Jay-Z: “The Blueprint 3”
One of the greatest problems innate to hip-hop– not an artistic flaw, mind you, but a hardship to the genre’s practitioners– is its emphasis on credibility, which, in hip-hop parlance, is a close relative to authenticity. Historically, the medium emerged as a vehicle for expressing the concerns of everyday existence, particularly for the downcast, and that emphasis on truth-telling grit remains a sort of measuring rod for the genre– especially in the hard-knocks, street-rap world of someone like Nas, but also for the abstract poets like Q-Tip and Andre 3000 or the socially-motivated rhymes of groups like The Roots, who can sometimes get bogged down in emphatic but vague exhortations to be “real.”
Hip-hop loves an underdog and thrives on stories of triumph, and that leaves a guy like Jay-Z in an awkward spot. Eight years passed in the time between his seminal The Blueprint album and its much-hyped third installment– there was a double-disc #2 in there somewhere– and Jay-Z is living in an entirely different world. In 2001, he was frequently maligned by other MCs and awaiting a trial for assault, juicy real-life scenarios that played out in brutal put-down tracks and rousing choruses of “not guilty,” making The Blueprint a magnetic listen. Now: He’s a millionaire, a business tycoon, and one half of a celebrity power-couple. Oh yeah, and there’s a black guy in the White House.
His story, it would seem, lacks conflict, and, since he went the self-mythologizing route on 2007’s very good American Gangster, his options here are limited. He could invent a conflict, of course, in true 50 Cent/Kanye West style, but no: Jay has always been nothing if not savvy, and he knows canned heat won’t burn for long. So on The Blueprint 3, he does the smart thing: He broadens his horizons and addresses a wider range of concerns, ranging from the personal to the artistic to the political. Like all Jay-Z albums, this one is all about him— #3 lives up to its franchise by being, essentially, an autobiography, a souvenier of who and where Jigga is in 2009– but his persona, his myth, have become so large and all-encompassing that an album about Jay-Z can’t help but be an album about hip-hop itself. That’s the kind of shadow this guy casts: Within it, there’s virtually an entire culture.
Make no mistake: Despite the fact that he opens his record with a declaration that he wants to talk about some “real shit,” and although this is his first album that doesn’t feature his own mug on the cover, The Blueprint 3 is as much driven by Jay’s persona as any album he’s made. He makes snarky references to his own success– noting that he’s made ten #1 albums, and assuming that we’re most likely listening to #11– and on “Venus vs. Mars,” he may or may not be dissecting his own relationship with Beyonce. In “A Star is Born,” he does more hip-hop name-dropping than in any other song he’s released, but this time he’s not taking them down: He’s paying an homage to those who’ve come after him, celebrating the accomplishments of everyone from Outkast to 50 Cent, making sure to remind us, of course, that he himself is “the blueprint.”
That’s a key insight into The Blueprint 3: Jay no longer feels the need to make a battle-album, or even to talk shit about his peers, because his place at the top simply can’t be disputed. This is the album of someone who’s triumphed and who now reigns supreme, his rule unquestioned. The regal sounds of vintage soul and R&B, which have always been the aesthetic trademark of the Blueprint albums (and also American Gangster), have never seemed more apropos, for this is the album about Jay-Z’s own kingship. It’s also fitting that he should continue to drop references to Sinatra, for that’s who he’s become in the world of hip-hop: He’s a thuggish maestro in a Yankees cap, the magnetic center of the every room he’s in and a cool pack leader who nobody’s ever gonna mess with.
Coming from that place of supremacy, Jay-Z orchestrates this album with calm bravado; he effortlessly works guest spots from Kanye West and Alicia Keyes and a dozen others into the fabric of the music, never worrying that any of them will upstage him because, of course, how could they? But where his swagger has, in the past, grown tiresome, here his sureness is completely compelling, because, in taking on the role of rap’s elder statesman, he finds himself in the position of saying something that’s genuinely substantive.
Too bad he doesn’t always avail himself of it. At its best, The Blueprint 3 recalls the hungry Jay-Z of eight years ago. In opener “What We Talkin’ About” he dismisses those who would seek to solve their problems by means of armed resistance, inviting them to instead put on a suit and go with him to the White House. That sets the tone, one of Jay-Z being simply uninterested in getting mixed up in the cliches or banalities of hip-hop culture. Much of the album celebrates the form as an instrument of expression and a vehicle for social change, or at least engagement, an a dismissal of all things phony or contrived, a theme that comes up most memorably in the no-prisoners, Mariachi fight song “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune),” a song that’s, in its own way, just as vicious as “Takeover” was on The Blueprint. And indeed, success hasn’t taken the fight out of Jay: He makes no apologies for his multi-millionaire status here, but instead flaunts it, even as he boasts of his own refusal to repeat himself or make the same record twice.
Indeed, the notion of moving forward instead of backward is a recurring element here, but while Jay can never be accused of growing stagnant, there are times when it seems as though he could use, well, some sort of blueprint. In one crucial regard, this third album has more in common with #2 than with the original, insofar as it forsakes the leanness of The Blueprint in favor of an all-things-to-all-people ambitiousness that finds Jigga clumsily rewriting “A Milli” (“On to the Next One”) and undermining his own claims of hardness with some of the softest, sappiest material he’s ever recorded (the schmaltzy relationship song “Venus vs. Mars”).
That this album is puffed up with a bit more excess than its 2001 ancestor– it has more songs and a lot more guest spots– is probably a by-product of where Jay-Z finds himself in 2009; likewise, the fact that it’s a bit more concise and focused than The Blueprint 2 is probably evidence of increased wisdom, or at least maturity. The Blueprint 3 is the sound of who and what Jay-Z is at the end of this decade– he’s not the same man he used to be, but he’s making the most of it. It isn’t quite as lean as the first Blueprint was, but on its high points, Jay-Z sounds just as hungry, if not quite as sure of where he has to go from here.