What happened to Hip-hop? What was once the most subversive and terrifying music parents feared to find their children listening to is arguably a shell of its former self. First, lyrics – the lifeblood of any hip-hop act – took a back seat to production and danceable grooves. Kanye West, one of the last best hopes in hip-hop, released his last album with Auto-Tune effects on every song. Add to that internet videos of daughters and mothers dancing in unison to “Crank Dat,” a song which the hook advocates ejaculating onto your woman’s back and affixing the bed-sheet like a cape. Yet, when it looks as though hip-hop is about to go the way of the dodo and disco, Jay-Z swoops down to save the genre from itself.
The first single from The Blueprint 3 is “Death of Auto-Tune,” produced – ironically – by Kanye West, who shoulders the bulk of the production work on the record. The song advocates violence and general unruly behavior, but also contains the album’s apparent thesis: “You rappers singing too much/ get back to rap you t-paining too much./I’m a multi-millionaire/ so how is it I’m still the hardest nigga here?” Had one seen Jay-Z last winter hosting concerts in concert with the Obama campaign for voter registration or perhaps as the only guest for a segment of Real Time with Bill Maher, one might think that perhaps Jay has gone mainstream like the Black Eyed Peas. However, one listen to this single and the rest of the album reminds the listener that one of the reasons Jay has been so successful in the past is that rather than cater to a mainstream audience he brings “the suburbs to the hood.” The Blueprint 3 is no different.
The album snags in very few places. Jay-Z has seemingly perfected the formula for a number-one album. There are radio-friendly offerings. The first, “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alica Keys, is the obligatory ode to New York. The lyrics ride aloft on the waves of the beat, punctuated by a powerful chorus. A chorus that you can’t resist trying to sing along with, but will inevitably cause some awkwardness at traffic lights, as Ms. Key’s vocal range is tough to imitate. Especially for a raspy-voiced, white guy, but how else can one sing their own hometown’s name rather than the NYC?
“Run This Town,” features the dulcet tones of Rhianna and some witty rhymes by Kanye. “Forever Young” features artist from Kanye’s label, Mr. Hudson doing his best Sting impersonation. An airy tune that, if not careful, can put into perspective how age is nothing we can avoid and make the listener wonder if he will feel as comfortable at 40 as Jay does.
The battle of the sexes is fought in the tracks Venus vs. Mars, produced by Timbaland – one of his three tracks on the album – and in “On To the Next One,” produced by Swizz Beatz in a song that evokes the mentality of “Big Pimpin’.” There are some songs that seem out of place, but like the last few OutKast albums it takes a few listens before the song seems to fit in your ears. Most notably, “Thank You” seems to be one of the songs. The chorus is a bit repetitive and shrill. The lyrics seem to dance around the beat, almost competing with it. On the third listen, maybe the fourth, the realization occurs that this is completely intentional. In what is maybe the most ironic song on the album, Jay apparently skewers his entire lifestyle. He shoots as many barbs at himself as the rappers he claimed he was going “9/11” had they not done it to themselves.
The two weakest songs are “Real as it Gets,” with Young Jeezy and So Ambitious featuring Pharrell. This is more because of lackluster guests rather than a failing on Jay-Z’s part. Young Jeezy has a unique style, and Jay seems to respect him as an artist, however his verse and work on the chorus leaves much to be desired. As for Pharrell, his sound has really been stagnant for about five years. Pharrell at his worst is better than most in hip-hop at their best, but sonically the song seems like far too familiar territory. In regard to Jay-Z’s contribution to these songs, one almost wonders if he found some forgotten lyrics from 1994. The cadence of Jay’s lyrics on “So Ambitious,” seems to match the cadence of his words on “Feelin’ It” from his classic debut album. The entire album echoes Reasonable Doubt in the way that Jay-Z hoped his concept album, American Gangster, would have.
Jay-Z is one of the few artists who still think of an album as a greater work than a mere collection of songs. The album is constructed to be listened to as an entire work of art and it is in the listening that one can truly appreciate that this is a journey through what remains on the landscape of true hip-hop. By taking the genre to task, as his main rival and contemporary Nas does, it is as if there is hope for those who found hip-hop because of the poetry hidden in the gritty, dark lyrics. No song is filler and there is not one dance instruction in the entire 61 minutes of music. It’s not hip-hop for grown-ups, but more like grown-up hip-hop.