The Ruler’s Back

09/14/2009 4:30 PM |

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.