To hear Shawn Carter speak recently, you’d think that ‘The Blueprint 3’, his 11th studio album, was set to change the face of hip-hop music forever. When it comes to talking a good game, Jigga has been practically talking six sixes off one over, 147 breaks and nine-dart finishes all at once. “As a person at the forefront of my genre,” he said in a recent interview, “it’s my responsibility to make my contribution to correct it.
If people see me being fearless, taking chances, then maybe everyone will go for it. I don’t do it for the money.” All of which are laudable sentiments for the modern artist. Some of which are complete bollocks. He hasn’t changed the face of hip-hop, but he has made, once again, a corking grab-bag of modern hip-hop.
A few caveats: you can glean from the title alone that ‘The Blueprint 3’ is almost machine-tooled to be a hit; he may claim that his new album is all about fearlessness and risk but why is he, for the second time, harking back to his own 2001 high watermark? When it actually comes down to it, isn’t that title nonsensical anyway? Can’t there only be one blueprint, one rubber-stamped version of one man’s definitive vision? If you’re onto ‘The Blueprint 3’ then, doesn’t that mean the first two were failures?
The original blueprint, ‘The Blueprint’ was definitely not a failure, nor was its 2002 successor ‘The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse’, and their little baby 2009 brother is assuredly not a failure either, there’s too much straight-up good stuff on here for that. It does, occasionally, feel like it is being presented less as an album than as a blue-chip portfolio, simultaneously reminding us that, however good Jay-Z is as an MC, – and his flow is more intricate and experimental than ever – he’s even better as a businessman and an unnervingly efficient talent-spotter. Because they really are all on here. On the production side, you’ve got oodles of Kanye West, three Timbaland offerings and one each from The Neptunes and Swizz Beatz. And on the guest-slots side, you’ve got more Kanye, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Luke Steele, Kid Cudi, Mr Hudson, Pharrell and soon-to-be-megastar Drake. You’re never going to fail with an all-star line-up like that, and once the risk of failure has been removed, what other risks are there for a musical risk-taker to take?
So don’t believe the hype, just feel the quality. There are a handful of tracks on here that have the power to stagger and amaze and the main contender is the one we already know, the truly remarkable ‘DOA (Death Of Auto-tune)’, which clatters around like a bull in a china shop with haywire guitar and woodwind samples stamping all over the mess, a testament to the genius of lesser-known producer and veteran Common collaborator No ID. It’s ironic that the high point of the album is the one track where it’s just Jay-Z and his beat-maker, because some of the guest stars are less convincing: the Steele collaboration ‘What We Talkin’ About’ is slight, airy and ultimately unsatisfying, and the vaguely Balearic ‘Young Forever’ is simply insipid – guest vocalist Mr Hudson sounds depressingly like Sting, and Jigga is in full-on Chicken Soup For The
Soul bollocks mode, spouting such profundities as “life is for living, not living uptight” as if he’s just discovered The Meaning Of It All.
The syrupy ‘A Star Is Born’ is similarly pitched, as Jay pointlessly reels off a list of Rap Stars Who Have Done Really Well For Themselves and offers them his applause. As an interesting point of comparison, he mentions both Nas and Mobb Deep, two acts for whom he tore new arseholes on the diss track ‘Takeover’ from ‘The Blueprint’. And yet, and yet… there’s just so much to enjoy.
The numerous high points include the brassy, likeably insouciant ‘Thank You’, which in its gleefully knowing smugness calls to mind nothing more than Will Smith’s ‘Mr Niceguy’; the huge, bombastic ‘Real As It Gets’, which may be re-raking old lyrical ground but it is a refreshing blast of muscular, unfiltered hip-hop; and the weird, disembodied vocal samples of ‘On To The Next One’ and ‘Hate’, which have a hypnotic, disquieting effect, the latter further embellished by Kanye West’s blank-eyed Mogadon flow. Elsewhere, the crashing piano chords of ‘Empire State Of Mind’ are embellished by Alicia Keys’ lusty bellowing cameo, while the cheeky, bubbly ‘So Ambitious’ is only hamstrung by Pharrell’s sugary crooning, as indeed is every track he has sung on. But, despite bringing in all these names to make it an event album, ‘The Blueprint 3’ delivers because of hefty beats and quality rapsmanship, nothing else. And, ultimately, that’ll do just fine.
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