First listen: Jay-Z's 'Blueprint 3'
For those who have an intravenous Internet hookup, Jay-Z's long-delayed, much-anticipated "Blueprint 3" leaked sometime in the wee hours of yesterday morning and debuts today on Rhapsody's and MTV's websites. We listened to the entirety of Sean Carter's 11th album in one fell swoop -- not even taking a break to sip overpriced Champagne, smoke overpriced cigars or take our Maybach out for a leisurely spin. That's either dedication or... a paying assignment from our editor.
"What We Talkin' About" (ft. Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun)
Jay-Z has enlisted Luke Steele of Australian hairspray techno auteurs Empire of the Sun to sing the hook. For those doing the math at home, that means that the man behind this album has more face-time on a Jay-Z album than longtime collaborators DJ Premier and State Property.
In the course of the cut, Jay-Z claims, "I'm not talking about profit; I'm talking about pain." Within 30 seconds, he's bragging about being bff's with Barack Obama. Apparently, Jay-Z feels the pain of the potential loss of the public option more than we will ever know. Hova also declares "I'm not talking about [rivals] Jimmy [Jones], Game or Dame [Dash]," thus robbing him of any semblance of conflict that might make his music that much more interesting.
Rather than use the liner notes, Jay-Z decides to write a song thanking the fans for supporting him. He mentions that he has 10 No. 1 albums -- a factual inaccuracy. He has 10 official solo albums released prior to this one, and not all reached No. 1. You'd think that with all of his money, he could at least pay sidekick Memphis Bleek to fact-check for him. He also mentions his predilection for wearing really nice suits and going to the opera.
The long-ago leaked first single proves that no matter how cranky and cantankerous Jay-Z sounds, a Janko Nilovic sample can salve all wounds. Moreover, whether you agree or not with his traditionalist stance, Jay at least has a coherent point here.
"Run this Town" (ft. Rihanna & Kanye West)
The second single currently earning heavy urban radio play. You've probably heard it. If not, let me give you a hint about who runs this town -- it rhymes with May-B.
"Empire State of Mind" (ft. Alicia Keys)
Essentially, a list of New York City streets with the titular inspiration seemingly swiped from Nas' "New York State of Mind." For the 723rd time, Jay-Z compares himself to Frank Sinatra, an analogue that's becoming ill-fitting. There's something timeless about Sinatra's catalog and his choice of collaborators. Something tells me that Mr. Hudson, featured on the last track of "Blueprint 3," is no Antonio Carlos Jobim. Even Alicia Keys can't save this track from foundering.
"Real as it Gets" (ft. Young Jeezy)
This feels like a shameless shill to get Southern rap fans to buy the album, lured by the promise of a Young Jeezy cameo. When used properly, Jeezy's gravelly timbre can produce earthshaking force; but on "Real," the result is both rappers abandoning their gritty street raps for self-worshiping ennui. It's hard to blame them; it's tough to stay hungry when you have a personal chef.
"On to the Next One" (ft. Swizz Beatz)
The first track yet that doesn't make me want to skip onto the next one. Swizz Beatz is clearly channeling "A Milli," and while he doesn't get the exact same results, he clearly creates one of the album's standout tracks, sounding simultaneously au courant and catchy. Jay-Z continues his recurring obsession with being artistically progressive and moving forward.
"Off That" (ft. Drake)
Timbaland's beat sounds like one of the better castoffs from the last Justin Timberlake album, and Drake's hook is cool and self-assured. But there's something here that reads as stasis: Timbaland continues to envision the future as silver suits and astronaut ice cream, while Jay sounds like he would probably try to lecture the “Say Hey” kid for wearing tight pants.
"A Star is Born" (ft. J. Cole)
Featuring a guest appearance from J. Cole, the fledgling artist whom Jay-Z has signed to Roc Nation. Cole acquits himself fine with a nimble resonant verse about coming from poverty, though his performance lacks the appeal of past Jay proteges Beanie Sigel, Kanye West or Memphis Bleek.
"Venus vs. Mars"
A naked play to entice female listeners, with Timbaland delivering a monstrous beat. Unfortunately, Jay utilizes the lurid leering tone of the rich guy at the bar promising helicopter rides to any nubile female who will look in his direction. In 10 years, "Venus vs. Mars," will go down in history as the first rap song ever inspired by a self-help romance guide intended to illuminate gender differences. I can't wait until Drake releases his prog-rap opus, "He's Just Not That Into You."
"Already Home" (ft. Kid Cudi)
The most organic and hence best song on the album. Kanye fulfills his symphonic "Late Registration"-era aspirations and Jay fills it with regnant "Blueprint" majesty. The decision to pair up with Kid Cudi and Kanye West finally yields some dividends for Jay's experimentation. Granted, it's not exactly the London Muddy Waters Sessions, but it works. Kid Cudi's stoned insularity proves a nice foil to Jay's swagger and the song sounds fun and spontaneous.
"Hate" (ft. Kanye West)
The logical continuation of the "Graduation" dud "Drunk and Hot Girls," "Hate" sounds like the result of staying up all night in the studio mixing various liquors and then letting the tape recorder roll. You're in that deluded state where you think that everything you record is genius and filled with revelations. Then you wake up the next morning to realize that except for three seconds, everything you made was garbage. Except that never happened, and Jay and Kanye decided to put it on the album.
Where Jay-Z reminds us that he's better than you and me. Presumably, this is supposed to even out the hospitality of "Thank You."
"So Ambitious" (ft. Pharrell)
Apparently, all ambition means these days is making songs that both Pharrell and Jay would've scoffed at during their "Roc La Familia"-era salad days.
"Young Forever" (ft. Mr. Hudson)
Sampling "Forever Young" on the the final track is one of the worst decisions of Jay-Z's legendary career and confirms everyone's deepest fears about the album: that it's a Hail Mary attempt by a veteran artist to stay relevant. There's maturing gracefully and then there's this -- a maudlin cut that sounds like bar mitzvah montage rap. After hearing this, cleanse with "Brooklyn's Finest" on repeat.
Regardless of this lackluster effort, nothing can alter Jay-Z's place as one of the greatest rappers of all time. That said, despite several strong moments, "Blueprint 3" documents an artist who refuses to wallow in the past, but lacks a (ahem) blueprint for the future. As with all Jay-Z albums, it tries to be all things to all people, and occasionally succeeds, but more often than not, it offers a tepid futurism. If Jay-Z is rap's Rolling Stones, this is his "Dirty Work," even if he maintains that he doesn't like his colors too bright.
--Jeff WeissPhoto by Jason Kempin / Getty Images