Pre-Screening: Jay-Z

Album: The Blueprint 3
Artist: Jay-Z
Label: RocNation
Due Out: September 8th
In a last-minute switcheroo, Jay-Z has decided that rather than releasing the highly-anticipated Blueprint 3 on September 11th as originally planned, he'll be a conformist and send the album to stores on Tuesday like everybody else. Due to the original release date, we did not have a review this past Friday, but, with the sudden change, we now feel it is necessary to have it up before the new official date. This would be that review. As mixed as feelings may be about the album, it is difficult to deny the importance of any offering by Hova, the CEO of hip-hop. Even with the "hip-hop" aspect waning a bit as of late, the man still knows music better than most, and is rarely out of the public consciousness. We begin--
Critics have been marveling for months about the guest list on this album, and rightfully so. It kicks off with Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun on "What We Talkin' About." If the first track is any indication to listeners, this is much less a hip-hop album like those of Jay's early days, and more of a pop album with rap influences. For some, that can be a make-or-break detail, but give him the benefit of the doubt-- he knows what he's doing. "Thank You," like many of the tracks here, refreshingly relies on effects and brass, rather than the usual club bass. However, no Jay-Z album is without the usual preening for the camera and self-glorification, as positive or negative as that may be, and this is one of those moments. Continuing in such a state of mind, "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)," one of my favorite tracks of the summer, lambasts the use of auto-tune in hip-hop, while utilizing a funky club beat and more of the aforementioned brass. Entertainingly enough, Mr. Auto-tune himself, Kanye West, is actually involved in the production of the track, just to add to some backstory unintentional comedy.
Another track fans heard earlier this summer, "Run This Town," was hailed as Rihanna's comeback from the unfortunate domestic violence issues with Chris Brown. Though that maybe be true, focusing on that aspect alone may cloud your view of the fuller picture that begins to unfold here. Through four tracks, The Blueprint 3 has shown that Jay-Z has seemingly mastered pop, both in theory and practice. Yes, there's plenty of rap, but, there is no denying that the pop is the driving force here, and yet, it is delivered with a fair amount of success. Soon after though, the hip-hop aspects make a triumphant comeback, yet still infused with the earlier pop sounds. "Empire State of Mind," which features Alicia Keys, reminds me of some of Jay's earlier material, and also screams single, as it combines a great beat with a fantastically bouncy piano part surely provided by Ms. Keys. More actual rap is in the cards on "Real As It Gets" as well, as Young Jeezy (and surprise, brass!) and Hova submit one of the album's stronger (and rare) rap-oriented tracks. Next, "On to the Next One," featuring Swizz Beatz is one likely to be skipped over and over. Most rap albums of this length (15 tracks) have that one unnecessary filler, and for The Blueprint 3, this is it.
As if you were surprised by this fact, Drake is featured on "Off That." The quick, fast-rapping number is a party joint sure to be heard at a house party near you very soon. Everyone's new favorite rapper, Drake, puts in a decent effort here, but I think the track's biggest asset is actually the beat, an active and engaging surround sound adventure. From there, we come back to pop. "A Star Is Born," featuring J. Cole, once again employs brass, and piano in a name-drop bonanza that references most of the rappers Jay's ever been associated with, and as always, recaps his entire career. Next, "Venus Vs. Mars" is another placeholder of sorts, accomplishing very little in terms of the album's overall themes and goals, but is not necessarily a bad track (just sort of useless). The party anthems return on the next track though, as Kid Cudi enters on "Already Home." With a great backing track (borrowed from Gladdy's Allstars' "Mad Mad Ivy") and a strong flow, it's sure to be the next "Day 'n 'Nite" at some point this fall.
A warning before listening to "Hate"-- it features Kanye West, and sounds like it's the lost track off of 808s. In it, our narrators unsurprisingly recap their careers (again) and talk about embracing haters, and actually appreciating them. Once again, not a terrible track, but nothing to get excited too nuts about either. Same goes for "Reminder," which also talks about how much cred Jay has, and how great his career has been. If there's one thing we could use a little bit less of on this album, that aspect is definitely it. Luckily, the last two tracks stray away from that. Pharrell, who seemingly disappears for years at a time, shows up on "So Ambitious," and gets production credits too for the relaxed track which actually sounds more like an N*E*R*D track than something of Jay-Z's creation. The finale too, is a bit uncharacteristic, but not necessarily unwelcome either. Mr. Hudson gains a prominent role in "Young Forever," which samples Alphaville's "Forever Young." Jay is shockingly sentimental and introspective. It's a strange life reflection in music for an artist of his caliber, and as good as it is (it's pretty good), some may become slightly confused.
As I stated in the onset, Jay-Z's put together a pop album the likes of which we don't even see from Kanye. There are plenty of rap aspects, but to me, it was glaringly obvious that pop was the main influence, reinforced by Jay's recent public embrace of indie rock/pop. So what is The Blueprint 3? It sounds like an ending, but I sincerely doubt it. Is it some sort of revelation? Perhaps. Of course, we've been down this road before with him (Linkin Park mash-up, anyone?) so for all we know, it could just be nothing. Still, maybe this ends up being the first step in a long foray into pop/rock. I'll support it, but I can definitely do without the filler, and the self-indulgence. We know. You're really successful. You had great rhymes back in the late-90s and early 2000s. No need to remind us again. You have been since The Black Album. For those who need (doubtful), similarities include Kanye West, Fabolous and T.I.
Rating: 7.5/10
Best Track: "Already Home"

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