Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3
By Ryan Hamm
September 9, 2009
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.