By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
OK, so he speaks in yoga metaphors and describes wealth that regular humans can't hope to comprehend. Auh! His late career adjustments to the forever-young rap game consist mostly of the genre's most repulsive ad-lib—auh!—and indifferent patronage toward hip-hop's untested and uneven class of '09. Auh! He mispronounces as many as two out of the three words in the brand name "Maison Martin Margiela," though no one doubts he can afford it. Auh! And, though this part is painful to admit, pretty much every working rapper has put out better music in 2009 than Jay-Z has. Auh! Yet here we are. Auh! On the occasion of his 11th studio album, The Blueprint 3, and at the doorstep of his 40th birthday, what are we to make of Jay-Z?
As theater, Shawn Carter's decision to "retire" with 2003's The Black Album was characteristically surefooted. It took a mythological career that began with Jaz-O and Big Daddy Kane and Biggie Smalls, and the first real stirrings of rap's burgeoning commercial ascendance, and posited that career's end as the genre's crowning achievement. (Hell, all of music's crowning achievement—Jay wasn't making Beatles references for nothing.) The very idea of rap retirement was Jay's putative last gift to the game—ask Rakim what he did in the years after his records stopped selling. Most of all, the decision to stop rapping provided fresh artistic motivation to a guy who always seemed to bore easily, not least on 2002's sprawling The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse. "What more can I say to you?" Jay asked on The Black Album. "You've heard it all."
As for the inevitable unretirement, well, that was spectacular theater, too, if of a different sort. Carter announced his 2006 return to the game via a Budweiser Select commercial that shoehorned the rapper into the middle of a two-way, Ian Fleming–inspired road race between the NASCAR drivers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. In another version of the clip, which half of the country saw when it premiered during the Super Bowl, he outcoached Miami Dolphins pigskin genius Don Shula in a simulated game of football. The eventual November comeback album, Kingdom Come, introduced the world to the phrase "30's the new 20." The day the record came out, Jay-Z was two weeks short of turning 37.
By the end of that year, Jay and his old rival, Nas (who released Hip Hop Is Dead that same fall), had combined to make the two most famous midlife-crisis records in rap history. The artist himself would later tacitly admit that he had no idea who the fuck Kingdom Come had been made for, explaining that he had named his next album after the 2007 Ridley Scott drug-dealing flick American Gangster in part because of his gratitude over how the film helped him get in touch with the more youthful Shawn Carter, i.e., the one his fans actually wanted to hear rap. Gangster had given Jay-Z an excuse to pretend like he wasn't currently living a life in which Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were two of his best friends. Whether there was an audience for the irrevocably grown-up Jay-Z—the one with an art-filled Tribeca loft and a BlackBerry full of dudes who wore suits to work—that was a question for another time.
Well, time's up. On The Blueprint 3, he tries out "A Milli"–inspired production trends, YouTube, an English accent, MDMA (twice), Alphaville's "Forever Young," synthy Southern trap-rap, a Justice sample, Futuresex/Lovesounds cast-offs, an Empire of the Sun–sung chorus, and a couple of sublimely ineffective PDA-related sex metaphors. A disproportionate amount of the record is concerned with the get-off-my-lawn business of killing trends—AutoTune, cashmere sweatpants, stabbing people in the club, throwback jerseys, Timberland boots—that Jay-Z often helped father in the first place. On "Off That," he teams up with the megastar newcomer Drake to ruin a vibrantly futuristic Timbaland beat with an entire litany of shit Carter doesn't do anymore, a concept that's about as compelling as it sounds. And "D.O.A. (Death of AutoTune)," with its myopic obsession with an inanimate digital technology and discordant No I.D. production, is easily the most uncomfortable Jay-Z single, ever. "My raps don't have melodies," the rapper avers, mere seconds before No I.D. brings in the mournfully melodic clarinet. What?
Nor are BP3's missteps limited to sheer crankiness. "Venus vs. Mars," with its Mac/PC, Pepsi/Coke punning advice-column sex talk, suggests a man whose reputedly monogamous relationship with one of the most beautiful people in the world has left him ill-prepared to whisper in another woman's ear. "A Star Is Born," on which Jay contemplates passing the torch to any number of rappers (including his own Roc Nation signee J. Cole, who has a lively verse on the song), but then doesn't, splits the difference between patronizing and bizarre. And as for "Young Forever," the Mr. Hudson–featuring, Alphaville-flipping, graduation-synthing ode to a future "where the sun is always out and you never get old"—actually, the less said about that, the better.