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.
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