroin got less steps than Britney,” Hova raps on the celebratory “Roc Boys”).
“He went back to the creative mode of the beginning,” Dupri said. “I thought that was brilliant, because people say, ‘He needs to go back to Reasonable Doubt,‘ just like how people say, ‘Nas needs to go back to Illmatic.‘ Even in R&B. People say, ‘If Michael Jackson comes back, he needs to do an album like Off the Wall.‘ For an artist to go back to the beginning, that’s incredible to me. He went as close as he could to the beginning of his career.”
Musically, A.G. lies somewhere between his genesis and The Blueprint, perhaps his pinnacle so far.
“It’s funny. These are the type of records I started off doing,” Jermaine Dupri said of Jay’s more funky, soulful stylings. “But I started having bigger successes with other types of records. People always ask me for [something similar] to the last record that was a big hit for me, instead of letting me be creative and do what I do.”
Dupri worked on A.G.‘s “When the Money Goes” and the possible last track of the LP, “Fallen.”
“I sat there and listened to his album before I even made that beat,” JD said of “Fallen.” “I was in New York and listened to everything else that was on his record. That’s what inspired me to make that beat. It was a real creative flow in the studio. I’m a producer, I’m not just a beatmaker. I don’t like just sending beats. When I’ve done that in the past, ain’t nobody ever pick a beat that I just sent them. I always feel that I give you my better work when I’m under the pressure of you sitting there with me and you telling me, ‘Nah, I don’t like this,’ or, ‘I like that.’ ”
JD felt Jay needed a song that talked about the gangster losing it all.
“It just hit me: He needs a record talking about when he knows he did something wrong [and] he knows it’s gonna tear his life down,” Dupri elaborated. “Every movie we seen, the gangster always does one thing [wrong]. It’s not a series of things, it’s the one thing. We sat down and talked about every movie before he finished the verses. I ask him the question, ‘Do you know one gangster who made it after he made that move?’ In ‘Carlito’s Way’ when Vinnie Blanca came to the table and Carlito ain’t doing nothing … Vinnie really wanted his ass kicked by the great Carlito. When Carlito didn’t do nothing, he realized he could be taken out of the game. When Scarface f—ed up with Sosa, that was the beginning of the end.”
While Jay was making new songs with Dupri, he was getting input from friends about the songs he had in the can.
“I was trying to make a beat, and he was playing his records for people,” Dupri told. “LeBron James came by. It was a listening session while I’m creating the record. It was hard for me in the beginning, but then I had to fall into the whole mode of it.”
“It reminded you of the ‘Fade to Black’ movie, because in the room it was me, No I.D., Jermaine Dupri, L-Rock, Jay, Guru, Ty, Ty,” DJ Toomp said of his studio experience. The Atlanta producer behind some of T.I.’s huge hits — including “You Don’t Know Me” and “What You Know,” as well as Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” — said he had wanted to work with Hov for the past three years.
“They was like, ‘All right, Toomp, let’s see what you got,’ ” he said. “I dug into my computer, man, and there was one main track I was messing with that I felt he would feel. And, boom, I played it, Jay started freestyling to it right there and looked at me, like, ‘Whoooo!’ He had that little frown how people do. Jay was like, ‘Hey man, that’s it. Don’t play this for nobody else.’ ”
That song turned out to be a track called “Say Hello to the Bad Guy.”
“I sampled Tom Brock,” Toomp said of the beat. “It’s kinda pimped out with a Southern flow to it. It reminds you of something Jay-Z would do, but I put my touch to it with the 808s and bass lines. But it’s a slower track and drum-heavy.”
The first record released to the masses has been “Blue Magic,” an ’80s-feeling ode to the name on the little blue packets of heroin Frank Lucas’ cartel used to pump throughout New York. Not only is the beat a throwback, but the hook takes from En Vogue’s “Hold On,” and Jigga’s flow on the track pays homage to Rakim.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Rakim said of “Blue Magic.” He was flattered by the tip of the cap. “Jay-Z, that’s my dude. For him to say, ‘So at that time I’m Rakim,’ that’s love right there. Jay, if you hear this, good lookin’. You’re inspiring me.”
Pharrell Williams helped create that track’s big sound. “I wanted to make something that felt like King Kong,” he explained. “You heard the drums on it? Big boulders! That sh–sounds like King Kong is waking up, like, ‘Rrrrrooar!’ We’re just trying to set a reference of the place of nostalgic drug dealing. When Rakim said, ‘I came through the door, I said it before,’ n—as was making so much money when that was out. When that record came on, you would lean against your M3 in the Dapper Dan seats. They would come to Virginia doing that sh–, selling tons of drugs. As kids, we idolized that ’cause we ain’t know no better. So I made that record, even though the Frank Lucas story is not in the ’80s, [I set it in] the drug-dealer era I could relate to. ”
On Friday, Jay agreed that most of his fans could better relate to the ’80s than to the late ’60s and ’70s era of the “American Gangster” movie. But here’s the quagmire he’s made for himself: “Blue Magic” doesn’t really fit the feel of the rest of the album, so Jay is contemplating where to put it on the album’s track list. He and Pharrell shot a video for the single weeks ago, but he’s been sitting on it while trying to make up his mind. He’s also considered making “Blue Magic” a bonus track along with the “I Get Money” remix.
Although the LP is less than a month from being released, Jay is taking every last minute to craft it. You can partially blame the New York Mets and their historic September collapse. “They was in first place for just about the whole season and didn’t make it to the playoffs! That sh– showed me one thing: No matter what, I gotta finish strong,” devoted Yankees fan Hov explained with a smile.
“I’m a little upset, not with him, but just with the way things happened with the movie getting pushed up,” Just Blaze said. “Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be out for … another month. I had my schedule worked out, because I had X, Y, Z to work on, and me and Jay was going to work through October. That was my timeline. Then the album got pushed up because the movie got pushed up. We still got a little time. He was saying, ‘If you come with something, like the same way you came with “P.S.A.” before … .’ ‘Cause with me, I do that with every album, come with something at the very end to bring it home. But I got two records on there that I love, regardless. I got a couple of days, but it only takes five minutes to make the magic. Just have to have those stars lined up right.”
Just produced the title track (“I’m trying to get Larry Gold to possibly do the strings,” he said. “He was the string arranger for a lot of the Sound of Philadelphia records”), as well as “Ignorant Sh–,” which features Beanie Sigel (“The ’07 Ice Cube, see if I care if this verse get aired. Even if you mute it, the curses is there”). For “Ignorant,” Just flipped a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “In Between the Sheets,” which was originally slated for The Black Album, and, after some tweaking, was brought back. Jay touches on censorship and Don Imus on the record, among other things. ” ‘Scarface’ the movie did more than Scarface the rapper did to me,” he raps. The song comes at a time on the album when Jay’s character is at his height and is blissfully reckless.
The only other MC to appear on the album is Nas, via “Success.” Nas loved the song so much when he heard the album, he asked to be on the track.
Hov said he feels that people actually have to listen to the body of work as a whole to really get it. And next summer, the fans will get to sesee it all live.
“I look forward to touring with American Gangster, ’cause of the musicality,” he said, adding that he’s currently looking for a band to take out with him.
What was it like for Jay to make an album as gutter as he wanted to without having to worry about trying to come up with a radio-friendly single? After a round of chilled tequila shots from bottles taken out of the 40/40 Club fridge, his answer was simple: “It’s fun.”