Jay-Z Returns to the Spotlight

“Reasonable Doubt,” Jay-Z’s debut album, catapulted him into the spotlight and after more than 13 years later, after numerous successes and failures, after moments of genius and misguidance, he still sits within the public’s eye. One thing you can count on about Sean Carter is that he will never give up the limelight. Such is the case for his eleventh studio album, “Blueprint 3” – his alleged final installment of the “Blueprint” series. But, you never really know what to expect when it comes to Jay-Z.

Just because Jay-Z is in the constant limelight does not mean that he is producing quality work. In fact, the “Blueprint 3” is probably on the lower end of his spectrum of albums. That charismatic, witty, harmonic rap star we fell in love with on “Reasonable Doubt” has disappeared after his retirement after the “Black Album.” Since then, Jay-Z has been experimenting with different balances, styles and beats to return to the top of his game only to fall short each time; the “Blueprint 3” is no exception.

At the same time it is important to note that even a less than mediocre album from Jay-Z is better than most other hip-hop albums. The “Blueprint 3” may be below par compared to Jay’s other albums, but keep in mind that is an incredibly high threshold to pass – a standard that over half of hip-hop cannot pass.

The album kicks off strongly with the track entitled “What We Talking About,” one of the better tracks on the album. In fact, “What We Talking About” is the closest that “Blueprint 3” gets to classic Jay-Z, and frankly, it does not do much to achieve its success. Jay raps a simple rhyme to an exciting jazz-influenced beat that is distinctly New York. But Jay-Z’s simplicity is a strength, not a weakness. It allows a constant flow in the lyrics that draws the audience into the track, something that has been absent in Jay’s recent work. Yes, it may lack the creativity to make it a huge hit, but it’s a solid track nonetheless.

However, the first track is not reflective of the rest of the album. Jay hits a lot of bumps and snags on the way to the other end of the cover. The main problem is that he no longer sounds natural; his lyrics don’t consistently mesh together in a synonymous flow with its background.

The worst offender of this is, surprisingly enough, his first released track off the album, “Death of Autotune (D.O.A).” The ingredients for a great hit are present in the track – a great beat, a diss and a creative, new sound from Jay-Z. Whats missing? Flow and lyric. Though I appreciate his attempt at an innovative sound, not only does the tempo and style of the vocals clash with the beat, but his lyrics are choppy and uninspired. Combined, these make this track a train wreck.

One instance where his innovativeness pays some dividends is “Hate” featuring Kanye West. Here, Jay-Z steps out of his comfort zone and into an electronica/techno influenced beat courtesy of Kanye. This track is an innovative hit – the chaotic nature of the techno beat complements Jay-Z’s ability to rap at different speeds and incorporate pauses. The result? Music for the robot age.

The best track on the album is “Empire State of Mind,” which sounds like a song straight off the “Black Album.” For the first time on the album everything fits together perfectly. The track sports a remarkable beat with heavy emphasis on the keyboard, something Jay used quite a bit during his prime. Maybe it’s the return of the keyboard, but it’s like Jay-Z never retired.

It’s worth mentioning again that while the “Blueprint 3” is a bit a of disappointment, it is only so because the standard for Jay-Z albums are so high. The “Blueprint 3” does fall on the lower end of the spectrum of Jay-Z’s albums. Yet, despite key failures in the album, there are also certain moments of genius which begs the question: can Jay once again become as fresh as the H.O.V? Riddle me that.