A ‘Blueprint’ of Jay-Z’s success

Rapper Jay-Z will release his new album, “The Blueprint 3,’’ on Friday, his third album since his pseudo-retirement. Rapper Jay-Z will release his new album, “The Blueprint 3,’’ on Friday, his third album since his pseudo-retirement. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / September 5, 2009

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If you could take all the hype around “The Blueprint 3’’ - Jay-Z’s predetermined classic that is supposed to either end or stoke the civil war between the young rappers stretching (or soiling) the idea of hip-hop and the purists who want to re-establish what hip-hop should sound like - and distill it into four minutes, you’d get “A Star Is Born.’’

This is what the album’s really about. On its face, the song is a roll call over an innocuous Kanye West beat: Ma$e. Puffy. Ja Rule. DMX. 50 Cent. OutKast. Mobb Deep. Wu-Tang. Ludacris. Lil’ Wayne. Everyone who’s ever worn rap’s yellow jersey. But there’s something in Jay’s tone and message. It’s one of the few - maybe the only - instance where Jay acknowledges success other than his own.

In creating a timeline of everyone else’s success, he also reinforces his own - his point being that he’s the constant in a machine of moving parts. The album, “The Blueprint 3,’’ will be released next Friday, eight years after the original “Blueprint.’’ With Sept. 11 in mind, Jay-Z will do a charity concert at Madison Square Garden the same day. But aside from nostalgia, the album is supposed to offer evidence of Jay-Z’s greatness for a generation of rappers who still find ways to question it.

Forbes-list money, ultradiva wife, and executive status lifestyle aside, Jay-Z really can’t win. “The Blueprint 3’’ is easily the best of his three albums since his pseudo-retirement in 2003, and it almost doesn’t matter. If he did a song with Biggie and Pac tomorrow, someone would still say, “Well, Jesus didn’t sing the hook.’’ He’s either competing against his own records, dead rappers, any rapper with a buzz and/or beef, or rappers he helped become stars, when, really, he hasn’t been interested in competing in years. So as much as he wanted to make this album about the music, it comes off as an effort to respond without looking like he’s responding.

“Thank You’’ is a victory lap, but he also reminds you that he’s got 10 No. 1 albums. “Off That’’ is about moving forward (away from making it rain, wearing Timberland boots, putting big rims on cars), but he again reminds you that the only reason rappers do it is because he did it first. And then there’s the song “Reminder’’. . .

The music doesn’t disappoint. Given the keys to the project as its primary producer, West’s pop leanings bleed through (see: Luke Steele of Australian electronica band Empire of the Sun). But the sound bounces from soul (either sampled through West or created by the production team the Inkredibles) to futuristic Timbaland beats.

The flaws are obvious. The three Timbaland songs feel out of place. Lyrically, Jay-Z works only as hard as he has to. He stretches out vivid images of the Sept. 11 plane crashes as a metaphor for his foes’ careers on “Thank You,’’ then on “Real as It Gets’’ he lazily rhymes “here,’’ “there,’’ “hear,’’ and “yeah.’’

It’s also a little odd to see a Jay-Z album with so many cameos. There are times when Jay-Z seems like a guest on his own album. Young Jeezy raps for more than a minute on “Real as it Gets’’ before Jay’s voice finally creeps in. But every extra feature guest serves a purpose. Rihanna’s appearance on “Run This Town’’ was her first since her episode with Chris Brown. Alicia Keys, a native New Yorker, breathes the life of the city into “Empire State of Mind.’’ Kid Cudi crafts a perfect chorus for “Already Home.’’ All Jay has to do is repeat the words.

In the end, the key is in the names Jay chooses to acknowledge or ignore. It’s not that Jay-Z believes he’s the only star in the genre. It’s that he has a set idea of who else is worthy. And it’s not that the “Blueprint’’ is Jay-Z’s idea of what hip-hop should be like. It’s that this is what it sounds like when he makes it.