On Jay-Z’s latest album The Blueprint 3, the once and future king of hip-hop elevates bravado to an art-form not seen since his Black Album. After Hov announced his retirement in 2002, he released two more albums that made you wish he really had quit the game. It was confusing to say the least. After clawing his way from being an unknown to being the president of Def-Jam records in ten years time, he left us after delivering the best rap album in a decade. It’s not exactly a new schtick in rap music. Too Short used to announce his retirement on every album. The two albums Jigga released after The Black Album sold well but did not garner much chart success with Kingdom Come’s “Show Me What Your Working With” the only top ten single on either album. American Gangster, released in 2007, fared even worse on the Billboard Hot 100 with no singles charting above number 55.
With sales already in excess of 1.6 million albums The Bluprint 3 put Jay-Z back on top. Its third single, “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys earned the rapper his only number 1 hit. “Run This Town” with the ubiquitous Rihanna made it to number 2, but it’s the first single, “D.O.A. (The Death of Autotune)” that made this writer yell “Oh snap!” The song brings to mind great battle raps like Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” or “I’m Bad” by L.L. Cool J all set on top of brilliant production from No I.D. The mix of trumpet and electric guitar gives the track a smooth yet edgy sound. He admonishes other rappers to “grow a set” and says the way to prove your street cred is to simply, “get violent”. That sentiment appears to be at odds with his assertion on “What We Talkin About” that “Ain’t nothin cool about carrying a strap”. But this is rap music, not a dissertation. That’s one of the best things about hip-hop: It doesn’t have to be a seamless world-view. It can be jumbled and contradictory just like its predecessor Rock and Roll. Example: the self-proclaimed hater of auto-tune uses an auto-tuner on “Hater” later on the album.
“On to the Next One” and “Off That” are interchangeable, theme-wise. Namely: Jay-Z is a trend-setter. What do you expect from the only MC that does yoga? In “On to the Next One” he proclaims, “Used to rock a throw-back, ballin on the corner, Now I rock a Teller suit, lookin like an owner.” This song is good but I was hoping against hope that it would be some kind of insane collaboration with The Foo Fighters. (See “All My Life” from FF’s 2002 album One By One) “Off That” continues in the “I’m so avant-garde” vein. Jay’s awe-inspiring ego is on full display on this one as he reveals that he’s “so tomorrow they order mines on yesterday”. He even takes a second to get political on “Off That”:
“This ain’t black vs white, my n***a we off that
Please tell Bill O’Reilly to fall back
Tell Rush Limbaugh to get off my balls
This 2010 not 1864”
Once again: “O snap!”
The Blueprint 3 isn’t all machismo though. The obligatory, One For The Ladies type song is usually a throw-away on rap albums. Not this time. “Venus vs Mars” is one of the best tracks on the album. Jay discovers the yin to his yang and even likens he, and his fictitious paramour to James and Florida Evans. But the thing that makes this song great isn’t all the nice “she’s the Bonnie to my Clyde” type of statements; it’s the last verse that really makes this song special. That’s where the listener figures out that this is a break-up song! That’s right boys and girls, even mega-rich, music industry moguls get their hearts broken. The Florida and James comparisons turn to Shaq and Kobe in the final stanza with Hova lamenting that the girl took his “whole flavor, I call her Coke Zero” and even comparing her to Bernie Madoff. Ah the longing, ah the bitterness. It’s good to know that Jay-Z is just like you and me. Except baller as hell.
The last stand-out track is one of the six on the album produced by Kanye West. “Young Forever” finds Jay-Z rapping over Alphaville’s 1984 pop hit “Forever Young”. On one hand Jay is at his most philosophic on this, the fifth single from The Blueprint 3. He is a man coming to terms with his own mortality. He stresses remembering the good times and wistfully wishes that life could be like a rap video with pretty girls and champagne all the time. On the other hand, this is Jay-Z. He ain’t trying to be too damn sad. He also infuses this cut with some thoughts on his figurative immortality.
“i’ll be alive for a million years, bye bye,
so not for legends, I’m forever young
my name shall survive”
There are a couple of tracks on the record that are throw-aways (“A Star Is Born”, “Already Home”, “So Ambitious”) but if you’re into hip-hop, rejoice. The king is back. Hell, even if you aren’t into hip-hop, give this one a try. In the end it’s a return-to-form for the rapper who brought the term “Flow” back to the vernacular. Sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is about Hova that makes him so great. It even puzzles the man himself. He asks in “D.O.A”, “I’m a multi-millionaire, so how is it I’m still the hardest n***a here?” Good question, Sean.