In late 2001 Shawn Carter released The Blueprint, amidst feuds with Nas and Prodigy, awaiting trials for gun possession and assault, and a world shocked and distracted by September 11th (the coincidental release date). An impeccable work of balance, fueled by an emotional time in the life of the young rapper, and magnified to the Nth degree by world events, The Blueprint was an instant classic, full of hits, and applauded by critics and fans alike as an unforgettable record. It has one guest rapper, Eminem, who also produced one of the tracks. It seemed unbeatable in terms of career defining records.
I'm going to borrow an apt metaphor from a friend here: Sometimes, in a game of chess, you take your hand off the piece fresh off making a move, and suddenly regret ever having done anything in the first place. When Jay-Z released The Black Album, it was the best possible move on the board. No one could deny the impact of topping a classic with an even bigger classic. It was an instant checkmate. And Jay made himself a legend in the minds of everyone in the business. Many would argue it was at this point that he became the business. And then he shocked the world again by releasing two mediocre albums, Kingdom Come and the ill-conceived but ultimately acceptable concept album American Gangster. Now the moves seem more action than thought, impulse more than instinct. Audibly, Jay sounds more like autopilot than a stunt man.
The Blueprint III could never live up to the standards of a younger, more unpredictable Jay, so let's start there. Guest spots are abundant, because this is Jay-Z we're talking about; he knows everyone. Positive tracks include "Run This Town," a Rihanna/Kanye triple threat radio-monster, which really features Jay nailing his lyrical flow. But the guests start to weight Hov down, especially when they seem to run him more than he owns his own cuts. Other tracks lack the 'pop' of "Run," especially duds like "Venus Vs. Mars," featuring almost laughable lyrics, and "Empire State," a throwaway with the silliest guest vocals on the album (Alicia Keyes with a pretty abysmal refrain). "Hater" is basically an 808 b-side, completely owned and operated by West. "Reminder" is just pointless. Overall, after "Run This Town" the album derails, Jay lets his guest producers go AWOL, and expects us all to eat it up. And most will gladly take the entire thing in earnest.
The worst part of The Blueprint III is beneath the poorly conceived bore-fests are some stellar production values, and just the faintest hint of a master at work. Jay still knows how to wow with his words, but this blueprint seems like a rough draft, when it should be the polished final product of years of experience. I'm not sure what Mr. Carter is trying to build these days, but a significant portion of it seems to be smoke and mirrors. Behind the cigar, leather chair, and "mogul" moniker, Jay-Z is too comfortable to innovate, and too satiated to compel. He is at his best when he is supporting his young talent, and his worst when he lets them support him.