It may seem like a foolishly literal exercise, but what is Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 a blueprint for? The best Blueprint (2001) set the standard for classic rap albums in the new millennium with its rich mix of gangsta grandeur, soulful crossover-ready anthems and Jigga-brand introspection. It was to the aughts as Illmatic was to the 90s. The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse (2002), for better or worse, was true to its title. It proved a self-conscious statement about, and example of the treacherous nature of double albums–a requisite for "best of all-time" pretenders–rap, if not all pop music. It was tragically uneven, boasting so many awful songs ("2 Many Hoes," "I Did It My Way") that some gems got lost in the mix-like "Nigga Please," still The Neptunes' best beat ever.
Jay-Z's third Blueprint and eleventh album offers a roadmap to that almost unnatural stage in a rap star's career: aging. More so than The Black Album, Blueprint 3 has an unmistakable mood of closure, retrospection and taking stock of a remarkable career. It marks a smooth transition from top-of-the-game Mafioso-mogul to wise veteran, something few other rappers have managed so masterfully. Snoop Dogg is the other example that comes to mind, and his most recent, Ego Trippin', though not as good, has a great deal in common with Blueprint 3. As Jay says on the excellent and aptly titled "Already Home": "So in summation/I don't know who you racin'/I'm already at the finish line/with the flag wavin'." Like Snoop, Jay has done it all, both in music and in boardrooms: he's opened hip hop up to new audiences and influences, and opened doors for younger artists. He's still better than most, but his hunger for domination is clearly waning.
His presidential status occasionally engenders a lax attitude (see Kingdome Come), which Jay mostly avoids here. He still fumbles with a few great beats on Blueprint 3, only occasionally knowing enough to let guests take the lead. He never quite adjusts to No I.D.'s screeching guitars on the atmospheric lead single "D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)", or No I.D. and Kanye West's addictive militaristic anthem "Run This Town," where Rihanna and Kanye steal the spotlight. "Hate,"featuring another Kanye beat and guest appearance (he handled about half the record), feels like one of 808s and Heartbreak's better tracks, all humming bass, minimalist drums, synthy melodies and what sounds like a laser shootout. Kanye takes the lead and sounds terrific-don't miss his three consecutive bars of onomatopoeia - but Jay can't find his rhythm. Having a guest or protege do the legwork doesn't always work out, though, like when Young Jeezy growls through one of the album's worst songs, "Real As It Gets." Drake, another uninteresting up-and-comer, only gets to speak the chorus on Timbaland's race horse of a beat for "Off That,"where Jay sounds like his original speed-rapping self.
Another Timbaland track, "Reminder," steals the album. In Just Blaze's absence, Timbo knows better than anyone how to tailor a track to Jay's specifications. It's an insistent, epic beat with dramatic flair that calls to mind Dr. Dre. Timbaland piles on the squeaking electronics, smoothes out the verses to let Jay flex his muscles, and speeds things up with a trademark tweaky chorus.
Kanye redeems the out-of-place "Hate" with the moody closer, "Young Forever," where Jay does his heartfelt best reminiscing about his career while Mr. Hudson croons the Alphaville sample. Jay hasn't dropped any signs that this might be his last album, but this is the perfect goodbye song. It might make you cry, it's that moving: "And as the father passes the story down to his son's ears/Young'll get younger every year." Sadly, it's followed by the atrocious bonus track "Ghetto Techno,"which we'll pretend doesn't exist.
That cursed extra and Jeezy's appearance notwithstanding, Blueprint 3 is free of throwaways, making it exactly Jay-Z's fourth best album. Pharrell's token appearance on "So Ambitious" is, well, unambitious, but Jay can't help but sound great on Neptunes beats. Likewise, the Timbaland-produced "Venus vs. Mars" seems a little below standard, but with the beat's drippy futurism and Jay's piled-high metaphors, there's plenty to enjoy.
The album opens stronger than it finishes, with the No I.D. and Kanye co-productions "What We Talkin' About" and "Thank You." The latter, especially, is classic, breezy Jay, where he has you clinking champagne glasses in a fancy club then witnessing a shooting in the alley out back. Similarly, the Alicia Keys-assisted "Empire State of Mind" finds Jay doing his inimitable blend of killer and classy, and sounding more like Frank Sinatra than on their tacky "duet" from Blueprint 2. Swizz Beatz rounds out the roster of great production with "On to the Next One." If"Run This Town" sounds like the soundtrack to a political demonstration–sonic mood that the music video makes literal–Swizzy's beat is what would start playing when the riot police show up.
"On To The Next One" is also the only time on Blueprint 3 that Jay sounds gritty and hostile, a rhyme style at odds with his status as mainstream cultural icon. Rhymes like "Baby I'm a boss/I don't know what they do/I don't get dropped/I drop the label" and "Bought a Jeep/tore the motherfuckin' doors off/foot out that bitch/ride the shit like a skateboard," evoke an aggressively irreverent Jay ten years younger. When he closes the track with "MJ or Summerjam/Obama on the text/y'all should be afraid of what I'm gon' do next," you almost forget that he's already on top. Such retro moments are rare; as he puts it at the beginning of that track: "Hov on that new shit/niggas like 'how come?'/niggas want my old shit/buy my old album."
In fact, the record's several Obama references are especially apt. The two men and their respective budding African-American dynasties have a great deal in common. Jay is the president of hip hop and, like Barack Obama, he has a cabinet of assistants to take risks for him–Kanye, Freeway, Beanie Sigel, Kid Cudi, etc.–while he focuses on making appeals to the masses. Ideally, this gives him the time, resources, power and breadth of experience to curate an astounding roster of producers and pare guest appearances down to a choice few, a selection process he's mastered on this record better than anywhere else. With his assistants and associates at their best, Jay can afford a few missteps and still come out with one of the best albums of the year. At worst, he sounds lazy and out of touch, as he did on Kingdom Come.
If he manages to sustain the level of quality he's reached on American Gangster and Blueprint 3, his approval ratings won't be dropping anytime soon. That being said, he has much more to lose than to gain–which is to his credit: he's gained nearly all there is to gain in hip hop. Other, younger rappers might not have unlimited access to whichever guests and producers they please, but they do have a hunger that Jay doesn't always bring into the booth anymore. Maybe that's why his latest feels like the end of something in the same way that The Black Album did: from here there are only so many directions Jay can go.
This album marks the greatest success since his comeback, but exactly what blueprint Jay (who turns 40 in December) will follow into the late years of his career remains unclear. It's hard to imagine him ever becoming as embarrassing as so many aging rap stars do, but his domination of a genre predicated on constant change and renewal can only last so long. Rap has the luxury of being young forever; rappers have to figure out how to grow up.