His list of accolades is long. At least as long as his rhymes reminding us of them. As perhaps the preeminent Hip-Hop mainstream personality, Jay-z has a lot of fans and almost as many detractors. After a self imposed but short lived retirement so far he’s been 1 for 2. The missed moment that was his comeback album, and his phoenix-like return with American Gangster has made him even in his second life.
With such a long body of work and an extended time in the spotlight, you begin to sound the same and people feel like they’ve heard it all before, so the challenge to maintain freshness is clear. We’ve heard the leaked tracks and groaned at the missteps. Admittedly expectations were lowered significantly. The moment of truth has arrived. Can Jay-z still lay claim to the seat at the top or is it just paper mache Jay?
You recognize “What We Talkin’ Bout” immediately as the freestyle where he mentioned he wasn’t talking about Game, Jimmy, or Dame. As a song, with the music behind it, there is a certain gravitas added and it’s very dope. There are synths and a lot of ambient noise that surround a confident and assertive Jay-Z. This song is much stronger than we’ve heard him recently. That conviction is there in spades and it’s one of the real elements that push him apart from other emcees.
Next up is “Thank You.” The beat has an almost “Luchini” feel to it and Jay-z handles it with aplomb. That better-than-you armor is all over this song, despite the gracious title. Jigga has an almost Slick Rick cadence and his delivery is crisp. The horns on this are ill and he nails the last verse.
The kick and the snare that power “Empire State of Mind” are more conventional than the production on the album so far, but the keys that pace the beat are light but efficient. A. Keyes is sweet on the hook. The track is pretty much a love letter to the city of New York and takes you around the 5 boroughs and the 8 million stories that rest among them. I smell another one of those Times Square at night videos. An unmistakeable single.
Snowman emeritus Young Jeezy stops by to lend his weight to “As Real As It Gets.” Another win for the ex druggist duo. Jeezy has evolved as an artist and his presence is felt. This song is stronger than any of the songs that were released as preliminary singles and you wonder who was calling the shots on those singles as they were just so clearly inferior to the bulk of the album. Swizzy drops a truly inspired (for him) joint with “On To the Next One.” The beat is dynamic, with more depth and layers than you normally hear on a Swizz production and Jay rides it ‘till the wheels fall off.
Jay throws an assist to his protégé J. Cole by giving him the anchor leg on “A Star Is Born.” The song features a cool 90’s history lesson for the uninitiated and Cole does an able job closing it out.
Blueprint 3 is far better than the lead tracks would have you believe and that’s a big problem with the album. The majority of the music is well done and while Jay-z doesn’t vary his content much, this album is an extremely serviceable mainstream Hip-Hop work. The problem is that the lows on it are very low and probably a result of poor exec producing/sequencing. As we’ve noted before, “Run This Town” is uninspiring and Rihanna’s parts are entirely too long and detract from the overall momentum of the song. D.O.A also hasn’t aged well in the months since its release. Neither are bad songs, per se, but not powerful enough to move you.
The real problem comes with the Timbaland tracks, which collectively stand as the album’s albatross. They feature incredibly lazy and unfunky throwaway tracks that Tim wouldn’t have dared to give to Justin Timberlake. The Drake-chorused “Off That” features lyrical meh from Jay-z and clubby, poppy, electro crap as a track to run on. It’s basically “30 Something” part 2. Why have Drake on the hook if he’s not going to rap? It would have been a great opportunity to see where he stood but that was an opportunity blown.
“Venus vs. Mars” is a contrived he-say-she-say that doesn’t bring it home and is very corny at some points and occasionally clever but fails overall.
As an album, BP3 is good. It’s not a converting album. It won’t change any minds about whether Jay-z is or isn’t the best. It rests somewhere between his last two albums in quality and mentality; an attempt to grow at least musically if not topically and the production is more robust instrumentally than we’re used to hearing Jay rhyme over. That said, the Timbaland produced tracks provide too much of an anchor to allow a full 4/5 rating, even though it’s better than a 3.5. At this stage of his career, the album does enough to keep Jay-z in the conversation of Hip-Hop elite, but it’s clearer than ever that rather than controlling the traffic, he’s got his own lane. To put it blunt, he still got one of the biggest corners but he’s no longer the connect.Out of 5 (3.75)
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