Last November's Kingdom Come should have been a triumphant return for Shawn ''Jay-Z'' Carter, the rap megastar who'd announced his retirement only three years earlier. And it was 680,000 fans bought the CD in its first week, the highest single-week total in Jay's decadelong career. But reviews were mixed at best (see how EW sized up Kingdom Come), with critics, fans, and bloggers grumbling about the disc's fixation on the ultra-cushy life he had come to enjoy in his new incarnation as Def Jam president and CEO. ''When your friends is Chris and Gwyneth.../Then it's time to get all your windows tinted,'' he rapped.
''It wasn't what people wanted to hear,'' Jay, 37, acknowledges now. ''But it's what I wanted to do. I was trying to show that hip-hop can talk about different things.''
This fall, however, Jay returns with a new CD embracing the very theme he built his reputation on: the risks and rewards of slinging drugs, familiar to a rapper who long ago spent his days dodging cops on the streets of Brooklyn. His trip into the past began just minutes into a late-summer screening of the film American Gangster, and was triggered by Denzel Washington's electrifying portrayal of '70s Harlem heroin lord Frank Lucas (see EW's Q&A with Denzel Washington and costar Russell Crowe). Almost as soon as he left the theater, he began work on what became his 10th solo album, also named American Gangster (out Nov. 6). It's not the film's soundtrack; Jay played no part in the entirely separate set of Vietnam-era hits that fits that bill. Instead, Jay's Gangster tale follows a striking, dramatic arc of its own, transporting listeners from a young hustler's ambition (''Pray,'' ''No Hook'') to a kingpin's arrogance (''Roc Boys,'' ''Ignorant S---'') to a career criminal's inevitable ruin (''Fallin''').
At the height of his popularity, he'd dubbed himself ''Jay-Hova'' and the ''God Emcee''; today he remains arguably the most powerful name in hip-hop. Industry whispers of a new Jay-Z album in the making were enough to send a veritable dream team of producers sprinting to his Manhattan studio. Former partners who hadn't worked with Jay in ages (including Sean ''Diddy'' Combs, whose last collaboration on a Jay-Z record was 1997's In My Lifetime, Vol. 1) and newcomers who admittedly trembled in his presence united to craft a rich palette of vintage soul and funk samples. And less than a month later, an artist who some had written off as past his prime was proudly playing an album of tracks that many of the aforementioned critics, fans, and bloggers are calling some of his most passionate music ever.
Looking back over the last year, Jay says, ''I guarded [Kingdom Come] I didn't want it to get out. Something in me knew there would be mixed results.'' Not this time. ''I can't wait until everybody hears [American Gangster].''
Read on for the whirlwind story of Jay-Z's Gangster journey, as told by the cast of insiders who joined him.
NEXT PAGE: ''The only person I've ever seen write like that is Biggie. I definitely feel like the spirit of Big got up in him on this album.''