Once again, the enormous and increasingly joyless shadow of Jay-Hova has been cast over the vast, still-Auto-Tuned expanse of hip-hop.
Set for official release on September 11 in conjunction with a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund (but already leaked online to mixed reaction), The Blueprint 3 is the latest full-length attempt by the kid humbly born Shawn Carter in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects to create a world-historical event horizon around what is essentially another slab of professionally produced rap product.
Sure, his contribution to the 9/11 cause is a wonderful, hometown gesture, and only fools question whether Jay-Z is still an ace MC-his meticulously composed lyrics are full of challenging flows, witty punning wordplay, and admirable attempts at social significance amid the usual narcissistic hoo-ha. And to be honest, the much-nitpicked American Gangster remains consistently underrated ("Roc Boys" easily ranks as one of his most exhilarating moments).
But overall, post 2003's The Black Album, Jay-Z has been, as a maker of simply enjoyable music, a bit of a pill (like his bratty semi-protégé Kanye West). He carries on as if his every artistic decision is a manifesto that'll have a crucial, altering impact on our daily lives. And he parses his lyrics as if they're texts that'll be pored over one day like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Unfortunately, there's a pre-emptive sense that the new album is no big whoop. In fact, Jay's already diverting attention by hyping his next project as more "experimental," which is troubling, given his recent shout-out to the "inspiring" indie-rock "movement" after attending a Grizzly Bear show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I'll reserve judgment on the long-term merits of The Blueprint 3; it's got its highs and lows, and personally I'd rather rewatch the video of DMX rapid-fire babbling about getting in Jay's ass at a "pool hall in the Bronx," but that's just my pathology. For now, though,there's only one valid, critical question: Will The Blueprint 3 rock a Labor Day weekend barbecue?
Let's take the track list from the top and decide.
1. "What We Talkin' About" feat. Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: If you're at the sort of barbecue where people dig extended semantic arguments over a sample of a fruity Australian psych-pop tune that could be a Xanadu outtake. But hopefully, you're actually having fun.
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Indeed. The No. I.D./Kanye production has a laidback, free-flowin', '90s-money vibe with a reassuring horn bleat, while Jay precisely spouts a bunch of winningly arrogant bullshit like only he can. Welcome refrain: "We are really high / Really high tonight."
3. "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)"
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Yeah, but do you really want it to?
4. "Run This Town" feat. Kanye West and Rihanna
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Sure, who doesn't wanna imagine ruling whatever zip code you may inhabit while simultaneously air-guitaring and fantasizing about sipping Dom Perignon with Rihanna on a yacht in the Caribbean. Of course, you gotta listen to Kanye going on and on about how groupies only want him for his ends, but c'est la vie.
5. "Empire State of Mind" feat. Alicia Keys
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Weirdly, no. As nostalgic, name-dropping displays of overblown New York pride go, it's just a little too subdued; the piano-plinking production never goes anywhere, Alicia Keys sounds phoned-in, and the Anna Wintour reference is just plain goofy.
6. "Real As It Gets" feat. Young Jeezy
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Yep. The track, by Virginia duo the Inkredibles, is swaying synth drama with a soulful twinkle, and Jeezy and Hov come off like bosses with nothing to prove, which is a refreshing change of pace.
7. "On to Next One" feat. Swizz Beatz
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Eh. I'm usually up for Swizzy's kookier beats, but this one's like being trapped in a submarine with a class of chanting 6th graders.
8. "Off That" feat. Drake
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Not even close. Drake is a total non-factor and Timbaland's frantic, polyrhythmically incoherent beat will only make it harder to keep your friend of a friend's dodgy potato salad down.
9. "A Star Is Born" feat. J. Cole
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: No doubt! No. I.D. and Kanye's anthemic, edgy soul-clap backdrop pushes Jay to drop an effortlessly dazzling flow, and upstart affiliate J. Cole acquits himself well on a hungry cameo. Pump this after everybody's fifth beer and watch the hands wave skyward.
10. "Venus vs. Mars"
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Maybe, if the whole crew's blitheringly stinking drunk and desperate to hook up (in whatever way possible) with whoever's within slurring distance. Even then, this kinda blows. Remember when Timbaland and Jay-Z were a hip-hop Dream Team? Now, the New York Knicks have better chemistry.
11. "Hate" feat. Kanye West
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Not even if the Roc Nation business manager is manning the Weber.
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Is Timbaland trying to make everybody nauseous? Another pointlessly off-kilter beat ruins some nifty rhymes: "I crushed Elvis in his blue suede shoes / Made the Rolling Stones seem as sweet as Kool-Aid too" and "Throwbacks, I threw 'em back / Remember those button-ups? / Young Hov, tell them ordinary Joes, Budden up."
13. "So Ambitious" feat. Pharrell
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Sorta. Flits from languidly combative to awkwardly obtuse and Jay-Z gets lost in the shuffle. The Neptunes' synth-quirk production never quite clicks, and then it does, and then it doesn't again.
14. "Young Forever" feat. Mr. Hudson
Will It Rock a Labor Day Barbecue: Perhaps, if you're a 39-year-old divorcee with not a goddamned thing to lose! Kanye samples Alphaville's 1984 synth-pop standard "Forever Young," Mr. Hudson croons the chorus like a super trooper, and Jay gets all aphoristically motivational on that ass. Designated drivers, you have my sympathies.