We first received proof that this long-rumored album was a reality in August of last year, when Jay-Z took the stage at a Kanye West concert at Madison Square Garden and, after unloading a Run-D.M.C.-sampling hater-barrage called “Jockin’ Jay-Z,” announced the title of his next record like it was another potent political slogan in a season of many: The Blueprint 3. Since that moment, though, the rap world has sort of gone berserk: In addition to Jay’s attempts at hipster-crossover with “Swagga Like Us” and “Brooklyn Go Hard,” West befuddled millions with his Auto-Tune concept album 808s and Heartbreak, T.I. got locked up, Lil Wayne disappeared down a rabbit hole of grunge rock and promethezine, and hip-hop radio has come to be dominated on the one hand by a Bart Simpson-emblazoned bozo named Gucci Mane and on the other by an ex-Disney sitcom star, Drake—not to mention the fact that there’s a black president. So perhaps the biggest weakness of Blueprint 3 is the absurdity of its goals, namely to be an “event” album, a game-changer, a course-setter like its namesake, when it’s obvious that hip-hop has become such a mess of micro-trends, fads, and sub-fads that you would have be crazy to try to impose order on it or pull it under your sway.
And yet if there’s anyone with the cojones to shake a scepter at the unruly rap electorate, it’s Jay-Z, and even that would be less likely did he not have the equally egotistical West in his corner, pumping him up like a Snoopy balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. To this end, the album’s production would sound big even in a vacuum, as it eschews the gritty understatement of 2007’s American Gangster and minimalist teachings of 808s, recalling instead the widescreen gluttony of West’s Graduation and, in some regrettable aspects, Jay’s 2006 out-of-retirement flop Kingdom Come. Even though we knew this already, it begs saying that Blueprint 3 is not nearly as sonically innovative as the original Blueprint, and how could it be? That album was a coming-out party for West and his brilliantly honed aesthetic of chipmunked soul samples and synthesizer streaks of melody, and it rightly blew people away. Blueprint 3 is more a cobbling of hip-hop trends from the past three years or so: “A Milli”-style bruisers (“On to the Next”), Timbaland space-hop (“Off That”), Kanye-patented Eurofabulation (“Hater”), Miami yacht rap (“Real as It Gets”). Given that collaboration with Santigold and the rumors that the MGMT dudes would be contributing to the new album, there was reason to think Jay would try to push the envelope by dipping deeper into indie, but now that the record is here, we see that is definitely not the case. Jay’s beat selection has never been safer.
All this handwringing and debunking aside, it’s thrilling to learn that for all its irrelevance Blueprint 3 is actually, kind of, pretty much a banger. For the rap fanbase that grew up on Jay-Z (i.e. just about everyone), it’s an undeniable pleasure to see him encounter beats that, in the majority of cases, match his mettle, and hear him deliver, in the majority of cases, rapid-flow, rewind-worthy cleverness. “Run This Town” is the album’s keynote jam, a thick Kanye-produced concoction of dramatic piano, military boot stomps, and a glistening Rihanna hook. Blog guffawers have correctly pointed out that West runs away with the song on his guest verse, but Jay’s is no embarrassment, and he owes Kanye one anyway (hello, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”). West comports himself equally well on “Hater,” a woozy laser-lined hallucination, and “Already Home,” a jubilant, stringy production featuring Kid Cudi on the chorus. Though the album often feels dangerously close to rote, it’s hard to complain about all these super-talents playing exactly to type, typified by the warm fuzzies emitting from “Empire State of Mind,” a glittering paean to the Big Apple with Alicia Keys soaring skyscraper-level on the hook and Jay putting on for his city.
“D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” was the album’s first headline-grabber, and as a rock-influenced rap beatdown the song is a thorough success; lyrically, though, it fails to convince. Jay’s disgusted swipes at Auto-Tune-addicted emcees come off as petty and lazy, and the target itself is just a little too easy. Despite the near-freshness of the guitar-and-sax tornado on “D.O.A.,” the two other songs here claiming to demonstrate Jay’s immunity to trends turn out to be two of the trendiest songs on the album. “On to the Next” is a blistering Swizz Beatz production employing a repetitive vocal loop and thunderous bass thumps a la “A Milli,” and Jay boasts about the rapidness with which he chews through fashions, apparently unaware that the song itself is a contradiction of everything he’s saying. Similarly, the Drake-assisted Timbaland track “Off That” wants you to believe that Jay is already tired of the new thing you’re excited about, even though the beat sounds like an outtake from FutureSex/LoveSounds. As can be said of nearly all of Blueprint 3, these songs may knock righteously, but they are mirrors to the present and recent past, not windows into the future.
Maybe it’s getting easier at this point to take Jay’s lyrics with a grain of salt, or maybe we’re more familiar with the fact that though the man who has a wealth of wordplay at his disposal has always suffered from a deficiency of both imagination and coherence. Not surprisingly, Blueprint 3 has its fair share of jaw-dropping internal rhymes, brutal cutdowns, and the like, but we’re nowhere closer to getting a grip on who Shawn Carter really is. He’s still more interested in complimenting than investigating himself, still the guy who makes a song called “Thank You” into an orgy of self-congratulation, who fills “A Star Is Born” with backhanded applause for fellow rappers, who thinks he would be nowhere without him: “Clap for ’em, but I’m the blueprint, I made the map for ’em.” The axiom that you don’t have to like someone to love them can certainly be applied to music fandom, and listening to these songs we realize that while we continue to bow before Jay’s rhyming abilities, we think he’s kind of a dick.
Summarizing Gucci Mane’s “Weird,” the rapper’s first instance of using Auto-Tune, blogger Andrew Noz had only to write, “Gucci goes autotune. Jay-Z lost.” In terms of sales, prestige, and power, Jay has Gucci’s number and will continue to for a while, but Noz’s point—namely that the king no longer has control over his subjects—is well taken. And so the sad truth about Blueprint 3 is that nobody needs it. The album is a hip-hop feast, for sure, filled to the brim with elite production and elite rapping, but it lacks the hungriness, the spirit, and the craziness that mark a classic album. Jay’s too good at this stuff; he won’t stop and no one will ask him to. But if he continues to serve up such predictable, complacent, warmed-over craftsmanship as Blueprint 3, people might start taking his presence for granted.