Jay-Z celebrated the release of his eleventh studio album with a free show for a few hundred lucky fans at Chicago’s House of Blues. I had the privilege of being one of those fans. As I stood waiting through two hours of DJ jams and Samsung promotional drivel, I had some time to ponder why exactly a rapper of Jay’s status would bother playing a one-off show at such a small venue. In the end, I supposed it is a question that can be answered with a question: “Why shouldn’t he?”
Jay-Z’s celebrity has completely eclipsed his personality. It has become nearly impossible to see Sean Carter the person without first seeing him as Jay-Z the rapper. But unlike other iconic figures –- Bono, Elvis, Paul McCartney –- Jay has always worn his heart on his sleeve, so there may not actually be that big a difference between the rapper and the person. He’s sold crack and a billion records, hobnobbed with world leaders, and married Beyonce. The most logical career move at any point from now on is for Jay to do…. whatever the hell he feels like. The only given is that he will tell us all about it.
Let’s be honest. Jay-Z is in uncharted territory with The Blueprint 3. Never before has a rapper reached middle age with his game intact. It may not be a cutting edge album musically, but it is significant in that he is setting the precedent for aging rap stars who can still sell out arenas. If The Blueprint was the formula for raising one’s social status through the music industry, The Blueprint 3 is the model for aging gracefully once stardom has been obtained.
Make no mistake; The Blueprint 3 is a soft album. Die-hard fans don’t like hearing this, but that’s only because they have been so programmed to believe that “soft” is synonymous with “lousy.” The 39-year-old Jigga is not all that concerned with guns and crack. He is preoccupied with what the majority of us consider everyday issues, albeit from the perspective of enormous wealth and fame: civic pride on “Empire State of Mind”, the differences between men and women on “Venus vs. Mars”, cherishing every moment on “Young Forever”. Unfortunately, Jay-Z still seems to be suffering from that on-again off-again passion thing, sounding always adequate but rarely convincing.
It is almost as if Jay-Z was pre-destined to be the biggest rapper of all time. His seminal debut, Reasonable Doubt, is still renowned for its gritty depiction of street life. It deserves every bit of credit it has been given, but the truth is it is about as sleek a debut as anyone has ever released. Just ten minutes into the album we’ve already heard Jay play off a soulful Mary J. Blige hook and hang bar-for-bar with one of the biggest rappers in the game, The Notorious B.I.G. No doubt Jay-Z’s star shone bright before it had even risen.
The artist on Reasonable Doubt was young and hungry and ready to take on the world. The Jay-Z we hear on The Blueprint 3 is middle-aged, well fed, but still looking for new ways to take on the world. On “What We Talkin’ About”, the album’s intro, he claims, “I don’t run rap no more / I run the map.” He goes on to chastise critics and fans that pine for a return to the street-hardened lyrics of his youth, asking why he would want to revisit the trauma of that lifestyle when he is doing so well without it. From the very beginning it is plain to see how much Jay-Z has matured within the rap game.
Musically, Jay continues to exert his authority over the rap scene, attacking rappers who use voice modulation as a crutch on the summer single, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune”, a song that’s most enjoyable moment comes when producer Kanye West is heard yelling, “You went too far!”
Hip hop heads are quick to tell you that Reasonable Doubt is Jay-Z’s greatest work. They are quite possibly right, but it is not his crowning moment. The first five years of Jay’s recording career saw his star rise as single after single dominated the radio. September 11, 2001 saw the release of The Blueprint. It was Jay-Z’s culminating achievement; a message to the world that not only was he in a different class from the DMX’s and Ja Rules of the world, he was going to tell you exactly how and why.
Part of what set The Blueprint apart from previous Jay-Z records is its lack of guests. Aside from a jaw-dropping performance from Eminem, the star of the show raps every verse of every song. This was Jay’s declaration of independence, his proof that he was the best rap had to offer. If nobody is better than you, shouldn’t you be able to put out a masterpiece on your own?
With his ability to hold down a hit record single-handedly no longer in doubt, Jay was quick to return to bringing his friends along. The Blueprint 2 is riddled with guest artists ranging from uninspiring to phenomenal. The same can be said about The Blueprint 3. Rihanna’s sing-along “hey hey” livens up the hit single “Run This Town”. Kanye guests on two tracks and produces a bunch. He fares better than Young Jeezy, who trades a few boring verses with Jay on “Real As It Gets”, a song dominated by Jigga’s claim to be “the rap equivalent of Braille”, whatever the hell that means. Elsewhere he gives up-and-comers J. Cole, Kid Cudi and Drake a chance to shine with varying results.
Thanks in part to geography and iconography, but mostly to sheer chance, Jay-Z will forever be linked to the 9-11 terrorist attacks. His coronation as the world’s greatest rapper just happened to sync up with the falling of the towers, and the New York connection tied it all together in a poetic bundle.
Just as every New Yorker, Jay-Z was profoundly affected by the events of 9-11, and not surprisingly it often comes out in his art. The most notable example on The Blueprint 3 is found on “Thank You” when he uses the metaphor of the attack on The World Trade Center to describe the vanquish of his rap foes. The illustration is crass, but creative, and a good example of how ingrained that day has become in the consciousness of America.
But it’s “Empire State of Mind” that will grab the headlines. Jay’s duet with Alicia Keys honors the cultural elements of his hometown. It’s part of a new wave of geographically biased rap songs that celebrate more than just hardness of a town; more “Homecoming” than “Straight Outta Compton”. Still, for all the song’s positivity, Jay can’t avoid a bit of a downer of a final verse leaving it on a bittersweet note.
It’s become a cliché to say that Jay-Z’s boasts aren’t as much pompous as they are simple statements of fact. Still, it bears repeating because it is so remarkably true. If rap’s strength is found in its reflection of reality, Jay reflects his personal reality about as accurately as he can. Just as Reasonable Doubt earned such high praise for the realism of the hustler life, so The Blueprint deserves credit for its depiction of what Jay-Z had become. In his own words, “I do this for my culture / To let’em know what a nigga looks like when a nigga’s in a roaster.” Never has an album seemingly about so little been about so much.
Jay-Z has not lost any of the self-confidence and swagger that has marked his career. But at this stage of his career it is hard to imagine anyone being terribly offended by his cockiness. In contrast to his much-maligned protégé Kanye West, there is an air of sophistication that seems to go along with Jay’s boasts.
So now we need to talk about what may sound on the surface like Jay-Z’s most absurd boast to date. Right off the bat he lets us know that he considers himself a “small part of the reason the president’s black.” But is this really such a crazy claim? Obviously Barack Obama won the election convincingly enough that he would have taken it with or without Jay’s help, but it’s hard to argue that the rapper’s respected status doesn’t carry any political weight.
The biggest mistake critics and fans make regarding Jay-Z is to judge him based strictly on his music. To do so ignores the artist’s incredible impact on pop culture, his importance to the genre of hip hop, and his ability to positively impact his community through the name he has made for himself. No, Jay-Z’s endorsement did not directly lead to Obama’s election, but the success of both men is evidence of positive racial change in America. At the very least, the relationship between Jay’s black president and his blue diamonds is a little more tangible than it would appear to the naked eye.
When the curtain finally went up at the House of Blues any question of “why” dissipated as Jay-Z took the stage and tore through an hour’s worth of hits. On top of everything else, he is an excellent live performer and the energy he brings is proof of the real reason he is still doing this. Jay-Z still loves rap and we love him. His new album may not be his best, but it is another window into the fascinating life of rap’s greatest of all time.