The Ruler's Back 

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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.

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