I Listened to Jay Z’s ‘American Gangster’ While Serving Time for Coke Distribution

If you stand in front of a room filled with hip-hop listeners and you asked them what their favorite Jay-Z’ album is, you’ll hear a ton of different answers. From the back of the room, you’ll hear at least one less popular answer. It comes from me, the kid drawing Hey Arnold characters on his desk, with his iPhone headphones intact and rips in his jeans.

And yes, I do say that my favorite Jay-Z album is American Gangster.

Now, before you go off ranting and raving about the new generation needing to know hip-hop history, or how I haven’t even heard “22 Two’s,” or how New York would be ashamed of me, let me explain. HOV has a ton of classic albums, but American Gangster came into my life when I was about to lose everything.

When American Gangster was set to be released in 2007, the film of the same name was right around the corner. Although Jay-Z’s album was not a soundtrack to the film itself, the movie played a huge part in the album. It seemed as if each song was inspired by different scenes throughout the film.

And guess what? On the morning of the film’s release in 2007, I was headed to court to be sentenced for distribution and manufacturing of cocaine. What a got damn coincidence. Life is truly a comedy of epic proportions.

I had already checked out the album. Big ups to Limewire. The hype around the film was so intense that it was driving me crazy on that unforgettable ride to court. Imagine everyone around you crying about you losing your freedom while mentally you’re wondering if Frank Lucas ever got way with his crimes. I was so indifferent to the entire situation. It’s wild to me to think about in the present.

I had plenty of time to reflect on my life as I sat in that cell. I remember being in jail and reciting the lyrics to “No Hook,” and thinking about how much they related to my own life:

“I’m so fa sho’, it’s no facade/ Stay out of trouble, momma said and momma sighed / Her fear: her youngest son be a victim of homicide / But I gotta get you out of here, momma, or I’ma die, inside /And either way you lose me, momma, so let loose of me.”

There I was, serving a bid for providing, or so I thought, for myself and my family. This entire album was filled with very powerful, hustler-inspired lyrics to help motivate even the most legit type of person. It spoke to me, and my situation. This was the album that served as the soundtrack to one of the most transformative periods of my life.

This album was also not allowed to be sold on iTunes when it first dropped. Jay told us, “as movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles.”

Hov made it clear that during that time when T-Pain and Lil Wayne were overusing autotune that he, himself, would change the game and bring it back to the butter Timberlands with the two tone du-rag hanging out of your back pocket. New York hip-hop purists rejoiced. He demanded that American Gangster only be sold physically in the music shops. He even promised to wear all black for a year straight.

And he did.

He also grew his hair out, and somehow managed to keep Beyoncé by his side despite his struggle shape up, but that’s another story for another place and time.

It’s quite possible that this album is overlooked in part because it wasn’t allowed to be sold on certain platforms. Maybe it’s because there weren’t many big hits on this album. Maybe it was because while everyone got to enjoy watching American Gangster, I had to assume what the film was like based off of the album itself until I finally got released from prison.

When I went to prison, I didn’t even care that I was going in. When I was released, the first thing I did was buy a pair of sneakers, a steak and cheese, and the American Gangster DVD. The action, the casting, and everything about this film literally made the album even better. That same day that I was released, I read Ecclesiastes 4:14, which says, “for he has come out of prison to become king, though he was born poor in his kingdom.”

I had already departed poverty once, but it was temporary. When I was seventeen years old I copped my mother a crib and bought everyone in my house new cars. When I got out, it was all gone. Everything I risked my freedom for was gone, because no one could afford the upkeep of those things with me being locked away. I came home to an air bed and no clothes. Nothing.

When I got out of jail, I felt like Frank Lucas in the very last scene of American Gangster when he walked outside and just stared, trying to figure out what the world had become and where he fit into it all.  I’d be lying to say that the change was immediate, or that things fell into place, but eventually it happened.

Carmelo “Mellzy” Sanchez is born again, and has dedicated his life to raising the bar one wave at a time. Stay jiggy. Ask him about his younger creative self, and you might hear some stories you’ll never forget.