Whether you know him as Young Hova, Jigga Man, Mr. Knowles or Jay-Z, Shawn Carter is a hip-hop mogul. Jay broke into the game as a free-styling youngster in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, and after dropping countless hit releases (“Brooklyn’s Finest,” the singles off “Blueprint”) featuring the rap scene’s hottest rising stars, ascended to “boss hog” status. As the founder of Rock-a-Fella Records, Mr. Carter released Kanye West’s debut album, “The College Dropout,” and represented big names such as former Wu-Tang Clan member Ol’ Dirty Bastard and pink Range Rover-driving Cam’Ron. Jay then had a successful stint as president of Def Jam Recordings, putting Rihanna and Neo on the map. The consummate hustler, Jay-Z used his hip-hop clout to launch the wildly successful “Rocawear” clothing line, become a co-owner of “The 40/40 Club,” and purchase a share of the New Jersey Nets. There’s no disputing the fact that Shawn Carter, with 11 studio albums to his name, is a fixture in the game; in fact, there’s really no need or precedent for comparing him to other rappers. However, the recent release of “Blueprint 3,” the latest Jay-Z drop, begs the question: how can someone this successful create something so awful?
Jay had all the tools to make this album one of the best of his career: years of experience and success, beats produced by the best, and enough hype to sell almost 500,000 copies in its first week. So, what went wrong? Let’s start with the first song.
“What We Talkin’ Bout” is a typical failure. Jay uses half of his lines reminding listeners just how awesome and powerful he has become, while paradoxically dedicating the other half to beseeching everyone to forget the past and move on to some vague concept that Black Eyed Peas would call, “so 3008.” For the rest of the album, Jay never escapes this awkward crevice between past fame and current grasps at relevance.
But let’s visit flow later, and talk production first. The star-studded cast of Kanye West, Timbaland, The Neptunes and Swizz Beatz didn’t do much to make the record stand out. Dropping beats that are trapped between misplaced, spacey future-jams and boring sample-laden tracks, the producers doomed most of the songs to be album padding at best. The most interesting beats, found on “Death of Autotune” and “Run This Town,” are so obviously single-worthy that the middling snares and samples of every other song sound that much more banal.
Even the characteristically exhilarating Swizz Beatz barely managed to squeak out a clone of Bangladesh’s Lil Wayne banger, “Milli.” The best beat, and the one that best complements Jay’s style, comes from likely the least known producer on the album, Shux. “Empire State of Mind” combines an elegant piano melody with a stripped down snare/kick/tambourine combo. This is the only truly evocative track on the album, putting the listener in Jay’s shoes as he strolls through his version of New York, an awkward but charming combination of straight-off-the-block and straight-out-of-the-penthouse.
The roster of “next-gen” stars like Drake, J. Cole and Kid Cudi does little more than date Jay. The collaborations seem forced, and his younger counterparts often outshine him. Jay’s lines are often lethargic and just plain boring. He’s a star, we know he’s a star, and it’s not a secret that Jay has been hot for years—it’s a little late for standard swag rap.
“The Blueprint 3” is still a Jay-Z album. People will still buy it (or download it illegally), as evidenced by the number of times I’ve heard its verses emanating from New Haven cars. In his career, Jay has been a master builder, tirelessly constructing fame and riches, creating great tracks, and establishing one of the most pervasive rap personas of all time. But rather than adding a new story to this edifice, “The Blueprint 3” urinates on its side. The final track on the album, which samples and shares its name with “Forever Young,” poses an interesting question that gets at the heart of this release. We wonder, Jay-Z, “do you really want to live forever?”