Allow him to reintroduce himself. His name is Hov.
His debut, Reasonable Doubt, was easily one of the 1990s’ best albums, hip-hop or otherwise, and it featured some of the best producers and rappers of our time. He beefed with fellow New York City rap heavyweight Nas for years before they buried the feud and appeared together on several tracks. He went from being an emcee to “a business, man.” He has rapped alongside nearly everyone on the planet, from Eminem to Lupe Fiasco to Notorious B.I.G. to UGK. He was one of the primary catalysts behind Kanye West’s emergence and ultimate success – and several other artists as well.
He has the “hottest chick (Beyonce) in the game, wearin’ [his] chain.” He “retired” with a spectacular record, The Black Album, only to follow it up exactly like “[Michael] Jordan wearin’ the 4-5” with the disappointingly dull Kingdom Come. The list of his achievements (and missteps) is seemingly endless. But most importantly, for more than a decade, he has captivated audiences for his street tales and for his braggadocio-laced club raps. His singles and albums during those years are telling of how the genre has evolved. He has remained relevant and stayed true to what made him who he is for longer than most rappers in the game since the mid-1990s.
And yet, with The Blueprint 3, his eleventh album (not counting compilations), it has become increasingly clear that Jay-Z continues to struggle with finding a balance. That is, of course, not an effort to put words in his mouth. If you have heard even his most sincere and heartfelt song, you know this emcee from Marcy Houses is confident in whatever he is doing. But it’s obvious to anyone following his career that he has been on a steady trend of stellar album followed by mediocre album since The Blueprint dropped in 2001. After that seminal record, we heard its dreadful follow-up (The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse). Next, he graced us with the aforementioned hit-and-miss of The Black Album and Kingdom Come. Jigga then came back with a vengeance on the cocaine-dreamin’ epic American Gangster, which stood as one of 2007’s best.
With that kind of instability, should it come as any surprise that The Blueprint 3 follows in suit? If it was a month or so ago, the answer would be yes. At that point, the world had heard only the street singles and a few actual tracks from the record. The street tracks – “Jockin’ Jay-Z”, “Brooklyn Go Hard”, and “History” – were an odd bunch. The first was nothing short of a disappointment, if for no other reason then it sounded better when Jay performed it with a hoarse voice. Then there was “Brooklyn Go Hard”, a cut full of what makes Jay a critical darling and so much fun to listen to. He spit some of his best double-speak over a Santigold vocal sample from “Shove It”, which Kanye West threw over a gritty beat. “History” worked well as a sincere celebration of President Obama’s win in the 2008 election. It was a here-today, gone-tomorrow type of track, though still worthy of increasing hype for the new album.
(While it ended up on T.I.‘s Paper Trail and doesn’t particularly count as a Jay track per se, he also treated us to “Swagga Like Us”. The posse cut featured verses from Hov, Lil’ Wayne, T.I., and West, who also crafted the grizzled beat with an M.I.A. vocal sample from “Paper Planes”. You probably remember them all performing this one in Rat Pack outfits at the Grammy’s. It might be gone and forgotten, but it’s still an entertaining track to break out at clubs and house parties.)
The hype and high expectations then both hit record levels once Jay-Z leaked “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”. Chock full of wheezy horns, boom-bap drums, and a slick guitar-riff loop, it was at least sonically everything we had wanted – not that we were expecting any less from No I.D., one of the best to do it. Then Hov’s voice comes in, verse after verse of ripping apart every modern hip-hop trend. He lyrically dismantles his peers, auto-tune (obviously), and more. With this track, it all seemed to be falling into place that he was going to drop a proper sequel to The Blueprint. And the next single, “Run This Town”, only accelerated that hope. Rihanna’s caterwauling across the hook and other portions of the track nearly sank the ship built by Jay, West, and No I.D. But it wasn’t painful enough to extinguish the flames of another catchy beat, this time co-produced by West and No I.D., and a stellar guest verse from the College Dropout himself. Like many emcees before him, Yeezy appeared hungrier when co-starring and not running the show. His line of “what you think I rap for/to push a fuckin’ Rav4” was both hilarious and truthful, as was his entire verse.
Everything seemed to be going Jay’s way.
And then, more leaks started hitting the blogs. It’s not clear if it was intentional or some weird coincidence, but they were all Timbaland-produced tracks. And they were all increasingly boring. “Off That” sported a Timba-by-numbers beat and a useless guest appearance by Drake, who sings then raps the mindless hook. It was essentially like “D.O.A.” part two, as it tried to kill the use of Cristal, oversized clothes, big chains, and more. Following in suit was “Reminder”, though at least Jay brings it lyrically. But the chorus was fingernails-on-the-chalkboard annoying and the beat was another repetitive Timbaland soundscape. Would it all change for “Venus vs. Mars”? No. It didn’t. Instead, it got worse. Jigga’s verses featured one to three hot bars, and that’s being lenient. The hook was trash. And the beat, well, Timba appeared to be doing his best 808s & Heartbreaks impression. It wasn’t an awful production, just nothing worth noting or hearing more than twice.
Another track found its way on to the ‘net a few days later. And this time around, the leak was met with more love than the others. “Hate” was another chance for West to produce and spit on the same track as his Big Brother over what sounds a lot like an auto-tuned vocal sample. Hypocrisy aside, it was, in theory, exciting to hear ‘Ye and Jay go back and forth with bars. You know, in the way that so few rappers do these days. But it sounded very rough. And it was clearly indicative of a more experimental edge to The Blueprint 3. It also raised the idea that, perhaps, these leaks needed to be heard in the context of the album before final judgment is passed.
Santa Claus then decided to visit everyone a little early this year.
The entirety of The Blueprint 3 leaked sometime last week. Twitter users all over went insane. Message boards imploded. Jay even responded. Of course, he wasn’t surprised because, like any artist knows these days, it was bound to happen. For Jigga fans and haters the world over, it was time to hear if those leaks were foreshadowing the downfall of this record or not. And, in a way, they did and they did not. The tracks were a clear warning of what could happen when Jay and his team of producers misfired in an attempt to do something “new.” Instead, they regurgitated then slightly amended what we have all been hearing on the radio for the past few years. The way the leaks did not completely foreshadow The Blueprint 3‘s demise is that they cut the album up into two distinctive halves, one with good-to-stellar tracks and the other with above-average-to-awful tracks. In other words, they allowed us to clearly and plainly see that Jigga has the ability to push the envelope and make fantastic music. But on here, he has clearly reached an impasse of how to execute that perfectly.
The first seven tracks would leave you thinking otherwise, though. The album-opener, “What We Talkin’ About”, is a bombast introduction. It’s littered with gigantic, echoing synthesizers and a midtempo disco-beat. And it gives Jay a chance to essentially wear his heart on his sleeve and explain what the entire album will discuss: Grown-man business, rap, and not giving a fuck what others say. Keep that final topic in mind for later. The tracks then flow in and out of each other seamlessly. “Thank You”, though awkward and forced in terms of his flow, is solid. And it’s followed by the one-two punch of aforementioned singles “D.O.A.” and “Run This Town”, which is an ample prelude to an additional one-two punch and a knock-out. “Empire State of Mind” is yet another chance for Jay to show love for his city, but it remains interesting thanks to a fantastic Al Shux beat and celebratory hook from Alicia Keys. Above all, it’s a chance for the Marcy emcee to show off shades of a new flow while not losing you for a second. Upping the ante is a track many will argue would sound better on a Rick Ross record, mostly because producer The Inkredibles worked with Ross on Deeper Than Rap But to deny “Real As It Gets” as a solid Jay track would be foolish. With Young Jeezy bursting through the gates on the first verse, the track initially appears to be a means of blowing out your car speakers. “Real As It Gets” might not go beyond what its track title implies – the concept of being real vs. fake – but it keeps the subject matter fresh and ridiculously fun.
The party keeps on going for the Swizz Beats-crafted “On To the Next One”. You wouldn’t be wrong to expect a completely superficial and over-the-top track from Swizzy, whose beats are typically tinny and unpolished. But on this track, he delivers. And it plays a lot like “A Millie 2.0”, from the simplistic, albeit effective, drums to the repetitive vocal sample. Those similarities aside, Hova’s lyrics deal with just how futuristic and ahead-of-the-curve he has been, hence “On To the Next One”. In true Jay fashion, he also makes sure to big-up himself repeatedly. In other words, this track might not be anything new in terms of subject matter or production, but it’s done so well that it’s undeniably primed for repeated listens. “On To the Next One” isn’t merely a killer song, though. It also represents where The Blueprint 3 comes to a grinding halt.
Remember those Timbaland-produced leaks? This is their time to come into play and turn what sounded like close to greatness into mere mediocrity.
Side B stumbles off the starting line with “Off That”, a track not significant enough to write about again. But it’s at least almost recovered by the West and No I.D.-produced “A Star Is Born”, a slightly above-average chance for Jay to give props to his peers. He also gives Roc Nation’s first signed artist, J. Cole, a chance to shine on the fourth verse. It’s too little too late, though. And how the hell did that hook, which is either auto-tuned or intentionally close to it, make it on the album. Didn’t Jigga kill auto-tune? Guess not. Anyway, time for another filler-track, “Venus vs. Mars”, followed by (you guessed it!) a slight redemption. “Already Home” is nothing to write home about lyrically, but Kid Cudi’s work on the hook is surprisingly topnotch and Kanye appeared to have salvaged some of his former-self on the beat. The same can’t be said for “Hate”, though it’s a valiant attempt at experimentation, and “Reminder”, another boring Timbaland joint. But these two cuts aren’t only dull; they display a side of Jay that is extremely out of place on here. For one, who now actually detests him enough to justify writing “Hate”? West, I understand, but he brought that upon himself. Jay, on the other hand, has no reason to make a track like that. “Reminder” has the same problem. Every other song on this record has detailed exactly why he has become a household name and beyond. So why is this song necessary? It’s not.
Try as it might, “So Ambitious” can’t save an entire batch of letdowns. The Neptunes, particularly Pharrell’s chorus, really brought out something special to rekindle that fire they have with Jay. It’s a straight-up hip-hop joint that will warrant repeated listens for both the beat and lyrics, which are in line with Hova’s past storytelling epics. He speaks on his motivations with an added chip (or dirt?) on his shoulder and does it with that slightly-amended flow alluded to earlier. “So Ambitious” could have also been an absolutely ideal means of ending The Blueprint 3. Instead, Jay closes the doors with “Young Forever”, a track much better suited for 808s & Heartbreaks. Jigga’s earnestness is appreciated. But it sounds flimsy when paired with a disposable beat and a chorus lifted from Alphaville’s “Forever Young” sung by Mr. Hudson. Like “Hate”, “Young Forever” is another unconvincing attempt at trying something new.
That sentiment is actually what makes The Blueprint 3 so frustrating, particularly for many Jay-Z fans. We have all witnessed his progression over the years. No one would or should argue otherwise. This is an emcee who has always tried to stay one step ahead of the game. And as his track record indicates, he has both failed and succeeded in his trials. His most recent effort isn’t exactly a failure. Without its filler, this album could have been at least good, if not great. But, for better or for worse, this is what Jay wanted us to hear right now. It’s just a shame that it’s not entirely worth hearing.
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// Notes from the Road
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