2009 / Music

Review: Jay-Z Relies On Hit-Making Designs For ‘The Blueprint 3’

Superstar MC Drops Second Sequel To Classic Album

There are no gray hairs sprouting on Jay-Z’s neatly shorn, 39-year-old head. Nor is there any hint in the designer suits that he favors to betray his elder, hip-hop statesman status. Well, besides the fact that he’s wearing a designer suit.

Photo: Roc Nation/Atlantic Records

Photo: Roc Nation/Atlantic Records

But make no mistake about it. In the rap game, Jay-Z is a dinosaur. Nearing two decades behind the mic, he has outlasted nearly all of his mid-’90s rivals to sit astride pop music’s most volatile genres. He remains one of hip-hop’s most consistent constants among its ever-fickle roster of superstars. And yet, Jay-Z doesn’t just survive. He’s thriving.

Ensuring his station once again, Jay has just released “The Blueprint 3,” the second sequel to his post-Sept. 11 masterwork. In a week when most musicheads were stuck reexamining the same old tunes tracked by a bunch of Liverpudllians 40 years ago, “The Blueprint 3” is sure to bring fans’ thoughts back to the here and now. In an era and industry yielding fewer and fewer blockbusters, this record will likely be one of the few multi-million unit sellers this year. In short, Jay-Z has done it again.

Despite this achievement, “The Blueprint 3” doesn’t best its namesake disc. This album’s defects are numerous and obvious. And yet, it will be a monster seller because Jay has proved to be one of rap’s keenest strategists. He knows his own drawbacks as well as the strength’s of others and goes out of his way to incorporate, cover or compensate for them, often to platinum-producing effect. “The Blueprint 3” isn’t just a record. It’s a carefully arranged plan destined to restate Jay’s prominence.

Instead of possessing lyrical wit or fearsome mic skills, Jay-Z’s gift for strategic thought is what truly separates him from the Eminems or Sean Combs or Dr. Dres and even the Kanye Wests — who from time to time challenge his position. Jay continues to succeed not because he’s the most talented, but because he knows he’s not. Rather, his ability to think like an impresario first has served him in the studio by allowing him to spot and hire talent who could boost his own efforts. It’s also aided him in the board room, transforming himself into the kind of hip-hop mogul who enjoys longevity and placed him at the head of rap’s signature record label for years. In a genre that is so obsessively focused on hit making and what’s hot, the fact that Jay-Z continues to dominate while on the frontlines is a true anomaly. One hesitates to label such a decent rhymer and unremarkable beatmaker as a rap trailblazer, but a discography that includes like “The Blueprint” and “The Black Album” and now “The Blueprint 3” just reinforces the description.

What “The Blueprint 3” lays out is how the strong remain so by playing to their strengths. Of course, being one of rap’s top artists means Jay-Z can select collaborators from among the very best. “The Blueprint 3” includes production work by West, Timbaland, the Neptunes and Swizz Beatz, which ensures Jay has the best beats available. Meanwhile, he also goes out of his way to share the stage on this album, boasting guest appearances by West, the Neptunes’ Pharrell as well as Rihanna, Alicia Keeys, Young Jeezy and Kid Cudi.

Besides being an expert scout for ideal collaborators and top-notch material, Jay-Z has one other attribute that more specifically ensures popularity among his crossover audience containing both urban and suburban hip-hop fans. It’s his continual angsting about the dichotomy of his life — his meteoric rise from low-level hustler to A-list star. Through his rhymes tracing personal stories of poverty and power, the street and the penthouse, he straddles all sides of the racial, social and economic fences that carve up society. Through his verses, he is the tour guide allowing listeners to pear over what’s happening to those elsewhere. What other rapper who built his image on thug life mentions talk about safeguarding his political “connects”? Who else can work references to both crack dealing and Wall Street ponzi schemes and not seem like a poseur in either realm?

This isn’t necessarily new territory for Jay-Z either. Unlike his threads, this rag-to-riches formula that Jay (and many, many other MCs) have long relied upon to guarantee chart success is long ago started to show its age. And yet, most of this disc still succeeds because Jay posts several monster jams that supersede what’s become cliche.

Anyone doubting Jay-Z’s enduring creative vitality need only to listen to “Empire State Of Mind” for what could prove to be one of the year’s top singles. A jam praising New York City and the eternal promise it holds out for dreamers, such a rah-rah, hometown-hailing track could easily sound stilted and flat. Instead, this song comes across like hip-hop’s powerfully gritty answer to “New York, New York.” Backed by a funky backbeat and spare piano refrain, Jay’s raps prowl his old haunts while verbally squeezing bland sayings about the Big Apple for new renewed meaning. In essence, the track is an inspiring song of underclass triumph and the place that made it possible. Giving a remarkable performance is Alicia Keyes, whose gorgeous howling during the chorus sounds like a marvelous cross between Shirley Bassey belting out the theme to “Goldfinger” and Sandy Denny on Zeppelin’s “Battle Of Evermore.” Not to be outdone by his guest, Jay is on his game too, giving some of the best lines of his career: “MDMA got you feel like a champion/City that never sleep better slip you an Ambien.”

The album’s other true highlight, “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune),” is also a exemplar of brilliant teamwork. Producer No I.D. crafts a rhythm track of squealing guitar and clarinet wailing while Jay and guest Kanye bid goodbye to pop and hip-hop’s most popular studio effect. (Of course, West’s last album likely sparked the Auto-Tune backlash.) There’s a New Orleans jazz swing to the music that make this an unusual kind of diss track. Anyone else would want to compile samples to create the backdrop to a beat down. Instead, this feels more like artsy flourish. The track has the hooks, but isn’t strictly reading off the choir sheets.

“A Star Is Born” is a slight, midtempo ballad in which Jay-Z gives shout outs to all his contemporaries and today’s generation who have hit big. With strings and regal horn section samples, Jay-Z raps looking like a patronizing old man reflecting on all he has seen. “What We Talkin’ About” is better, but still shows Jay-Z acting self-important and reactive to what critics and fans are saying. Instead of really offering wisdom, he’s schooling listeners with his whines. Washed in New Wave keyboards, Jay keeps pace with the pulsing tempo even while his verses are about as engaging as listening to a lecture from their parents.

If Jay-Z comes across too much like rap’s stodgy experienced hand, this is because he loves the role that is his primary weakness. As he often extorts on this album, Jay-Z imagines himself as the hip-hop Frank Sinatra. As he gets older, Jay obviously admires Frank’s rare fusion of Hollywood glamour and street edginess. No one would think Frank a great songwriter, the best actor and even at times, the most technically perfect singer. Instead, Sinatra knew his strengths, stuck with him and sought out scripts, bands and arrangers that complimented what he brought to the table. Sinatra is a performer of monumental importance, but such a regimented brand can get tiresome.

Luckily for Jay-Z, “The Blueprint 3” keeps this feeling a bay at least for awhile longer. Hits will do that and this is why the rapper has been able to endure despite the changing landscape.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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