“Hurry up, get in here!” I shouted at my girlfriend from two rooms and, more importantly, two hard corners away. I said this with the sense of urgency actor Bill Paxton summoned for his role in the film Twister. Helen Hunt was immediately rumbling my way. She boogied in with jaw dropped and brows perked, probably expecting to see a severed finger on the floor and blood spatter designs up and down the walls. Or possibly a funnel cloud on the horizon. Sitting on the couch with a smile, I said “listen to this,” then clicked the play button. I could see it on her face, she was ready to be angry at me for working her up, but she couldn’t. The song coming out of the speaker was good enough that she understood why I’d gone into Paxton Mode. The song was Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” track five on his 14th (counting those dreadful R. Kelly and Linkin Park collabs) studio album, The Blueprint 3.
I’d heard the album’s lead single, “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune),” which is also great, so I knew the album might have some good cuts on it. But I couldn’t have expected this. “Empire,” produced by newcomer Al Shux, is the cream of 3’s crop, but not the only cut worth hearing. Its heavy drums and old school approach to piano sampling feel both fresh and nostalgic. Everything about it, aside from the annoying Alicia Keys hook, is spot on – especially Jay’s vocals, which flow perfectly over Shux’ sure-to-be-classic piano loop. A new signature song for one of hip-hop’s signature artists, a rare treat. Maybe the best mainstream hip-hop track of 2009.
Over half of the production on 3 is supplied by the beat-making team of Kanye West and his noted mentor, No I.D., a Chicago-based produced most famous for producing Common’s first three records. 3 kicks off with four consecutive No I.D. beats, three of which are co-produced by West and all of which are great. The remaining production is provided by The Neptunes, Neptunes wannabees The Inkredibles, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland (who was at one time slated to produced the whole of the record). None of the beats here are downright bad (save for one all-out rip-off cut), but that’s not surprising, considering that 3 – the third and final installment of Jay’s Blueprint series – is one of the most hyped albums of 2009. Pretty much all of Jay’s vocal performances are pretty stellar, too, and sometimes even excellent. His writing is predictable, entertaining and effective. But this isn’t a perfect album. Not even close. More on that later; first, lets talk about the incredible amount of hype that’s surrounded this record.
Not sure why, but hip-hop fans get all excited whenever Jay releases an album with the word “blueprint” in the title. His first, released on September 11, 2001, was at the time considered to be one of the best mainstream hip-hop albums ever released. And sure, it’s good, but it hasn’t aged as well as earlier hip-hop classics have, including Jay’s own debut, Reasonable Doubt. His second Blueprint album sold very well, likely due to the success of the first record in the series, but was panned by critics. Fans, too, eventually wrote the overly long, unfocused record off. Despite poor fan and critical reactions to the second Blueprint album, the Internet started buzzing more than ever when DJ Clue played an unreleased Jay-Z song that he claimed was the first cut from the new Blueprint album – a record Jay hadn’t even started recorded yet. In the almost two years since the DJ Clue slip-up, a large number of Jay songs have hit the Internet touted as Blueprint 3 songs, though none are on the actual album. (One can only assume that Jay has a rat in his crew.) Songs are being leaked. Because of this, Jay decided to properly record his album in Hawaii with only a small group of his people around.
One would think that, with all this hype and all the work Jay put in on this album, The Blueprint 3 would be the real deal. And I’d love to tell you that it is. It’s not. Too many guests, for one. Too many different styles of production. Too many cheesy hooks and too much by-the-books writing. Cuts like “Run This Town” and “Already Home” (which features an amazing West beat) would be new classics if Jay didn’t play it so conventional by today’s standards (i.e. not every amazing beat you get your hands on needs an R&B hook and a guest verse). “Hate,” produced by and featuring West, is downright awful, even ironically featuring the autotone sound West used on his latest solo LP, 808s and Heatbreak. Closer “Young Forever” features a prominent sample of Alphaville’s 80s synthpop classic, “Forever Young.” It’s miserable, and both West (who lazily produced the knock-off) and Jay should be ashamed.
But hey, we have the No I.D. produced tracks and we have a new classic in “Empire State of Mind.” These four new classics – combined with four or five additional keepers – would’ve made for a great short album. The Blueprint 3 is no Reasonable Doubt, Blueprint or Black Album, but it’s better than the average Jay release. If only this dude could skip the guests, perform his own hooks, diversify his lyrical content and work with fewer producers, he’d be able to put out the kind of records that would support his legacy. His overrated but oh-so-promising legacy.