During The Blueprint 3’s opening salvo “What We Talkin’ About?,” Jay-Z spits, “I don’t run rap no more; I run the map.” It’s a typical top-of-the-world boast that Jay has been spewing since 1998, but in some respects, it feels like he’s finally earned it. He’s not only the biggest rapper of all time (by far), but he’s also one of the last big pop stars — a rapper whom even your mom knows and whose every album is an event to be reckoned with. It’s hard to imagine a new 50 Cent album, or even a new Lady Gaga album, being subject to a kind of hype that includes blog posts that boast exclusive looks at the scanned CD booklet. In other words, Jay-Z is right.
The increased exposure of a marriage to Beyonce and a largely unchallenged rap-king throne (at least since Nas dropped “Ether”) hangs heavy over Jay-Z’s 11th album, The Blueprint 3. A return to The Blueprint brand is supposed to signal a recommitment by Jay-Z to the street-wise but pop-friendly auspices of the first two Blueprint albums. Instead it serves as a better version of Kingdom Come, Jay’s much-maligned “comeback” album, which found him struggling to find relevant non-drug related things to say apart from how people who hate him are losers and how he’s got more money than the U.S. Treasury.
The Blueprint 3 starts well enough. Its first half is good to great, starting with the Empire of the Sun-featuring “What We Talkin’ About?” and running through the the futuristic zoom-bip of the Swizz Beatz-produced “On to the Next One.” Lead single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” sounds better in context, where its crotchety assertions about hating iTunes, Auto-Tuners and ringtone rappers fit in between the fan-thanking “Thank You” and the boastful “Run This Town” (which features a fire Kanye verse that far outshines Jay’s). A never-better Young Jeezy trades increasingly entertaining verses with Jay over a horn-heavy Incredibles-produced beat on “Real As It Gets.” On joyous album highlight “Empire State of Mind,” Jay references Nas’ “NY State of Mind,” but instead of a nightmare hellscape, Jay’s New York is a place of fast streets, sports teams and fulfilled dreams.
But around the time we get to the Timbaland-produced, Limbaugh-dissing, Drake-featuring “Off That,” a song about how far ahead of the curve Jay is, the album’s quality falls off considerably. (You can make the case that The Blueprint 3 would be better as an EP, with the back half of the album trashed.) Jay runs through rap’s recent history on “A Star is Born,” a track with the startling revelations that Eminem was great when he came out, Andre 3000 is “really ill,” Wu-Tang Clan had a “hell of a run,” and that Jay is the biggest rapper in the world. The abysmal “Venus VS. Mars” has Jay delivering cliché-heavy “my girl is different than me” (example: “Shorty like Pac/ Me, Big Poppa”) verses over a recycled Timbaland beat. The closing four-track run of “Hate” through the incredibly corny “Young Forever,” a Mr. Hudson-featuring clunker, may be the weakest stretch on any Jay-Z album, with the Neptunes produced, Pharrell-produced “So Ambitious” winning the contest for the worst Neptunes-related track not on any of N.E.R.D.’s three albums.
But really, the music hasn’t meant much in relationship to the Jay-Z brand since The Black Album — the multi-million dollar endorsement deals and business expansions have meant more since then. 2007’s American Gangster was an anomaly; the guy was only able to go back to his creative coke-rap well under the auspices of a concept album. Albums like Kingdom Come and The Blueprint 3 are Jay’s norm now. That is to say, the guy could keep doing half-assed records like this until 2030, and he’ll still be able to call himself the most popular rapper of all time. He’s like a classic rock group (like, say, U2) in that respect; we expect him to keep delivering same-old, same-old new music, but we’re not going to like it more than we liked Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, or Vol. 2.