jay-z album coverI’ll admit: as much as I love Jay-Z, I didn’t like his last album, Kingdom Come. I listened to it maybe twice — and yet I couldn’t figure out where he had gone wrong, what with all of his raw talent and posse of talented producers.

It seemed to me that the album lacked heart. Jay-Z has had a lot to rap about up to now – his tough childhood, his involvement in drug dealing, and a long hard struggle to the top of the rap scene. But recently, everything seemed to be going right: he is one of the richest and most famous rappers, he is a hugely successful businessman outside of his rap career, and he is in a weirdly stable long term relationship with fellow blockbuster musical artist and businesswoman Beyonce. And you can only listen to so many rap songs about how well everything is going.

When rap as a genre expects semi-autobiographical songs that focus on struggle and conflict (preferably on the streets), what are successful rappers who have overcome adversity left to rap about? Is it possible for an older, comfortably settled, rapper who now makes his biggest deals in high-rise boardrooms to make a “real,” heart-felt album?  

Jay-Z seems to have struggled with this problem on Kingdom Come and failed – he ended up with a bad album and a slightly embarrassing Budweiser Select commercial.

But, a year later, Jay-Z has solved the problem with his new album, American Gangster. It seemed like nothing less than an epiphany: he saw the movie and was inspired to write a concept rap album about the rise and fall of many people who have played the game on the streets – complete with early-70s musical influences and, on some songs, very clear parallels drawn to specific scenes in the movie.

This idea is nothing less than a necessary step for rap to take – as the rap artist lifestyle changes, they will have to tap into different places for inspiration. Just as Jay-Z’s 1996 debut album Reasonable Doubt sent waves through the rap world, American Gangster is just as big a step forward. This album, as a whole, is about big ideas and is cohesive (theme-wise and musically) like no other rap album I’ve heard before.

More than that, though, finding inspiration through the figure of the movie’s central figure Frank Lucas, Jay-Z seems to have rediscovered something that he can actively be interested in – you can almost hear in his voice how much more he cares about these songs than on his last album. As he says on his song “No Hook,” “I don’t need no hook for this shit / this is not for commercial usage.” It’s as if he is apologizing for the time he spent artistically lost and uninspired.

The album is full of energy, horns, and 70s samples. And in everything, from the rhymes to the production to the hooks (when there are hooks), you can hear that not only is the old Jay-Z back, but he’s learned some new tricks.