All that hanging around Kanye must’ve given Jay-Z the resolve to take hip-hop in a different direction (and we don’t mean auto-tune), because the experimentation on this album is producing some much appreciated new sounds. He’s also brought in a staggering number of guests, from Swizz Beatz and Drake to the more obscure Luke Steele (from psychedelic pop group Empire of the Sun) and J. Cole, the first signee to Jay-Z’s own label Roc Nation.
While you can definitely hear the musical innovation that having Kanye West as the main producer brings, Jay-Z’s lyrical stamp is still all over the album. What that means, unfortunately, is that most of it is typical, predictable, Hova fare. You’ve got the bravado, the swagger, and the (repeated) declaration of his position as hip-hop king. While Jay does switch things up on tracks like “On to the Next One” and “Young Forever,” which sample “D.A.N.C.E.” by Justice and “Forever Young” by Alphaville respectively, the rest of the album is missing that spark that makes a rap album blazing fire. Two of the best songs on the album are only memorable because of the featured artists – note to other rappers: R&B divas do your tracks good. Phoning in Rihanna and Alicia Keys was a good decision; the only minor setback is that Jay-no longer owns the spotlight on “Run This Town” and “Empire State of Mind,” although I have a feeling he doesn’t mind.
Unlike its immediate predecessor American Gangster, which focuses thematically on – what else – the life of a street king, The Blueprint 3 is (structurally and lyrically) more akin to The Blueprint²: The Gift & The Curse. It even has a second try at a duet with Beyoncé, but while “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” was a pump-up-the-jam kind of song that I wouldn’t mind cruising to, “Venus vs. Mars” is just plain awkward. Jay-Z has a seductive side now? Maybe only to Beyoncé, and I’d rather we keep it that way.
For true fans, this album would be a worthwhile purchase; there are three or four truly remarkable tracks that would make your regular playlist rotation easily, but you’d have to be a real fan to actually take the time to sift through the rest. That being said, Jay-Z can still spit rhymes with the best of them, and the fact that he’s turning the big 4-0 at the end of this year has not escaped his attention – it probably really does hit home for him because “Young Forever” is brilliant both in lyrics and delivery. How fitting that it also serves as the conclusion to Jay-Z’s latest offering; it makes the lesser songs easier to forget… and much easier to forgive.
What are the chances that Mr. Shawn Carter will finally “retire” when he’s 50?