CD giveaway, details at end of review
out September 11th
It must be tough to be Jay-Z. Not in the “I’m married to Beyoncé” way, or in the “I’m the reigning elder statesman of rap” way, but in the way that you’ve been around and relevant for so long that you are a magnet for criticism – the oldest active voice of the new school, struggling to remain on the forefront of the game.
Any artist releasing his 11th album faces a challenge. Do you change your style to stay up with the new trends, allowing your sound to evolve while turning your back on the moves that brought you success in the first place? Or do you stick with what works, reprising older successes with a few changes in the hooks and lyrics? It’s a tough decision.
It’s such a tough decision, in fact, that Jay-Z couldn’t make it. Instead, The Blueprint 3 attempts to straddle the bridge between new and old school. It’s a mix, a compromise. Like any musical compromise it lacks conviction, with many tracks sounding forced and dull while the rest reveal what the album might have been. Ironically, it is on the tracks where Jay-Z changes things up that he hits the mark most. References to older successes – “allow me to reintroduce myself,” “thank you thank you thank you” – fall flat, seemingly thrown in out of habit rather than direction.
Nowhere is this lack of inspiration clearer than at the album’s outset, a weak one-two punch that still leaves me scratching my head. With a plethora of bangers on the record, Jay-Z chooses to open with “What We Talkin’ About,” a thoroughly lackluster track. The second track, “Thank You,” is a poor recapitulation of earlier works. Hova’s raps juxtapose slinging drugs and clinking champagne glasses with seemingly no irony, drug talk hitting with an obligatory ring.
[audio=http://pmatunes.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/01-what-we-talkin-about-feat-luke.mp3,Jay-Z - What We Talkin' About]
The entire opening sounds forced. Jay laments on the album’s first cut, “I’m talking about life, and all I hear ‘Oh yeah, he keeps talking about crack’.” Really? You keep hearing people criticize you for talking about crack? Really?
And if that bothers you, why are you bragging elsewhere on the record about “still talking about yeyo” and being (and I quote) “really high, really really high, really really high, really high tonight”? Jay-Z, you are perhaps the most recognizable face in rap, a shrewd businessman, and established record company executive. Are you really smoking rocks between recording sessions?
[audio=http://pmatunes.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/02-thank-you.mp3,Jay-Z - Thank You]
But after that confusing and unconvincing start, The Blueprint 3 takes a turn. Lead single “D.O.A.” comes third, followed by the Rihanna-carried “Run This Town,” a fresh tune that will dominate dancefloors and radios for a while. The fifth song on the album is one of the best TB3 has to offer – an ode to New York featuring an infectious hook from Alicia Keys. On “Empire State of Mind” Jay-Z finally starts to show why he’s the king, bringing some great lines to a slick tribute.
The rest of the album is a balanced mix of old and new. Some tracks sound perfect (“Off That,” “Venus vs. Mars,” “Young Forever”) while others miss the mark a bit (“Hate”, “Reminder”). “On To The Next” is Jay’s “A Milli,” with a stuttering and repetitive backing fashioned by Swizz Beatz. But Jay is no Weezy – his style isn’t built for those programmatic beats.
[audio=http://pmatunes.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/10-venus-vs-mars.mp3,Jay-Z - Venus vs. Mars]
[audio=http://pmatunes.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/15-young-forever-feat-mr-hudson.mp3,Jay-Z - Young Forever (ft. Mr Hudson)]
The album certainly ends on a better note than it begins on, however, and it makes me wonder if perhaps The Blueprint 3 suffers simply from poor planning. If the album kicked off with a bang – say, an “Off That” followed by “D.O.A.” mission statement – I think I’d feel better about the entire shebang. Instead the record leads with two of the weakest tracks, a bad introduction to what is otherwise a fairly enjoyable album. From anyone else it would be impressive. From Hova, it’s merely good.
Which is perhaps the crux of the issue – there is no doubt that Jay-Z faces challenges that few other rappers face. While most artists struggle to get discovered, to prolong their 15 minutes of fame as long as humanly possible (see: Flo-Rida, T-Pain), Jay-Z does the discovering. Instead of searching for a single hit, Jay-Z has built a kingdom on album after enjoyable album of dynamic and relevant material. We are, no doubt, holding him to a higher standard than others. But then, the question remains, if we don’t have great expectations of the icons of the game, what do we expect?
60-69 — Very Good. Fans of the genre or artist will like this, but it is far from perfect.
Stream the entire album here, thanks to Lala. All you need is account. If you don’t have one, make sure to set one up. It only takes a second.
Chris Barth is a columnist here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his music blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.
To enter to win a copy of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, leave a comment with your thoughts on the tracks you’ve just sampled, this review, or (if you’ve listened to it) the album. Make sure you leave your name/email address in the provided fields! Entries will be accepted until September 17th