In Ridley Scott's "American Gangster," Denzel Washington's character, Frank Lucas, is a ruthless drug lord who launches an empire with a popular product while his competition struggles to adapt to the changing market.
Sound familiar? Kind of? Well, there are some parallels between the career of Lucas (a real-life dealer in the 1970s) and Jay-Z's rise in the rap game. Jay said last week that seeing "American Gangster" led him to write a new album inspired by the film, with each song being his interpretation of various scenes from the movie, which comes out November 2.
"It was like I was watching the film and putting it on pause and giving a back story to the story," he told The New York Times. "Watching that film, it brought back all these memories. It took me back to those emotions." (While his album is also called American Gangster and also comes out in November — on the 6th, to be precise — it is not the film's official soundtrack.)
To be sure, there are parallels. Lucas was mentored by the notorious Bumpy Johnson, a powerful force in his own right before he succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1968. Before Jay ascended to the top slot, he sharpened his skills trading rhymes with the Notorious B.I.G., arguably the top MC in the game before his death by gunfire. (Jaz-O and Big Daddy Kane both mentored Jay as well.)
According to the flick, Lucas muscled in a new way to do business in Harlem, New York, modeled after the Mafia. For his part, Jay's rhymes were groundbreaking for their time, lush and filled with vivid accounts of his drug-dealing past.
There's also the matter of "Blue Magic." For Jay, it's the name of the first single from American Gangster. For Washington's character, it's the name of his unusually pure narcotic.
In a memorable scene in the film, referenced in the tail end of Jay's track, Lucas crosses paths with another famous Harlem hustler, Nicky Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and the subject of an upcoming Damon Dash documentary titled "Mr. Untouchable"), whom he lectures about the importance of paying attention to and protecting your brand — lessons that Jay obviously learned early in his career. (Take that, Dame!)
Frankly, however, that's pretty much where the Jay-Z/ Frank Lucas comparisons end, and even in the song, Jay is flexible with the parallels. The movie is set in the '70s/heroin era of Harlem, and Jay's track is about the '80s/crack era of Brooklyn.
The latter period also figures heavily in Jay's lyrics: "Whatever, hundred for the diamond chain/ Can't you tell that I came from the dope game?/ Blame Reagan for making me into a monster/ Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra/ I ran contraband that they sponsored/ Before this rhyming stuff we was in concert."
Ultimately, it seems, rather than Jay comparing his own life directly with Lucas', aesthetically perhaps he wanted to return to the time in his life that's similar but long behind him — hard as it is to reconcile the slick hustler he used to be with the millionaire CEO he is now.
And as Lucas says in the film: "My man!"
Check out everything we've got on "American Gangster."
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