Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3

Sean Fennessey

By Sean Fennessey

on 04.19.11 in Reviews

The Blueprint 3


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.

Searching for relevance and scoring by sacrificing some dignity

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.