By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
By Hilary Hughes
By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
It bears repeating that one of the reasons The Blueprint 3 is coming out in 2009 instead of 2008 is that Jay-Z was pretty busy at this time last year working to get Barack Obama elected, calling himself "a small part of the reason the president is black" on BP3's "What We Talkin' About." Improbably, this is actually true. At a moment when Carter was so confused about to whom he wanted to speak that he had, on his last album, basically pretended to be somebody else, Obama gave hip-hop's most prominent ambassador a new position to play. This was grown-man shit writ historical: Jay could put on the suit and live the straight life for a purpose higher than his own jaded amusement. And he did, recording ads for Obama in swing states like Michigan, rallying the base in North Philadelphia the day before the election, and, without making much of a fuss about it, getting in line at 6 a.m. the morning of November 4 to vote for the man at whose inauguration ball his wife would perform two short months later.
So forgive his bad ear here: "Let's talk about the future/We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther/Now you could choose to sit in front of your computer posing with guns, shootin' YouTube up/Or you could come with me to the White House, get your suit up." (On Kingdom Come, this sounded a lot more like "Ya'll drink Dom, but not Rosé." OK!) It's as awkward coming out of Jay's mouth as it looks on the page, but as mission statements go, see, now we're getting somewhere. The object of this scolding might not be his typical demographic, but that's the whole point: He's imagining a new one.
Quietly, much of Blueprint 3 is about the weird, meta-rap work of redefining what it is to be a boss. On "So Ambitious," Jay-Z transcends Pharrell's jaundiced production to gently rewrite his own well-chronicled life story: "I felt so inspired by what my teacher said/Said I'd either be dead or a reefer head/Not sure if that's how adults should speak to kids/'Specially when the only thing I did was speak in class—I'd teach his ass." These days, the way he tells it, hustling wasn't destiny, but revenge on those who couldn't imagine any other path for kids who came from Marcy. ("If anyone made it, you never knew it," Carter recently told Oprah, as the two of them stiffly lounged on a set of Bed-Stuy steps. "That's why I've always said that if I became successful, I'd come back here, grab somebody, and show him how it can be done.") What's more, he's showing them what comes next. Back on his debut, Reasonable Doubt, Jay bragged about having "the mannerisms of a young Bobby DeNiro"; now, on "Empire State of Mind," he's living right next to the guy, down in Tribeca. Once, it mattered that the city was his. Now, he's giving it back: "Welcome to the melting pot/Corners where we selling rock/Afrika Bambaata shit, home of the hip-hop."
But can Jay-Z still rap? Like Jordan wearing the 45, Jay's not the wickedly smooth, lyrically arrogant technician he once was. Where he used to taunt by dumbing things down, now, the strain of putting together more than a few quality bars in one go is audible. (Auh!) But that doesn't mean he can't do it—just ask Young Jeezy, who lends Jay a gauzy Inkredibles beat and BP3's best hook, only to have the song snatched right away from him: "At a snail's pace, I won this race that y'all trail/Blueprint's for sale/Follow in my footprints, you can't fail/Set sail/I used to duck shots, but now I eat quail." Bourgeois, sure, but at least he's being honest. And those—i.e., most of us—who miss the titanic, world-beating Jay-Z of the first Blueprint or Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life, need look no further than "On to the Next One," which rides an ocean-size Swizz Beatz "D.A.N.C.E." sample to some semblance of old-Jay bliss: "Baby, I'm a boss, I don't know what they do/I don't get dropped, I drop the label."
Of course, that's inside baseball—Carter bought out his Def Jam contract earlier this year for $5 million, a figure we know because he mentions it on the record, just as we know how much old-friends-turned-enemies Dame Dash and Jaz-O made hanging out with their onetime protégé. As recently as last year, The Blueprint 3 might well have been nothing but this kind of thing, a devilishly stultifying combination of industry-spectator Bob Lefsetz's Lefsetz Letter and Gulfstream's newest private-airplane catalog. That it's not is an accomplishment in and of itself. Chalk it up to the man currently in the White House, or to that looming big 4-0, or to that old sense of engagement, which, at long last, Shawn Carter seems to have discovered once again.
Jay-Z plays Madison Square Garden September 11