By David SasonHow the hell did Jay-Z get to be so revered? The Blueprint 3 offers clues into the Great Hip-Hop Swindle.
Although barely 40 years old, Jay-Z continues his strange midlife crisis this week with the release of The Blueprint 3, which goes backwards from the grown-up depth heard on 2006’s Kingdom Come. It’s the third installment in the milking of his highly acclaimed 2001 record (following the Blueprint 2 and 2.1). While no thematic link exists among the series, the new record reveals Jigga’s new-found humility (the down-to-earth “Thank You”) and a matured perspective on opener “What We Talkin About”, whose professional handling of the Damon Dash issue makes it the anti–“Takeover”.
Thankfully Jay’s trademark swagger, smooth lyrical flow, and top-notch backing beats are still there, especially potent on the Justice-sampling Swizz Beatz banger “On to the Next One” and the guitar-and-horn frenzy of No ID’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”. But while both songs decry the overuse of the trendy production technique, everything about the Blueprint 3– from the familiar hit-making producers (Neptunes, Kanye West, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz), to superstar guests like Rihanna & Young Jeezy, to the sometimes clever boasting about his success – is pretty much the same old safe shit.
Jay-Z hypocritically complains about the stale state of hip-hop music but doesn’t have the guts to do something novel about it like Kanye, whose polarizing 808s and Heartbreak album (ironically, an auto-tune orgy) was at the very least a courageously bold move. Combine this with his still-elementary lyrical content – and the fine line he walks between tribute and biting – and it’s clear why Nas won that battle at the start of the decade with the eviscerating “Ether”.
Jay may have the beats and the fluid vocal delivery, but not the weight and substance to justify his self-importance and authoritative scolding. “99 Problems” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” are delightful songs, but will they inspire anyone like Nas’s “The World Is Yours” or “I Can”? Commercial success aside, how impressive is Jay-Z’s decision to not split the American Gangster soundtrack for iTunes when compared to Nas’s ambitious big-statement event albums like Hip-Hop Is Dead or Untitled (originally titled Nigger)?
On Blueprint 3, Jay compares himself repeatedly to Frank Sinatra, which is accurate due to his refusal to innovate. Jay-Z is not an artist but rather a businessman, whose very success makes up the bulk of his lyrical subject matter. In “Reminder”, he catalogs his sales figures & longevity, even ingratiating himself with the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The big business of the Stones, though, is based on their art – not only self-aggrandizement. Jay name-drops Obama throughout the record (even calling himself “a small part of the reason the President is black”) but he never mentions a specific political or socioeconomic goal.
It’s still a mystery how the singles-focused Jay-Z came to be mentioned as one of “the greats”. He puts so little of his genuine self into his purely reactionary & self-conscious lyrics, and he’s never reached the level of empathy with his audience that 2Pac or Biggie Smalls had. Even the critically beloved original Blueprint was a mixed bag, with only a few standout tracks. Is hype really all that matters anymore? If an artist survives nine gunshots (50 Cent), or just happens to have a good memory (Lil Wayne), or releases a few great songs every couple of years while compulsively reminding everyone that he palled around with Biggie (Jay-Z), does this trump the merit of the art itself?
Nevertheless, the fact that the Beatles are sharing so much coverage this week with The Blueprint 3 is a testament to Jay-Z’s marketing prowess. While certainly not the best rapper of all time or best alive, Jigga just might be the best self-promoter of all time; he never really stopped hustling. He’s even surpassed Oasis at making people believe his own hype. No wonder Def Jam gave him the keys for a while. He unwittingly labels himself best at the album’s start: “The only rapper to rewrite history without a pen.”Download these: “D.O.A”, “On To The Next One”–David Sason