Shawn Carter is a complicated man. Like many of us, he is composed of various and at times conflicting influences since his humble beginnings in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects. But unlike us, Jay-Z for the past decade-plus has been expected to carry the torch for the eclectic, global melting pot that is Hip-hop culture. He met the challenge at the dawn of this decade courtesy of the inaugural Blueprint, which laid a sonic design for producers, and lyrically solidified Jay as one of the great emcees of all time.
But as the first decade of the new millennium closes, Marcy’s beloved son finds himself at an artistic crossroads, prompted both by high-profile missteps (Kingdom Come, Blueprint 2) and successes (The Black Album, American Gangster). The recent criticisms have been heated from fellow artists (ie. Game) and fans alike, arguing the mogul is no longer worthy of being Hip-Hop’s vanguard. Has Jay-Z regressed from trendsetter to trend follower? With those naysayers as fuel, Jay-Z attempts to construct another outline for Hip-Hop’s future in Blueprint 3 (Atlantic).
Before Jay pontificates on the future, he plainly lays out past grievances over the pulsing synth arrangements of “What We Talkin’ About.” Targets are laid on past music (Dame, Jaz-O) and street (DeHaven, Calvin Klein) associates who are framed as individuals who stumbled from personal fiscal mistakes, or incorporating a handout/welfare mentality (“Grown men/Want me to sit them on my lap/But I don’t have a beard/And Santa Claus ain’t black”). To fans and artists, Jay references Hip-Hop’s success in Obama’s historic presidential run as an awakening to eliminate embarrassing Youtube videos and senseless violent feuds from the culture (“You can come with me to the White house/Get your suit up/You stuck on hardcore/I chuck the deuce up”).
On “Thank You,” Kanye West and No ID switch gears by providing Jay with a lush, orchestral sample of Brazilian artist Marcos Valle. With flamboyant horns in tow, Jay plays innocent straight man while deconstructing anonymous emcee rivals. Although no one is named, the Brooklynite frames them as fanatics with the zeal of suicide bomber, and in the end artistically destroy themselves (“I was gonna 9/11 them/But didn’t need the help/And they did a good job/Them boys are talented as hell!”).
Fans seeking the feel of the original Blueprint soul samples can experience that same vibe on “Empire State of Mind.” With a boisterous but fitting Alicia Keys chorus, Shawn Carter encapsulates his love for NYC and incorporates name drops of everyone from Afrika Bambaatta to Bob Marley. The chemistry then extends to Young Jeezy on “Real As It Gets.” Although the Inkredibles’ production is undeniably tailored to Jeezy, Jay has no issues making the track his own by complimenting his younger colleague’s refrain duties with his trademark wit.
Unfortunately, the LP’s second half is not as cohesive and in some cases stumbles badly. The issues stem not from Jay-Z himself, but some questionable production choices and guest appearances. “Off That” falls flat because of Timbo’s unimaginative production, and a complete waste of Drake who simply delivers a forgettable, by the numbers chorus. Things don’t improve much on “Venus vs. Mars.” Jay retains the listener’s interest with a couplet-centered flow filled with rich allusions of everything from “Ether” to Star Wars’ C-3PO, but Timbaland’s production and arrangements leave you feeling this was better served for a Roc Nation mixtape.
Kanye West, who up until now was delivering some of BP 3’s best work, slips on “Hate.” Previously, West had tailored his production to Jay strengths, but here the Chicago star supplies a track that could have been an 808s & Heartbreak’s throwaway, or even worse “Drunk and Hot Girls Part 2.” Jigga gives it his best shot, even alternating vocal pitches to match the rhythm’s dirge pace and distorted vocal sample. Still, nothing can save this offering.
It’s well known that Jay-Z has been very concerned with his place among the greats since the new millennium. But another “career-recap” with “Reminder” screams overkill on several levels. Not only has it already been done better on previous albums (see Black Album, Blueprint), but the annoying, Autotune leaning chorus ironically titters close to the same formulaic music Jay vowed to eliminate on “Death of Autotune.”
With that said, there are several bright spots over the second half. Kid Cudi is another young gun reduced to chorus duties, but his vocals accentuate Kanye’s melodic, violin-centered sample loop. Jay works seamlessly with the beat, skewering crying artists who ridiculously claim he’s holding them back, and even takes a light-hearted moment to address cracks on his appearances mostly seen on message boards (“Oh they call me a camel/But I mastered the drought/What the f**k I’m animal/Half man, half mammal/My sign is a Sag/This is just what I plan to do/Oh don’t be mad”).
The Neptunes come through on “So Ambitious,” supplying Jay-Z with a jazzy, bass-heavy track reminiscent of Outkast’s Organized Noise production. Long-time fans will recognize Jay utilizing a flow similiar to his classic “In My Lifetime” single. Pharrell’s crooning doesn’t interfere, and instead listing his achievements to prove his greatness, he details his life experiences which clearly paints the same picture but without pretentiousness.
“Forever Young” closes the LP on a positive note, recapturing the vibe heard on “Beach Chair” and displaying Jay reflecting on the universal qualities of music. With all the recent digs at his age, he intuitively knows the fountain of youth is not from infantizing his music, but by creating timeless compositions that will transcend generations.
Artists with the talent of Jay-Z will always suffer from unrealistic expectations. Solid and good albums are unacceptable. Unless a classic is delivered every time, some fans will scream failure. Of course, attaching the Blueprint name to this project can do that, but on this album Jay-Z does show growth, and more importantly ambition. It’s not jaw-dropping like the first Blueprint or as succinct as the Black Album, but it’s not all over the place like BP2 and takes more risks than the “safe” lane that was American Gangster (Jay can spin street hustler tales in his sleep).
Does Jay-Z need to retire? Absolutely not, and it’s ridiculous to even suggest. Blueprint 3 shows he has more to offer as an artist, and those without unbridled hate will continue to attentively follow his already legendary musical journey.