Jay-Z

"The Blueprint 3" (Roc Nation) -- 4 STARS

Back in 2003, while Jay-Z was busy planning his retirement party at Madison Square Garden, critics and fans alike were sharing a knowing smirk and gathering on forums to place bets on the release date of his inevitable comeback album. Surely the Bob Dylan of hip-hop wouldn’t be able to stay away from the studio for long before whipping up another street-lauded aural epic of ghetto American dreams. Six years later, the former Marcy Projects hustler has confirmed these suspicions with three post-retirement studio releases and a smattering of collaborations and compilations, but on “The Blueprint 3,” his eleventh LP, Jay-Z aligns quantity with quality, reaffirming his status as one of hip-hop’s greats.

Instead of chopping just one lyrically weak foe down to size with his usual scathing battle raps, Jay sent a whole slew of cookie-cutter rappers running for cover in early June with an airwave alert in the form of “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” Throwing down the gauntlet to a burgeoning generation of indistinguishably mechanized MCs, Jay holds no punches, rattling off a list of rap game faux pas: “You boys’ jeans too tight / your colors too bright / your voice too light.” Dangling his past commercial successes before these young wannabes, Jay-Z taunts, “I know we facing a recession / but the music y’all making gonna make it the Great Depression.”

It’s been over a decade since Jay-Z could truly lay claim to the hard-knock life, and with a fortieth birthday approaching this year, it’s easy to assume that perhaps “The Blueprint 3” only amounts to the crotchety grumbling of a disconcerted old-timer, unsettled and upset with the ungodly direction in which youth culture is headed. Yet Jay-Z does more than simply advocate for the good old days of baggier pants and violence-inducing rhymes, rather offering a long-overdue invitation to up-and-comers to test the waters of innovation, noting on “D.O.A.,” “I don’t be in the project hallway / talking about how I be in the project all day / that sounds stupid to me.” On “Off That,” Jay-Z even pairs up with newcomer Drake to denounce some of the ostentatious antics rappers are best known for, including “steady chasing the fame,” “oversize clothes and the chains,” those that are “still makin’ it rain,” rims, and Timberland boots.

Paired with the distinctly tweaked soul sound of Kanye West, “The Blueprint 3” plays out like a smoky reminiscence of days gone by with equal parts bravado and modesty. On “A Star is Born,” he graciously plays the part of the seasoned champion, asking for applause on behalf of Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye, 50 Cent, T.I., Eminem, Outkast, and several other noteworthy MCs, while simultaneously passing the torch to Lil’ Wayne and Drake and placing himself in a class above all the rest. The boasts aren’t unfounded—guest verses and hooks by the likes of Rihanna, Swizz Beatz, Young Jeezy, J. Cole, and Alicia Keys, along with a couple of ill-conceived Timbaland-produced tracks mostly serve as filler that only distract from the main attraction.

Luckily, the scrappy kid from Bed-Stuy hasn’t been completely put to rest, as evidenced on “Already Home,” featuring Kid Cudi. Jay-Z’s normally smooth, swaggering vocals veer towards ragged exasperation while he rebuffs his critics’ futile attempts to render him irrelevant: “But really the fact is, we not in the same bracket, / Not in the same league, don’t shoot at the same baskets, / Don’t pay the same taxes… / So how am I in the way, what is it I’m missing?” Likewise, on “Forever Young,” he reassures us, “When the director yells ‘Cut,’ I’ll be fine, I’m forever young.” In an increasingly commercialized genre that’s lost some of its finest lyricists in the glow of their youth, a living legend’s promise to stick around is certainly well-received. While a true retirement is inevitably in the works for Jay-Z at some point in the future, his latest effort is less a vain attempt at new heights than an expertly crafted reminder of just how he reached the top in the first place.

—Staff writer Roxanne J. Fequiere can be reached at rjfeq@fas.harvard.edu.