The Ruler’s Back

09/14/2009 4:30 PM |

“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.