Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3: Review – Part 2: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Blogs
Commercial rap music (defined loosely as music designed for release through public consumption for profit… in all forms) is at a definitive crossroads at the moment. This is an insanely obvious point and I feel like an ill-informed Time Magazine writer for bringing it up (but bring it up I shall because clichés work for quick-hand narrative purposes. And I loves me some quick-hand narratives). Illegal downloading has slaughtered execution-style the rap music industry to the point, nobody has any notion of what is going to sell in a climate where a consumer can freely sample anything he or she (but let’s be honest with hip hop, she’s probably a he wants. Even the scions of gangster rap, the tried and true bread winner of the major label system, have watched as their Soundscan numbers march off into commercial irrelevancy (not to mention artistic bankruptcy but that’s neither here or there). This naturally created a talent vacuum at the top of the major label system and increasingly desperate record executives began looking at different types of venues to discover and cultivate new artists. Enter the blogs and the rise of hipster rap.
What would have been unthinkable just a few years prior has led the major labels to take chances on a series of oddball rap acts that derive their inspiration not from streets of Bed-Stuy but from Williamsburg and the indie culture that surrounds it. Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne (yeah, “The Carter III” is a hipster rap album, folks. Don’t front like that sounds like some Hot Boys shit!) were perhaps the forefront of the movement and one of the few artists still selling major units. Soon artists like Wale, Kid CuDi and Charles Hamilton were being snatched up by the major labels for their more off-beat sensibilities and the hype that it was generating on the blogs. This brings me to “The Blueprint 3.”
The early critical word for the third (and final?) installment has been resoundingly negative. That’s actually not a strong enough statement to convey the level of vitriol “BP3” has fostered from critics. “Blueprint 3” has been met with the type of scathing, uncontrollable rage that is saved for gun-toting, health care protesters (and their amoral, lying, greedy backers in the insurance industry looking to exploit their fear of Obama’s skin color into some delusional, twisted defense of small government. Let’s put it this way: If you aren’t for a public option, I consider you to be the lowest form of human being. How dare you attempt to prevent poor folks from acquiring a basic human necessity for survival on this planet, you selfish fuck?! Fuck you and the diseased, corrupt horse you rode in! Yeah, I’m fucking mad! Fuck you! But I digress…). Jay’s foray into hipster rap has not been met well. Admittedly, I was ready to pounce on the album myself (we all know how I love hating on shit) but a funny thing happened on the way to the meat grinder… I found I actually liked the album.
“The Blueprint 3” is Jay’s most honest and thoughtful work since he un-retired and something of quiet (or rather a loud, grandiose...) revelation for an artist whose done it all. It’s about the pratfalls of growing up when nobody wants you to change in the slightest. It’s about what you are going to do when all your friends want to do is keep you down and learning to not care about what they think, anyway. This isn’t the groan-inducing, grown man status symbolisms of “Kingdom Come” nor the forced, retro crackisms of “American Gangster.” It’s funnier and more loose than its predecessor allowing Jay to grow a bit of confidence in his new direction. Jay is finally making the record that he’s been trying to make since “The Black Album” served as the swan song to the first act of his career. He wasn’t quite ready to make this record on “Kingdom Come” where his enthusiasm for creating the world’s first adult contemporary rap album overrode any semblance of fun on the record. As for “American Gangster,” there was always something a bit dishonest with that record. On “Kingdom Come,” he spent a good portion of the record talking about how he was so grown and passed all that gun talk shit but one year later after he had released the most critically savaged record of his career, he was right back into the crack narratives talking about how he was inspired by a run-of-the-mill (albeit entertaining and well-made) gangster movie. It seemed calculated to appeal to the true school purists and new school Jeezy fans who craved Jay in his prime. It didn’t feel right. “Blueprint 3” feels right for a man who is 39 years old, married man with more responsibilities than dreams.
Sonically, this record is not going to appeal to everybody. It bares little resemblance to the classic Jay of yesteryear and has more in common with “808s and Heartbreak”, Justin Timberlake’s “FutureSexLoveSounds” and Kid CuDi than it does with “Reasonable Doubt.” It’s basically a litmus test for the futuristic, space rap that seems perpetually on the verge of breaking through and achieving mainstream notoriety. Jay’s two main collaborator’s on the album, Timbaland and Kanye West, provide Jay with some dark, foreboding spacey synth beats to rap over. “Empire State Of Mind”, “On To The Next One”, and even the much maligned “Off That” are standout tracks. If Cudi’s album had beats as good on this as Jay’s does I would be a very proud Shakerite. The production on the album, once again, belies Jay’s penchant for trying something unique in his quixotic quest to stay relevant. Personally, I feel it succeeds. The presence of blog rap luminaries such as Drake, J. Cole and Cudi himself help guide the process as well.
The album is, of course, far from flawless and Jay’s relative inexperience dabbling in with this type of music can create some missteps. “Reminder” is 4 minutes and 18 seconds of futuro asininity and “Hate” is a song that can be classified as torture weapon in 86 different countries. Of course, Jay isn’t remotely close to being a great rapper anymore and there is without a doubt a few moments of groan-inducing, sub-Kanyeezyian puns on this record (Yoga jokes, Jay? Really? Ew.) but ultimately, this isn’t really enough to sabotage the record. The music, he’s crafting is far too affecting and personal to let the little matter that Jay can’t rap anymore ruin the proceedings.
However, I do have one major caveat to the record. The continued, artistic disaster that is “D.O.A.” Now while I’ve warmed to No I.D.’s production on this (yes, it fucking bangs but that’s irrelevant to why it sucks so much...), its presence on this record is even more glaring and dishonest than I initially thought. I had thought that “D.O.A.” was suggesting Hov was going to make an elitist, true school record with sub par rapping and sniping at the younger generation’s music. This seemed completely dishonest of Jay and it created a nasty visceral distaste in me. “D.O.A.”, however, has no place on this album. It adds nothing to the proceedings and its presence almost acts as apology for betraying his New York gutter roots. It serves almost to negate the confidence he has in making such a record in the first place especially when no less than three records actually use “auto-tune.” Don’t apologize, Jay. Own up to what you are doing!
Ultimately, “The Blueprint 3” is an enjoyable if flawed record. Its definitely not one of his major artistic achievements but it does offer promise that Jay has a bit more left in the tank than I initially thought. He seems ready to finally give up the childishness of his previous swagger and street talk and focus on what matters to him now as an artist. This is far from the reputation ruining embarrassment that a few of my more histrionic colleagues are calling it. And yes, we needed another Blueprint after all.