Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jay-Z - The Blueprint 3 | Album Review

The Blueprint 3
Release Date: September 11th September 8th, 2009
Atlantic Records/Roc Nation

In the late ‘90’s/early-to-mid 2000’s, Jay-Z meant everything to me as far as hip hop was concerned. Since The Blueprint and the days of KaZaA, I’ve devoured every album since it leaked on the net. All the way up to Hov’s recent release, The Blueprint 3, which made its “bootleg” debut just a couple of days ago. After lowering my expectations for the record – a knee-jerk reaction to lame single releases and leaked Timbo joints – I bashed the bejesus outta the album on Twitter all day long on Monday. Rightfully so? Maybe, maybe not. The album definitely isn’t perfect, but given a few extra spins, I see the value in much of it. Unlike Jay tracks and albums which were hit or miss for me (usually hit) on the first listen, I realized that this one deserved some extra attention. I rarely offer up album reviews in a track-by-track format because I prefer summing and sizing it up fully and analyzing it as I would a book (you never do chapter-by-chapter book reviews now do ya?). But for some reason, I feel like The Blueprint 3 deserves that kind of coverage. Lemme first begin with some problems I’ve had with the album and then I’ll follow it up with the track reviews (which may or not have addressed those problems).

First off, I don’t accept the premise that singles from Jay-Z’s albums are A) worse than the rest of the album, and/or B) should never, ever, ever be used as a barometer for the quality of the rest of the album. Sure, songs like “Change Clothes”, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” and “Excuse Me Miss” fit the mold for said premise, but what about hit radio singles like “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)…”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, “99 Problems”, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”, “Change the Game” and so on and so on? Those are my joints! Again, I refute the premise that Jay-Z singles inherently suck in contrast with the rest of the record.

Second, I resent the fact that Jay-Z frequently disses the “tight jeans” crowd whilst simultaneously working with Kanye West – the metrosexual king – and the new school of like-minded cats like Drake, Cudi, Cole and Hudson. Even worse, looking at Jay’s entire catalog, The Blueprint 3 is the album which most explicitly targets the “tight jeans” crowd, what with its esthetically minimalistic album art and sparse, frosty production. Similarly, it makes no sense to me that Jay-Z would be heading the war on Auto-Tune – although really, let’s face it, he wasn’t anywhere close to being the first to bring it up – when his confidante Kanye West damn-near single-handedly made it all the rage just a year ago with 808s & Heartbreak. And again, looking at Jay’s discography, if you had to pick one album which sonically and stylistically matches up the most with 808s & Heartbreak, which one would it be? The Blueprint 3. Huh?

Finally, it’s worth asking: what relation does The Blueprint 3 have with The Blueprint and The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse? In my book, The Blueprint 3 bares closer resemblance to The Black Album and Kingdom Come. I’ll explain below. Now let’s get into the track-by-track synopsis!

01. What We Talkin’ About (featuring Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun) (Produced by Kanye West & No I.D.)
Hov jumpstarts the album with a definitively futuristic sound palate which quickly perks your ears up for a moment, before sounding dull within a couple of minutes. During this time span, Jay spits: “Ain’t nothin’ cool about carryin’ a strap/ About worrying your moms, and burying your best cat/”. Well, I guess this begs the question then: is Reasonable Doubt (specifically “Dead Presidents”) still “cool”? In my book, it’s his best album. And wasn’t that album almost entirely about such gritty narratives as described in the aforementioned bars? Yep, I thought so. I can overlook this though because after all that’s what Jay’s doing: looking to the future. So much so that he disavows “rap” as something old and played out, opting towards focusing on “music” instead. Here’s the quote: “Talkin’ ‘bout music, I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout rap/”. Well guess what, Hov? I’m talkin’ ‘bout rap. Now what? But after all, duplicity is no stranger to hip hop and its artists. I should know; I’m a 2Pac (st/)fan. And of course, speaking of hypocrisy, it’s more than a bit odd for Jay to argue that he’s “not talkin’ bout” Jimmy (Jones), Dame (Dash), Game and Jaz when… wait for it… he’s unequivocally calling them out! We all know that neither of these cats can put a dent into Jay’s career, so why even bother bringing them up – especially at this point when the Jigga-directed animosity seems to be the lowest it’s been in years?

02. Thank You (Produced by Kanye West & No I.D.)
If you would have told me that this was produced by Dr. Dre in 2006 and left on the cutting room floor of the Kingdom Come mastering sessions, I would have believed you. The drums and horns sound very Dre-esque a la “30 Something”. Like The Good Doc’s beats on Kingdom Come, it’s solid Dre style, but far from vintage. Like Jay’s bars on Kingdom Come, it’s formulaic Jay style, but far from memorable. There’s really not much to analyze here. On the one hand, Jay is thanking his fans; on the other hand, he’s flaunting the fact that he “tipped the waiter $100 to keep the ice cold”. Jay’s empathy towards his fans is (somewhat) courteous but also blatantly recession-proof. Tasteless and condescending probably describes this track best.

03. D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune) (Produced by No I.D.)
Forget the fact that the abbreviation for this track should be “D.A.” or “D.A.T.”, I can’t hate on this song (too much), especially within the context of this sequentially well-organized tracklisting. Jay’s message on the track is, sadly, too little too late. But No I.D.’s ridiculous usage of this klezmer-y Janko Nilovic sample (you’re welcome, internets) is enough to keep my head boppin’ throughout.

04. Run This Town (featuring Rihanna & Kanye West) (Produced by Kanye West & No I.D.)
Posse cuts are great. Jay’s “Bring It On” alongside Sauce Money and Big Jaz off the Reasonable Doubt album? Classic. Pop posse cuts? Not so much. Timbaland tried this out in 2007 with “Give It to Me”, the lead single off of Shock Value. The track was shared by labelmates Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake and featured some shots at Scott Storch as well as, arguably, Kevin Federline and even Prince! While “Run This Town” doesn’t contain any explicit barbs directed at other artists, it essentially serves the purpose of glorifying the star-powered trio of Jay, Rih-Rih and Yeezy, effectively shitting on the music scene with a lack of regard for casualties. In short, it’s a bragfest. They run this town. We get it. Now lots of folks have been saying that Kanye “murdered Jay on his own track”. I disagree. A statement like that means you’re essentially equating Kanye’s decent verse on “Run This Town” with Eminem’s off-the-wall-redonkulous verses on “Renegade”. Don’t go there!

05. Empire State of Mind (featuring Alicia Keys) (Produced by Al Shux)
Now this is what I’m talking about! This is a hit! I don’t even live in New Yiddy and it makes me wanna throw on my “all-black everything” Yankees fitted with pseudo-hometown pride. (Yes, it’s true, Jigga did make “the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee game”). This kind of track should be blowing up all across the city from the boroughs’ tenement buildings to Broadway and Seventh Ave. On this track, Hov wisely selected a fellow Twin Tower of music stardom to push this one to the limits. Let’s break down the fundamentals: It’s triumphant. It’s catchy. It’s full of pride. It’s got an uplifting message. Bottom line: it’s an anthem. Frank Sinatra, move ova, make room for Hova. Five tracks in, this is by far the best offering on The Blueprint 3.

06. Real as It Gets (featuring Young Jeezy) (Produced by The Inkredibles)
Call me a skeptic, but this track feels like A) it was intended to be a Jeezy featuring Jay-Z record, B) it was thrown onto the album to attract down-south listeners, and C) management decided to put a track in between the respective Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz songs and “Real as It Gets” won (or lost) the straw vote. Production on this track is lush but forgettable, and neither Jay nor Jeezy come 100% correct on the lyrical tip. Can you say “filler track”?

07. On to the Next One (featuring Swizz Beatz) (Produced by Swizz Beatz)
This first time I heard this track, I wanted to sew my ears to my eyelids. After a few more listens, I finally got hooked in. I’ve never been a fan of Swizz, and this beat doesn’t necessarily raise his stock worth for me. But it’s a scruntch-face-inducing track, and I can’t be mad at that. Not at all. I do have a bone to pick with it though. Jay begins the track with these hater-addressing bars: “Hov on that new shit, n****s like ‘How come?’/ N****s want my old shit? Buy my old album/ N****s stuck on stupid, I gotta keep it movin’/”. Okay. Hold up. This is The Blueprint 3, right? A follow-up to a classic album from 2001 and a solid effort in 2002. Right? Shouldn’t The Blueprint 3 have some continuity with these two releases (a.k.a. old albums)? Seems like Jay is setting himself up for Godfather I, II and III comparisons. I and II were great. III (like The Blueprint 3, released years after the first two installments in the trilogy)? Not so much. Same shit different toilet. And then to top it all off, he throws the “stuck on stupid” line. Wait, didn’t you self-admittedly “dumb down” your music over time to “double [your] dollars”? Well, which one is it Jay? Am I misreading these quotes? Please explain.

08. Off That (featuring Drake & Timbaland) (Produced by Timbaland & Jerome “Jroc” Harmon)
“Off That” serves the purpose of further elucidating Jay’s message on “On to the Next One”. In short he’s light-years ahead of us and we’ll never catch up. What’s an antonym for courteous? At face value, this also feels like a follow-up to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” from The Black Album. It’s got swag status by the bundles, but it’s a weak sauce follow-up at best. Timbaland provides a FutureSex/LoveSounds-type scrap beat that’s infectious but hardly captivating. It’s quite clear that the Timbo of old woulda dropped some flames, but I guess steroids have even more severe side-effects than I thought! It’s hilariously ironic that one of the things that Drake delineates on his “Off That” list are Timbs (Timberland boots). How ‘bout Timbaland beats? Naw, they’re still on that. For now.

09. A Star Is Born (featuring J. Cole) (Produced by Kanye West & No I.D.)
Leave it to No I.D. and Kanye West when he’s in a soulful mood (apparently) to drop a gem of a beat like this. Packed with firm, bass-like keys, lavish horns and peppy brush claps, this one’ll easily make you bop and bounce around, no question. Jay sheds love to hip hop pioneers, peers and fledgling up-and-comers on this celebratory dedication track. One of those very newbs is Roc Nation’s new artist, the Fayetteville-bred emcee J. Cole, who holds his own on the fourth and final verse of the track. Will “A Star Is Born” do for J. Cole what “Coming of Age” did for Memphis Bleek? Hopefully… not(?). So far, this and “Empire State of Mind” are my favorite tracks from the album.

10. Venus vs. Mars (featuring Cassie) (Produced by Timbaland & Jerome “Jroc” Harmon)
There’s something enticing about this one. Irregardless of the track’s low-key groove, it’s got potential to receive its fair share of spins in the club. Jay’s lyrics are simple but catchy: “Shorty like ‘Pac; me, Big Poppa/ Screamin’ ‘Hit ‘Em Up’, I’m screaming ‘Who Shot Ya?’/ … Shorty like Pepsi; me, I’m the Coke man/ Body like a Coke bottle, I crush it like a Coke can/”. My only grievance is that I know that both Jay and Timbo can do much, much better than this.

11. Already Home (featuring Kid Cudi) (Produced by Kanye West)
On my first listen, these strings reminded me of Swizz Beatz’ production on Shyne’s Godfather Buried Alive album, which came out in 2004. Also released in 2004: College Dropout. It definitely feels like Kanye channeled some of that organic sound with this beat, though it’s also got fingerprints of the lush stylings from Late Registration. Kid Cudi’s chorus bored the crap out of my over-analytical self at first, but I like if after a few spins. This track is, in just one word, “fun”. It’s very fluid and features flamboyant Hov’ at his (damn-near) best. No complaints with this one. Tracks 5, 9 and 11 are keepers.

12. Hate (featuring Kanye West) (Produced by Kanye West)
Oh… no! What happened, Kanye? If “Already Home” was College Dropout/Late Registration ‘Ye, then this one’s Graduation/808s & Heartbreak Yeezy. The muffled vocals on this obnoxious beat make me think that these guys partially recorded it in the shower. Pause times infinity. Real talk, the beat is so annoying it might even be effective in getting Guantanamo Bay prisoners to spill the beans. Thankfully this track is roughly two-times shorter than most of the other songs on the album.

13. Reminder (featuring K. Briscoe) (Produced by Timbaland & Jerome “Jroc” Harmon)
How would I describe this beat? “Monster flick hip hop opera” comes to mind immediately. Patent pending. The wavering synths and piercing strings on “Reminder” are truly haunting. And I kinda like it. The weirdest thing about this track – to me, at least – is that the chorus’ vocalist sounds a lot like what Dolores O’Riordan would sound like if you hooked her up to Auto-Tune. Am I the only one hearing this? Anyways… on “Reminder”, Jay unabashedly shits on all us bloggers. And I still kinda like it. Pause times infinity (again). As much praise as I can muster about for this song, I’ve still gotta admit that it gets boring really quickly and has very little playback value.

14. So Ambitious (featuring Pharrell) (Produced by The Neptunes)
I know I’m not the only one who feels like this is a watered-down, lame attempt at recreating the second-to-last-track dynamic of “Allure” from The Black Album. Right? That was a fucking heat rock! This is the most tepid Neptunes beat in recent memory. Continuity FAIL! Pharrell can’t hold a note to help his life and after the several times I’ve played this track, I still don’t know what the fuck Jay is talking about.

15. Young Forever (featuring Mr Hudson) (Produced by Kanye West)
This here’s the victory lap… and also the trickiest track on the album to properly assess. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed “Beach Chair” and “History”; sonically, “Young Forever” sits somewhere alongside these two. Not to mention it interpolates that cheesy Alphaville song which is, admittedly, a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. But this track is quite possibly the weakest conclusion to an album in… ever. On a solely superficial level, the track is cute (||) in the way it plays with Jay’s “Young” nickname. But like most of the album, there’s hardly any substance here. Jay-Z almost sounds out of breath as he’s crooning sweet nothings (emphasis on nothings) over this bubblegum backdrop. Yet another flaw is that it ends too abruptly; but most importantly, it doesn’t leave me wanting more. Scratch that. It makes me want to terrify my neighbors by cranking Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…II up to eleven. “Beach Chair” had a lot more “oomph” than this, both in sound and lyrical content. And to be honest witcha, even though it was released damn-near one year ago, I would have preferred to hear “History” all over again instead of this.

Gradually over time, Jay-Z’s focus has moved from the micro to the macro. No longer will he settle with “petty” tales of coke deals and ghetto strife. Barack’s his new BFF. He’s got Oprah on speed dial. Why bother? The Blueprint 3 is much less a follow-up to the heart-to-heart, soulful sounds of The Blueprint than it is a bragfest for himself and his buddies. Most rap records are like this, but The Blueprint 3 takes it to a new plateau. Over time, it seems like many musicians stop making music for the fans and focus more on impressing their friends. Jay’s done this since day one, as mentioned in his recent interview with Bill Maher. But Jay missed a perfect opportunity, in my opinion, to reach down to the level of folks who are dealing with the recession. Jay’s albums have never been directed towards proletariat audiences; his albums have always been laced with a handful of epically-braggadocious anthems and chants. Still, The Blueprint had those deep cuts like “Song Cry”, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”, shit, even “Renegade”, songs that touched the people. Each of the songs on The Blueprint 3 – even just the song titles alone(!) – are about Jay proclaiming his dominance. Except this time, the beats aren’t up to par and Jay’s lyrical swords have gotten dull and desperately need sharpening.

The problem with making an album that’s all about brushing away the past and constantly searching for the newest, latest trend is that along the span of time, that very album will be viewed as just an old fad. Really, how long will it take before you say “we off that” to The Blueprint 3? I give it no more than a few months. Trends are fleeting; youth is not forever.

Lemme make one thing perfectly clear: it’s impossible to compare The Blueprint with The Blueprint 3 much like it’ll be impossible to compare Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…II. Times have changed. As time goes by, however, what doesn’t change is whether an album is capable of standing up to the test of time or not. The Blueprint was released exactly eight years ago. That album is still a start-to-finish classic for me. Will we be saying the same thing about The Blueprint 3 in eight years’ time? No.