Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jay-Z's The Blueprint III: It's complicated...

Rating: 3.5/5
(Originally written September 11, 2009)
One could make the argument that Jay-Z’s only true peers in the world of hip hop are Eminem and Nas; they are three of the greatest emcees of all time, each possessing their own unique style, perspective and career ambitions. Interestingly enough, in addition to most likely being Jay’s equals as emcees, both Nas and Eminem each played a role in making 2001’s The Blueprint such a complicated and powerful work. Forget what you heard, “The Takeover” is every bit as good of a diss record, if not better than “Ether”. Nas relied on cheap insults and homphobia, shocking the hip hop community with its ferocity. But “The Takeover” actually achieved its goal; total domination of New York hip hop. Nas could have responded with a symphony and it still wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

Ironically, Nas’ most biting, dead-on critique of Jay-Z addressed “Renegade”, Jay’s classic collabo with Eminem. We all remember the “Eminem murdered you on your own shit” line, cementing Eminem’s status as a force to be reckoned with amongst the hip hop elite. It created a strange tension amongst the three artists, with each taking very different paths throughout the rest of this decade. Today we find them in a relatively similar place; attempting to carve out a position for themselves in a genre that grows younger, bigger, and more experimental and competitive every day. Nas has both admirably and (somewhat) annoyingly taken the elder statesman route, ignoring the mainstream entirely, devoting his music to politically and socially-aware content, and lambasting current sounds and trends. Eminem, on the other hand, seems to operate in a vacuum, changing neither his sound nor content at all. But Jay-Z, always attempting to be that great unifying force in hip hop, wants to be both inside and outside of today’s hip hop status quo, at times rejecting the current trends (“D.O.A.”), and yet steeped in them at the same time (“A Star Is Born” keep reading).

The Blueprint III is complicated. Not so much in terms of the actual music, but exactly what Jay-Z is trying to say with this album. The Blueprint is undoubtedly the best hip hop album of this decade. It announced Jay-Z’s ascendance as the most influential emcee in hip hop, while also heralding the emergence of Kanye West, a topic that would need its own separate essay to fully flesh out. But to be clear, a year after Biggie’s death, Jay-Z told us the city was his, and by The Blueprint he’d achieved this. The torch had been passed and Jay-Z was now the King of Hip Hop. So almost 10 years later, with millions and millions of dollars in the bank and a legion of imitators at his feet, naming his album The Blueprint III is a strange decision. What exactly does Jay-Z want to do here? Connecting this album so brazenly to this legacy suggests a continuation of that legacy; Jay wants to set the course for hip hop once again. But of course, that’s a fairly complicated ambition.

Five songs into The Blueprint III, it becomes quite obvious that this will not be a bad album. It can’t be after a five-song run like this. “What We Talkin’ About” is an epic, synth-heavy opener, with a haunting, stuttering chorus sung by Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun. Jay shrugs off the haters and all their chit-chatter on the song, exclaiming, “Grown men want me to sit em on my lap, But I don’t have a beard, and Santa Clause ain’t black.” The party continues on “Thank You,” as Jay does his customary braggadocios routine over a swaggering bed of horns. “D.O.A.” and “Run This Town” are definitely Jay-Z’s best singles since The Black Album, and the Alicia Keys-assisted “Empire State of Mind” is Jay’s best New York tribute of his career. The song is gorgeous, in the vain of Kanye’s “Homecoming” but far more soulful and probably the standout track of the entire album.

This is when things get…complicated. Young Jeezy is in top-form on “Real As It Gets”, mainly because the track, produced by The Inkredibles, sounds exactly like a Young Jeezy song. Think “I Luv It” meets “Standing Ovation”. Obviously Jay-Z is also bringing great bars to the track, yet it’s the first time on The Blueprint III where it feels like Jay-Z is out of place on his own song. Things get way better on the Swizz Beats-produced “On To The Next.” Get over the fact that they’ve basically stolen the entire concept from Wayne’s “A Milli”, and you’ll love this song. And by the next song you’ll begin to wish Swizzy had a few more songs on the album, rather than Timbaland.

Now let’s get a few things clear. Timbaland is one of the greatest producers of the 1990’s/2000’s. Additionally, Jay-Z and Timbaland have always had an incredible chemistry (“Big Pimpin’” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” anyone?). Unfortunately, Timbo supplies three of the 15 tracks on The Blueprint III, and 2 of them are amongst the most underwhelming songs of the album. “Off That” is both a painfully-formulaic Timbaland track (sounding like a Missy b-side circa. 2002) and a total waste of Drake, whom they utilize only for the by-the-numbers, decidedly average chorus. Two songs later, “Venus vs. Mars” takes the place of the previous Timbaland track as the new shittiest song on the album. The chorus is a complete rip-off of OutKast’s “Mamacita” (off Aquemini), Jay’s flow is a rip-off of LL Cool J’s from “Going Back to Cali”, and the very concept of the song (venus vs. mars, women vs. men, etc.) is sort of….dumb. Timbaland redeems himself by the 13th track, “Reminder,” with a hypnotic beat and chorus, and Jay boasting, “10 number 1 albums in a row, who better than me?/only the Beatles nobody ahead of me/I crush Elvis in his blue suede shoes, Made the Rolling Stones seem sweet as Kool-Aid too.” No arguments there, but the damage has already been done.

Kanye West certainly holds up his end of the bargain, producing the bulk of the standout tracks, and breaking up the monotony of the Timbaland-produced material on the latter half of the album. “A Star Is Born” is a great track with Jay tipping his hat to some of hip hop‘s greats, although the auto-tune assisted chorus creates an obvious contradiction with the lead-off single. Meanwhile, “Already Home” is probably the track that most-recalls the first Blueprint album, with retro, soulful production reminiscent of “Heart of the City” and a memorable, near-perfect chorus from Kid Cudi. Unfortunately, this is followed by “Hate”, where West and Jay try an old school, back and forth concept (think Dre and Em “Say What You Say”). The song falls flat though; the beat is too slow, their flows have strange accents, and by this point in the album (track 12) the “haters” subject is very played out.

The final tracks, “So Ambitious” and “Young Forever,” end the album on an defiant, grand note. “Young Forever” is particularly interesting, featuring Mr. Hudson sounding like Chris Martin of Coldplay, singing about living forever or something. It’s the standard, anthemic, “I’ll never leave as long as you still love me” shit Jay-Z’s been talking about since The Black Album. And it’s a great song. But one has to wonder if there is anything left for Jay-Z to say? The album is littered with quotable after quotable, and Jay still raps circles around almost everyone else, but what is he really talking about at this point? Though 2007’s American Gangster was criticized for playing it safe in terms of subject matter, it still presented a focused Jay-Z; clear, concise, detailed and determined. And while Nas is talking about the N-word, and Eminem is talking about guns, rape, blood, and prescription drugs, Jay-Z can‘t seem to get his mind off of his haters, his money, and his legacy; three pretty obvious, kinda boring topics, if you ask me. Jay-Z still holds the hip hop torch in his hand, there‘s no doubt about that. But it‘s when Jay-Z gets comfortable in his position as the Sinatra of hip hop that he‘ll start making the kind of album we all know he still can. Though certainly not a bad album (actually it’s quite good), The Blueprint III is Jay-Z in survival mode, not ready to pass the torch to the next generation, but without the slightest clue where he’s taking it next. In other words, it’s better than Kingdom Come, but not as good as the Black Album.

Hey…at least he got rid of that auto-tune bullshit.

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