Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3

We review the latest album from one of hip-hop's best MCs.

It must be hard for Jay-Z to come up with enough material these days
for an album—his best albums have a purpose behind them, while his more
forgettable releases are just kind of ... boring. Reasonable Doubt,
his debut, has become a classic of hardcore East Coast rap, offering
violent tales of retribution and making his case to be considered one
of the best MCs in New York. And with successive albums, as he went
"pop" and had hit after hit, some of his best tracks were when he felt
he'd been slighted. Finally, on The Black Album, his supposed "last album," Hova rapped like he had to prove he was the best ever and we'd miss him when he was gone.

Well, he's back. Kingdom Come was his disappointing comeback album, limping along without much sign of passion or purpose. American Gangster
was a throwback to the Jay-Z of old, a concept album and cautionary
tale about a drug dealer who became extraordinarily wealthy and then
died for his crimes. And now he's released Blueprint 3, and by labeling it with the "blueprint" moniker, it has a lot to live up to.

Jay-Z
has always been known for mixing party jams with gritty urban tales of
drug deals, "the streets" and the usual hip-hop braggadicio. What sets
him apart is his remarkable ability to flit in and around beats like a
lyrical boxer along with his wordplay and witty ability to combine
vicious threats with darkly humorous non sequiturs. And, of course, his
tales of street life were as gritty and real as they come—who can
forget his harrowing tale of police prejudice in "99 Problems." And
even his offensively titled "Ignorant S---" asked a lot of
surprisingly thoughtful questions about celebrity status and the impact
of cultural influences on our actions.

In the respect of this genre mixing, Blueprint 3
definitely fulfills that formula again, for better or worse. There are
the reflections on growing up in Brooklyn, dealing drugs and being
involved in crime ("Empire State of Mind," ) the uncomfortable "lover"
tracks ("Off That" and "Mars vs. Venus," which
probably-not-so-coincendtally features Beyonce, Mrs. Jay-Z herself),
the warning against haters ("Hate") and, of course, the numerous
self-aggrandizing ruminations on fame and how far he's come
("Reminder," "On to the Next One" and half of the remaining songs).

But
there's something different about this version of Jay-Z. In spite of his
sometimes-boring stabs at some of the more offensive parts of hip-hop
(casual misogyny, rampant gunplay, glorification of the gangster
lifestyle), the best tracks on Blueprint 3 find Hova
contemplating his legacy and how he's grown. He gives a brief history
of hip-hop in the mid-'90s on "A Star Is Born," discussing how many
people have come and gone in his time at the top of the charts. He
tracks the legitimate humble beginnings of his childhood without
mincing words and the way he now finds himself sitting courtside at New
York Knicks games in "Empire State of Mind." "So Ambitious" also finds
him confronting a childhood in which he was told he'd never amount to
much, in spite of his obvious intelligence and compulsion toward
success, and finding success as a writer in spite of a fatherless
family and implicit (and explicit) racism.

Perhaps the most
indicative fact that Jay-Z has grown past some of the concerns of his
earlier career comes in his opening and closing tracks. The opener,
"What We Talking About," is perhaps the most mature (and one of the
best) tracks Jay has ever written. The whole song is about growing out
of some of his old tropes and moving on to other topics, saying "ain't
nothing cool 'bout carryin' a strap / 'Bout worryin' your moms and
buryin' your best cat / Talkin' 'bout revenge while carryin' his
casket"; it's not often you hear a rapper admonish listeners that
carrying guns is less glamorous than they might think. The song also
relays the hope felt by Jay in the election of Barack Obama: "Let's
talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by
Martin Luther / Now you could choose to sit in front of your computer /
posin' with guns, shootin' YouTube up / or you could come with me to
the White House get your suit up."

The final track, "Young
Forever" (featuring samples of "Forever Young," which is guaranteed to
get stuck in your head for hours after hearing the track) finds Jay
wondering about his legacy, sure he'll be talked about for years to
come even if he passes away sooner than he thinks. It's a sobering
reminder how much he's lived through and each of us can consider the
legacy we leave behind.

And, of course, it would be pointless
to talk about a Jay-Z album without talking about the beats. Naturally,
as is par for the course for a Hova record, the beats are (almost) all
remarkable. Kanye West lends the best backing tracks, especially on
"What We Talking About" and "Hate." The Neptunes track ("So Ambitious")
is as reliably good and sterile as you'd expect, and Al Shux's work on
"Empire State of Mind" is a standout (though it's certainly assisted
greatly by Alicia Keys vocal hook). Timbaland's contributions are
alright, though a little bit safe for a producer known for being years
above his competitors and his own older work. Perhaps the best music is
on "Real as It Gets," a track created by Virginia-based production duo
The Inkredibles.

Overall, Blueprint 3 is about what
you'd expect from Jay-Z, with a couple of disappointments (his ability
to explore the the grittiness of the streets is undercut with his
occasional bouts of misogyny, and the tracks that talk about sex [particularly "Mars vs. Venus"] are obscene) and a couple of nice
surprises (the aforementioned "What We Talking About" and "Young
Forever"). Bad language is certainly a constant, both in
perhaps-justifiable and over-the-top doses, so be aware of that going
in. But Jay-Z's talent and lyrical prowess make this an album certainly
worth a listen, and if you're at all interested in hip-hop, you ought
to be conversant with Jay-Z—if only to try to understand a culture he
so willingly and ably speaks to.

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