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Does Jay-Z still run this town?

September 7, 2009

jay-z_blueprint3_cover

Like, what the hell does this picture even mean?

I’ve slept on posting about Jay-Z’s leaked The Blueprint 3 but time is good; it allows things (in this case, the music) to steep. And now, a week later, I’ve decided not to post a track-by-track review of the album: that’s already out there. But before I get into it, I have to state that I think the record is pretty decent. There’s good production courtesy of Kanye, No I.D. and other big names, some decent cameos (especially Jeezy on “Real As It Gets”), and enough lyrical wordplay from Jay himself to analyze for days. Let’s be real: Jay-Z is to hip-hop what Madonna is to pop, they’re virtually incapable of fucking up. So instead of rehashing the tracklisting, let’s talk about what The Blueprint 3 means for Jay-Z.

If there’s one word to describe Jay-Z, whether you dig him or not, it’s prolific. More so than any other rapper-Nas, Ghostface, even album slanger Weezy-Jay has dished himself and his life out over the course of 11 relatively-consistent studio albums (not counting collabo records, an Unplugged album and greatest hits compilations). I’d contend that there’s no other rapper the hip-hop audience knows as well, believes so fervently in and uses most often as a comparative tool than Hov. He’s had highs and lows but he’s never had to prove himself lyrically. Reaching “stadium status” is Jay-Z’s legacy, his star-stock bolstered by stacks accumulated from myriad business ventures and a eagerly-watched relationship with his R&B contemporary.

So it’s surprising that with The Blueprint 3 we’re seeing a less steady Jay. Vulnerability permeates his rhymes across albums, but this time there’s unsurety lingering behind his ideas.  This is perfectly encapsulated by the highly anticipated, Drake-featuring “Off That”. At first listen, it’s typical hip-hop braggadocio laced with forecasting trend talk. Over a mediocre Timbaland beat Jay-Z waxes poetic about all of the shit we’re on that he’s off (oversized clothes, Timbs, rims, making it rain, etc.). But when you stop and really check for what’s happening here-inimitable, assured, enviable Jay-Z giving more than a side-eye to what we, the plebes, are doing-the confusion sets in.

I won’t get holier-than-thou and preach about what a late-adopter he is by virtue of his obviously busy schedule since he admitted it himself on an Aug. 30 interview with Bill Maher: “I’m not as edgy.” Whether this is in reference to the widening gap between him and his street origins or an inability to keep up with the kids, it speaks to an underlying insecurity. “Off That” points out his contradictions: on early Autotune-bashing “D.O.A” he’s backed by live instrumentation taking the anti-ringtone rap organic, but the Drake track has him over the most cacophonic electronic shit he’s probably ever done. Drake’s cameo complicates matters further. Why get undoubtedly the hottest young rapper out right now to guest on your track but not spit a verse? Could it be insecurity? A fear of being overshadowed? Or is it just ego tripping?

My guess is it’s a combination of all three admittedly very-real fears. Jay-Z has always been an innovator, undeniably capable of straddling the line between hood poet and party rocker, and he pulled it off effortlessly. But confusion is written all over this record. He’s a close-to-40-year-old artist in a rapidly changing, youth-driven hip-hop landscape. The pressure stemming from this disconnect is very real for him, not to mention being married in a game that idealizes promiscuity, the constant threat of competition (i.e. Drake, Wale, even contemporaries like Raekwon, who has pulled off a stellar long-awaited release without trend-baiting), and his obvious detachment from the streets that spawned his start. Jay-Z switching things up isn’t a bad thing (see: “I Just Wanna Love You”), but it will only truly be successful when it’s on his own terms.

*This post was originally uploaded Sept. 7 and has been edited for clarity.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. jeflee permalink*
    September 9, 2009 12:43 am

    *applause*

  2. Simon permalink*
    September 9, 2009 3:23 am

    Couldn’t agree more. If the final track on this album isn’t an overt concession to as much, then I’m left with the image of a young Jay-Z secretly spinning his Alphaville album, curled up on his bed singing into his hairbrush.

    Either way, I’m creeped out.

  3. September 9, 2009 9:47 am

    I purposely left out the Alphaville-sampling track because it was so blatant. But I guess that doesn’t serve my purpose at all and I should’ve referred to the song in the post. I actually dig Mr. Hudson’s vocals on there (I’m a fan-check out “White Lies”) but even that song isn’t Jay-Z. People might argue that his Annie-sampling on Vol. 2 was just as blatant, but I’d say it was pulled off a little more subtly. The New Wave-baiting feels like he just figured out that irony is cool again.

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