The truth is, Jay-Z didn't have to make this album. Nearly seven years removed from the bloat of Blueprint 2, he returned to the imprimatur of his most lauded release because prestige is at a premium in the world of hip-hop, and few can imply swaggering importance like Jay-Z. But this is no prestige project, like, say, his previous album, 2007's American Gangster. Instead, it's a distillation of 2006's failed Kingdom Come — a mildly cynical modern hits collection packaged under the pretense of midcareer glory. And it worked. The Blueprint 3 became one of Jay's greatest successes, spawning his biggest single ever, the sour-sweet cabaret "Empire State of Mind," another massive hit in the loathsome "Young Forever," and a powerfully disorienting new concert staple, "On to the Next One." Those songs will likely be the album's legacy. But surrounding it are some deeply strange choices.
Notably executive-produced by Kanye West, the album subscribes to the unpredictable mood and rollicking tone of one of his albums — few songs have sonic connections, fewer still have thematic consequences. There's a battle of the sexes song, a haters song, a "keep it real" song — tropes all and none very interesting. At the time of its release, Jay-Z was accused of pandering to the invading trends of Euro-hop, the glitchy, synthetically percussive bastardization of rap pursued with vigor by artists like the Black Eyed Peas. And there are shades of it — the dizzy, mostly dumb "Off That" with Drake; the cacophonous Timbaland blunder "Reminder" — but its schizophrenia more than carpetbagging that bedevils the thing. On one hand, songs like "Thank You," "Already Home," and even the codgerly "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" recall the dexterous, dangerous Jay of old — casually menacing and culture-defying. But West's influence sometimes overpowers those moments. It's fitting that "Run This Town," which features West and Rihanna, has become a more reliable live staple for Yeezy — thanks to his chilling verse — than Jay. And that's the story of Blueprint 3: the ambitious West, finally in charge of a project for his big brother and never quite settling on a direction. It's hard to tell your elders what to do. For Jay, searching for relevance and scoring by sacrificing some dignity, he has Kanye to thank and blame.