(Please welcome Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading blogger and founder of The Quarterly Conversation, with a review of the latest by a LitKicks favorite.)
The more I listen to Jay-Z's music these days, the more I find myself accepting the fact that he's long since run out of things to say. I've been listening to Blueprint 3 all week and by now the conclusion is inescapable.
Make no mistake: I'm a fan of Jay-Z. As an entertainment phenomenon, the man is simply amazing. He's charismatic, he's a shrewd businessman, he spawned Kanye West. There's a reason why Jay has managed to defy gravity and stay on top for well over a decade while Eminem and 50 Cent and Tupac and Biggie and Puff Daddy (or whatever the hell he calls himself these days) and just about anyone else you can name has come and gone from the hip-hop limelight. They guy has more number one albums than Elvis, and you don't see that every day.
So Jay has accomplishments for days, and I give him due credit. But all the same, his accomplishments only make it all the more amazing that he's managed to keep himself going for so long after he's pretty much run out of things to talk about.
Let's quantify this a bit. By my score, the last album where Jay actually had something new to say was The Black Album. The reason for this is obvious: this was going to be his swan song (though who really believed that?), so Jay was quite inspired to rap about how much we'd miss him once he was gone and how he was going out as the greatest rapper ever. I, for one, really believe that Jay actually thought this was going to be it, so it completely makes sense that he'd have a lot he wanted to say. And he did. "Allure" and "My First Single" were particularly inspired tracks -- Jay was getting philosophical on us, and you could taste the mixed feelings as he remembered how he came up and bid the rap game goodbye. "What More Can I Say" remains one of his best full-length outbursts of lyrical aggression, "Public Service Announcement" had like 3 different conversations going on at once, and let's not forget "99 Problems." Even on the lesser tracks like "Threats" and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" Jay was trying to pack a lot of thought into each song.
You would think that after being off for three years (and let's not forget that when he released The Black Album Jay-Z had been pumping out an album per year for some time), Jay would have a lot of thoughts stored up for his return to the rap game. You would think. By now most of us can agree that Kingdom Come was a thrilling event because it meant Jay was rapping again, but as an album it was as spotty as anything since Vol. 2. True, there were some battle tracks where Jay-Z was bringing the heat like the old days, and he got some mileage out of his affair with Beyonce, but, c'mon, a whole song as an open letter to Emory Jones? A second mamma song? ("December 4th" was really enough.) Rapping with Usher about women in striptease gym classes?
In Kingdom Come Jay-Z was a man without a whole lot to say. It's my opinion that Jay's best topic has always been Jay, and that's cool because he's a pretty interesting guy, but by Kingdom Come it was wearing especially thin. And it says something that that after quitting rap, being Def Jam CEO, and going through enough rap withdrawal to come back, the best statement Jay could make about these three years was "The Prelude," a nice track to be sure but not nearly as interesting as Jay's best Black Album-era introspective raps. Even his Katrina track was basically the same stuff African American leaders had been saying for years ... it just didn't have any of the flavor or intensity or plain old bite of someone like Nas talking politics.
Kingdom Come's decidedly lackluster spirit makes it all the more notable that when Jay returned to form -- and American Gangster must certainly be his most consistent, most interesting album since Reasonable Doubt -- it was basically by reliving the album that kicked off his career. I'm not going to knock Jay for taking it back to '96 since, honestly, Jay-Z reliving his glory days was far more interesting than 90% of what was going on in rap in 2007, but in American Gangster he didn't say anything he hadn't already said. True, he said it differently (Jay's style has evolved a lot since those days), and, true, he said it from a very different vantage point, but it was still basically Jay talking about being a drug dealer. The thing was, it worked! It's one of the few Jay-Z albums with absolutely no filler, and the guy is rapping like a fiend. But he wasn't saying anything new. Nope. This was Jay talking about selling drugs, and he's already said that ad nauseum. This was an album built on sheer cadence and charisma, a master doing what he does best, but not doing anything new.
Which brings us to Blueprint 3. Already, the title has to make any fan a little uneasy. Blueprint 1 was a four-mic album at best. (No matter how often Jay tells people it's "commonly regarded" as a classic, it's not. Any album with "Izzo" on it is immediately disqualified, but if you need more there's also the decidedly average "Hola' Hovito" and "Jigga That Nigga.") But whatever. Blueprint 1 is solid material, but Blueprint 2 was so mediocre that Jay decided to chop it down into a comparatively svelt 2.1 version without all the crap. (And still, 2.1 was pretty weak broth ...) If you can chart trends, then the evolution from Blueprint 1 to Blueprint 2 does not bode well for Blueprint 3, and indeed, 3 isn't a great piece of music. It's like Kingdom Come without the few marginally interesting songs about Jay-Z's personal life that made that a tolerable album.
First things first: yes, "D.O.A." is as good as any single you'll hear this year. No I.D. has produced a simply ridiculous beat, and Jay is certainly inspired to tear it up. But then look at the drop off from that to "Run This Town." Instead of being a 1-2 punch like "Ruler's Back"/"Takeover" we get lyrics like "This is Roc Nation, pledge your allegiance / Get y'all fatigues on, all black everything / Black cards, black cars, all black everything." It's a testament to Jay's inner Fonz that he can make lame junk like that sound vaguely inspiring, how can you even compare those lyrics to something like "Don't let 'em gas you like Jigga is ass and won't clap you / Trust me on this one -- I'll detach you / Mind from spirit, body from soul / They'll have to hold a mass, put your body in a hole."
The first few tracks of any Jay-Z album are typically the best. He's flexing his muscles, he's bragging, and Jay-Z's strength has always been the brag: the man is strongest when he combines his brags with his oft-told tale of overcoming adversity, which then permits his to wax on about how good it is to be Jay-Z. (Kanye West appears to have absorbed this lesson.) Blueprint 3 is no different. The first four track are the big brag tracks, and they're all fairly decent (even if Jay as a postmodern feudal lord in the "Run This Town" video is just plain weird). But from there on, the brags sound notably lame, and repetitive. There's far too much here where Jay sounds bored, reciting lifetime sales figures, reminding you how much cash he has, etc. It’s not creative and it's certainly not new, and if Jay can't even carry his braggadocio through an entire album, something is seriously wrong.
But as diminished as the brags are here, I have to say that hearing Jay-Z try to go beyond them makes me wish he'd stuck with what semi-worked. "Empire State of Mind" is such a blatant -- and blatantly failed -- attempt to one-up Nas that it makes me wonder if there's another beef brewing between them. "Real as It Gets" with Young Jeezy brings back ugly memories of the days when Jay and DMX tried to rap together. "Off That" simply confuses me, as does "Venus vs. Mars" (is this Jay-Z trying to get meta on us?). "So Ambitious" just reminds me what a great song "Allure" was, and "Young Forever" may be the worst track Jay has ever released. My God, Jay feels old on this track ... real old. It' s Jay-Z without his cool, and Jay-Z without his cool is like somebody's dad trying to do a Jay-Z imitation. "Young Forever" is such a bad track that it's hard to believe that Kanye West actually produced it. Kanye may be a spotty producer these days, but I've never heard him make something this far off the mark. (Speaking of ... there's absolutely no excuse for Kanye West to appear on two (TWO!) separate tracks here. The least he could have done was bring in some ghostwriters that didn’t stink.)
As sub-par an album Blueprint 3 is by any standard, the fact that it has the Jay-Z brand behind it means that it’s still by far a good enough album to sell a few million copies and keep fans hoping for something better. And this, unfortunately, seems to be what Jay-Z specializes in these days. I'm not going to pull a Bill Frist and try to diagnose Jay-Z via his latest TV appearances, but I get the impression that he's not just trying to sell records at this point. That is, I think the guy has enough sincere pride in his status as top dog that he wants to write the hottest stuff anywhere. And that belief forces me to conclude that American Gangster was a bit of a fluke, and that these days Jay just isn't inspired or creative enough to beat out his past efforts. When even his bragging is just a shadow of former brags, the man is out of juice. The rapper that once asked us all "What More Can I Say?" now appears to have an answer to that question. I for one will be anticipating Blueprint 4, or American Gangster 2, or whatever the hell it is that Jay tosses at us next, but I won't be expecting him to say anything new. By my count Shawn Carter has been out of ideas for at least three albums now, and I don't see why he'd suddenly start getting them again. The logic of the emcee who built his career on bragging about himself has finally run its course, and this is where it ends. I'm sure I'll still love the top three or four singles that come off of each album from here on, but I'll be surprised if Jay outdoes American Gangster.