Jay-Z The Blueprint 3

[Roc Nation; 2009]

Styles: Jay-Z minus the swagga
Others: Biggie Smalls, Young Chris, Kanye West

There was a time when no one on the corner (or Fifth Avenue, for that matter) had swagga like Jay-Z. He was Hova, a god MC among mere rap mortals. He was the King of hip-hop’s Mecca, boasting “if I ain't better than Big, I'm the closest one” with peerless conviction. He was the modern pusha, putting on for Marcy and the Roc. He was Jay Guevara, revolutionizing music with his “Blueprint classic.”

But that venerated moment took place nearly a decade ago, and so much has transpired since: Kanye became Yeezy and Wayne became ubiquitous, the South rose, Auto-Tune was reborn, and his rivals claimed his swagga for themselves. So, although Jay-Z may have painted it black and giftedly scored the life and times of Frank Lucas, The Blueprint, with its all-conquering lead-single, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” sure feels – hindsight-20/20 – like a pinnacle, a jubilant apex to never again be matched. And, as the old saying goes, what goes up must come down. Which brings us to Jay-Z’s latest failed attempt at swagga reclamation, The Blueprint 3, an album that doesn't look forward or break new ground but instead neurotically and longingly invokes the past.

Imitation has always been a key element of Jay-Z’s raps. We – fans and heads alike – designated it to be a form of flattery (“I say a BIG verse, I'm only biggin’ up my brother”) rather than thievery (“How much of Biggie's rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips?”), primarily because he was aping the lyrics of the greats. So there was no risk of undetected plagiarism. The idea being: swagga-jacking is acceptable when it is transparent. Since The Blueprint, however, this imitation has gradually strayed toward thievery.

Beginning with The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse, Jay-Z’s imitation has concerned the more difficult-to-discern realm of aesthetics. There are his “ughs” on lead-single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” But, again, since they are a clear imitation of Biggie Smalls’ more-pronounced “uuughs,” first made famous on “Big Poppa,” we pass a blind-eye. More egregious is Jay-Z’s recently employed “whisper flow.” This distinctive style, far from original, can most directly be traced back to the early-2000s Philly Sound, made famous by Beanie Sigel and his group State Property. It was, specifically, Young Gunz member Young Chris (“Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” “Talk of the City”) who crafted the raspy, near-whisper flow that has greatly defined Jay-Z’s own style since, uncoincidently, State Property signed to Roc-A-Fella Records. Swagga-jacking young MCs is never a good look, especially when the culprit is a legend.

Selling records has never been an issue for Jay-Z -- 14 platinum-selling albums proves that point. In fact, it has come so easy that he often had to defend his success in the past: “Say that I'm foolish I only talk about jewels (bling bling)/ Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” This success can be attributed to Jay-Z’s ability to fashion popular lead singles. But, these singles were more then simply hit records; they were coronations: trends were established -- the use of unconventional samples (“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”), rap’s materialism (“Big Poppa”) -- and careers were made -- Beyoncé (“’03 Bonnie & Clyde”) and Pharrell (“I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”) as solo artists. Jay-Z’s influence was consummate.

Such influence is noticeably lacking on The Blueprint 3. Street-single “D.O.A.,” which seeks to end what was always a fad, still gloriously fails. And how could it not when Jay-Z pardoned the primary culprits -- Kanye, Wayne, and T-Pain -- on Hot 97? Pop-single “Run This Town,” rather then crowning Jay-Z as ruler, makes you wonder who exactly is running things. The song, after all, was originally a Rihanna joint that Jay-Z co-opted and works primarily because of her superb chorus. Then there is that familiar issue of Jay-Z getting murdered on his own shit, as protégé Kanye surpasses mentor on "Run This Town": “I know that if I stay stunting/ All these girls only gon’ want one thing/ I can spend my whole life good will hunting, Only good gon’ come is its good when I’m coming.”

Thematically, this loss of swagga is manifested via a longing, as Jay-Z takes us back to the history of rap on “A Star Is Born” (“Have seen Mase do it, seen Ye do it, X came through, caught lighter fluid/ Still I came through it, clap for ‘em”), to his own past on “Forever Young” (“The champagne's always cold, And the music's always good, And the pretty girls just happen to stop by on the hood, /And they hop their pretty ass up on the hood of that pretty ass car […] Just a picture perfect day that lasts a whole lifetime, And it never ends because all we have to do is hit rewind”), and to the annals of the city that raised him on “Empire State of Mind” (“Long live the World Trade, long live the King yo, I’m from the Empire state”). Indeed, even though Jay-Z promises to move “On To The Next One” with Swizz Beats and “to talk about the future” on “What We Talkin’ About,” his words and attitude say otherwise.

On September 11, 2001, Jay-Z turned loss into great artistic gains. A city seemed poised to lose its way, but one of its favorite sons didn't let it happen. Eight years later, not only does the same son steal from the past, but he seems stuck in it, resigned to live off past glories: “I’m in The Hall already, on the wall already/ I’m a work of art, I'm Warhol already/ On another level, on another plane already, H-O-V” ("Already Home"). On The Blueprint 3, Jay-Z, for arguably the first time in his career, sounds tired and old; too tired and too old to create a new blueprint, but not to create a third copy; too tired and too old to create new styles and ideas, but not to regurgitate them; too tired and too old to tell a new story, but not to tell an old story of a time when swagga belonged to the gods, one in particular.

1. What We Talkin' About ft. Luke Steele
2. Thank You
3. D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)
4. Run This Town ft. Kanye West and Rihanna
5. Empire State of Mind ft. Alicia Keys
6. Real As It Gets ft Young Jeezy
7. On To the Next One ft. Swizz Beatz
8. Off That ft. Drake
9. A Star is Bortn ft. J. Cole
10. Venus VS. Mars
11. Already Home ft. Kid Cudi
12. Hate ft. Kanye West
13. Reminder
14. So Ambitious ft. Pharrell
15. Young Forever ft. Mr. Hudson

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