“I’m talkin’ ’bout music, I ain’t talkin’ ’bout rap,” spits Jay-Z in the opening moments of The Blueprint 3‘s leadoff track, “What We Talkin’ About,” and if you didn’t know any better, you’d be inclined to believe him: it’s a chilly, synth-frosted hip-hop/new new wave summit, boasting production from Kanye West, several snaky minutes’ worth of chest-beating from the man with his name above the title, and vocals on the hook from Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele. Before it’s over, Jay-Z has done everything from take credit for being “a small part of the reason the President is black” to peeling off guffaw-worthy lines like “Grown men want me to sit ’em on my lap / But I don’t have a beard, and Santa Claus ain’t black / I repeat, you can’t sit on my lap / I don’t have a beard / Now get off my sack.” Long on wit and short on big, dumb hooks, “What We Talkin’ About” is an auspicious beginning, one that suggests Jay-Z’s recent, much-ballyhooed appearance at a Grizzly Bear concert was just the beginning of a brave new world of eyebrow-raising hip-hop collaborations that actually work.
In the end, it doesn’t really turn out that way, but to its extreme credit, the first half of The Blueprint 3 actually makes you think Jay-Z’s going to pull it off. The album’s opening salvo is tremendous — he follows up “Talkin'” with the swaggering, horn-laced “Thank You,” which uses 9/11 as an extended metaphor for bootheeling his rivals, then pulls out the vicious, atonal “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” That the song’s title ends up being wishful thinking — Auto-Tune remains alive and well on the charts, and Jay-Z himself uses it later in the album — matters less than lines like “This ain’t for iTunes, this ain’t for sing-alongs / This is Sinatra at the opera, bring a blonde / Preferably with a fat ass who can sing a song.” And there’s more: “Run This Town” combines a long line of breathless boasts with the kind of bored, pissed-off sounding vocal that Rihanna does so well, and “Empire State of Mind” is a love letter to New York City (and Jay-Z himself, natch) riding an Alicia Keys-sung hook that will drill itself deep into your brain. “Real as It Gets” is a bit of a letdown — Young Jeezy barks out the first verse while Jay-Z puffs a stogie or paints Beyonce’s nails in the background — but “On to the Next One” is an insistent, monotone beast, using a pounding sample of Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” and growling, glossy production from Swizz Beatz to get its point across. Seven tracks in, and you might be looking for a chance to catch your breath.
Unfortunately, Jay-Z obliges with what ends up being pretty much the rest of the album.
The back half of The Blueprint 3 isn’t bad, per se, but it is curiously uninspired — and coming after the album’s opening salvo, it may actually be enough of a letdown to piss you off. It contains a trio of Timbaland productions (“Off That,” “Venus vs. Mars,” and “Reminder”) that contain some of the producer’s weakest, least identifiable beats, some bland production from the Neptunes (“So Ambitious”), and three Kanye productions (“A Star Is Born,” “Already Home,” and “Hate”) that don’t live up to his work on the first half — and how does the whole thing end? Why, with a quasi-cover of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” titled “Young Forever” and featuring Hallmark lyrics like “Life is for living, not living uptight.” It’s enough to make an old Hova fan pitch a fit.
The thing is, though, even an old fan would have to admit that Jay-Z is in a pretty tight predicament these days, with rap dotage staring him in the face on one side (he turns 40 this year) and the weight of expectations on the other (as he mentions at one point, “I just got 10 Number One albums / Maybe now 11”). Longevity and hip-hop don’t go together, and since he crossed over from garden-variety MTV stardom to bona fide superstardom, he’s struggled to find an artistic balance between who he is and who he used to be — or, more specifically, how to make who he is relatable (and/or interesting) to his listeners. He splits the difference here, reaching back into his past, but only long enough to provide context for how far he’s come, while continually reminding us he’s the best in the game. But at the same time, he tries to thread the commercial needle maybe a little too tightly. “Venus vs. Mars,” for example, is a groaner of a boudoir track that LL Cool J might have been able to pull off in the “Doin’ It” era — but Jay-Z can’t do that stuff like LL could. Elsewhere, he yields the microphone to Drake, Kid Cudi, Kanye, Pharrell, and the aforementioned Young Jeezy, a radio-baiting lineup that may trigger flashbacks to inferior Jay-Z product like The Blueprint 2 or Kingdom Come. The Blueprint 3 never stoops that low — and in fact, it’ll probably end up at or near the top of the fourth-quarter sales charts — but if it had only been a seven-song EP, we’d be stacking it up against his best work. On the bright side, the mixed reviews it’s already receiving should provide plenty of grist for the follow-up.