"The Blueprint 3"
* * 1/2
It's tough for hip-hop stars to age well. Once they become celebrities living in mansions and starring in family movies, street cred is usually the first thing to go. Just ask Ice Cube. Longevity just wasn't built into the hip-hop lifestyle, with its premium on youthful swagger, street tales and fast turnover.
But Jay-Z, who turns 40 in December, asserts that he's the exception on his 11th studio album, "The Blueprint 3" (Roc Nation), which he rush-released Tuesday after it leaked online. "I'm a multimillionaire, so how is it I'm still the hardest [thug] here?" he announces on "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)."
The track takes a shot at the ubiquitous vocal effect that has dominated hip-hop production in recent years, though Jay-Z is not above using it himself elsewhere on the album. If nothing else, Jay-Z has proved himself an expert at knowing the marketplace, and "The Blueprint 3" employs a handful of top-dollar producers (Kanye West, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, the Neptunes) to cover all the commercial bases, Auto-Tuned or not.
Its reach echoes the first "Blueprint" album, released in 2001 and co-produced by West, at that time a relative unknown still three years away from his starmaking solo debut. The combination of West's dusty soul grooves and Jay-Z's determination to reassert his skills as a master MC (after a few years in the pop celebrity wilderness) turned the album into a landmark.
"The Blueprint 2" came out a year later but was a far less focused effort, larded with cameos, as if Jay-Z could only be intermittently bothered to participate in his own album.
"The Blueprint 3" splits the difference between its two predecessors, with Jay-Z sounding hungrier than he has in years on about half the tracks, while sharing time with guest stars or grappling with undercooked production on the rest.
At its core, the album is less about introducing newfound skills or subject matters than it is a platform for Jay-Z to showcase his imperious flow, to reassert his world-conquering ego, to remind everyone just who the heck he is. Jay-Z has a way of delivering the news as if he has already done it all -- twice.
Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter in 1969, grew up to be a drug dealer in the Brooklyn housing projects. He turned to hip-hop as a way out, self-releasing his debut in 1996 when no label would take a chance on him, and turning himself into a star and power broker. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated his annual income at $82 million. Little wonder he once crowed, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man."
"The Blueprint 3" aims to show everyone he still has wicked skills on the mike. It does, even as it illustrates that sometimes he coasts on his celebrity. The opening "What We Talkin' About" sets the tone: He doesn't have time to escalate long-standing beefs with his rivals because they're just peons and he has more important things to do, like hang with his pal, the president.
Hubris reigns. He's the king of New York, able to command cameos from Rihanna and Alicia Keys on "Run This Town" and "New York State of Mind," respectively. These tracks are the sound of Jay-Z cruising for pop hits. But there's no justifying "Forever Young," with a vocal hook sung by Mr. Hudson; it's the kind of mush that suggests there might be something true to those rumors Jay-Z has gone soft. And "Venus Vs. Mars" reaffirms that Jay-Z has never been particularly strong at seduction raps.
Yet even at three-quarters speed, Jay-Z can still be formidable.
Timbaland's sci-fi production on "Off That" is a poor fit, but the MC opens up a spigot of rhymes about refusing to live in the past, invoking his nemesis Bill O'Reilly to comic effect. The hard-edged soul claps of "A Star Is Born" and the zinging strings of "Already Home" (both produced by West) are natural fits, and he dazzles without breaking a sweat. He even turns a joke about his resemblance to a camel into an opportunity to once again disarm his critics.
The message: Don't mess with ol' Gray-Z.
-- Greg Kot