Third Installment of 'The Blueprint' Maintains Jay-Z's Legacy

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Eight years ago on this day, a street-smart hotshot from the Marcy projects of Brooklyn stood poised to take over East-coast hip-hop, heir apparent to the throne of Biggie Smalls, radiating swagger like dead presidents. That was Jay-Z then, hip-hop's emerging superstar and architect of The Blueprint, soon to become one of the landmark rap albums of the decade.

Eight years later, his eleventh studio album attempts to recapture the spirit of those times. The Blueprint 3 contains all the flair and braggadocio that we've come to expect from Jay-Z, and it's good enough to sit alongside his more illustrious outputs, even if it doesn't attempt to upstage their musical achievement.

To say the album falls somewhere between the infectious swagger of The Blueprint and the cluttered excess of The Blueprint 2 would be somewhat appropriate within the context of Jay-Z's career. Nothing here approaches the banality of 2006's Kingdom Come, but The Blueprint 3 never consistently replicates the thematic complexity of 2008's American Gangster either. It's a fair balance that works because the album always has plenty to offer from a crossover standpoint.

In what has become the trend since 1997's In My Lifetime Vol. 1, the production in The Blueprint 3 features some of the biggest names in the business. Kanye West covers the majority of the project, matching Jay-Z's lyrical wit on "What We Talkin' About" and "A Star is Born" with a synth-infused sound all his own. Yet West's contributions aren't all glossy. "Hate" is a head-scratcher at best, with Kanye taking up a guest rap and imitating laser beams and car engines to embarrassing effect: "Nigga pyoom-pyoom-pyoom / Gimme back, gimme room-room-room / DB9 like vroom-vroom-vroom." Even then, it's slightly above the Swizz Beatz disaster "On to the Next One" and better than Timbaland's disappointing turns, which are far cries from millennial Jay-Z masterpieces like "Big Pimpin'" and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder."

Jay-Z's willingness to share the spotlight with his contemporaries figures as one of the album's strengths. Mr. Hudson ("Young Forever") and Rihanna ("Run This Town") give shining performances, while Drake ("Off That") and Kid Cudi ("Already Home") appear as the industry's promising upstarts, easily upstaging Pharrell's atrocious turn in "So Ambitious." The album's centerpiece is "Empire State of Mind," an anthem to New York City that's masterfully produced and executed. It's an appropriate moment for Jay-Z to display his territorial affinity, and he does so with characteristic aplomb, aided by a soulful hook from Alicia Keys.

While its modern sound ensures that Jay-Z's relevance in today's music scene has yet to diminish, The Blueprint 3 plays chiefly like a celebration of the artist's own longevity, itself a rare sight to behold in hip-hop. That isn't to say Jay-Z operates on cruise control here; in fact, The Blueprint 3 comes off as lyrically accomplished, even if its whole remains less than the sum of its parts. As a victory lap, it's a tamer, more pop-oriented and less provocative one than The Blueprint, still the decade's standard-bearer for hip-hop bravado.

No matter. The Blueprint 3 succeeds as a testament to Jay-Z's rags-to-riches story, another marker in the continuing saga of hip-hop's self-made prince. He doesn't reach for rap immortality here simply because he doesn't need to. On "Empire State of Mind," he raps: "I'm the new Sinatra / And since I made it here / I can make it anywhere / Yeah they love me everywhere." This is Jay-Z now, the same man as Jay-Z then, claiming the future by building on his past. The swagger is still charming, the hunger still there, and that's why we anointed him in the first place.

Send David your Kanye-inspired lines at [email protected]

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