Jay-Z would have you believe he’s this generation’s Sinatra. He name-drops Ol’ Blue Eyes on his new album The Blueprint 3 and even offers his own version of “New York, New York,” titled “Empire State of Mind.” And actually, the comparison is pretty apt. Both are iconic entertainers whose styles evolved to accommodate changes in popular taste. And both had short-lived “retirements.”
But as with Sinatra, it’s becoming clear that Jay will be remembered as a proficient technician rather than a musical visionary. On Blueprint 3, he’s clearly trying to play hip-hop catch-up to in-vogue hipster rappers, the kind who eschew thug posturing in favor of introspective lyrics and audio experimentation. But Jay’s attempts at this sub-genre are very hard to listen to—the waltzy horns in “Thank You” sound like they belong in a circus, while “Hate” is painfully grating in its entirety.
In fact, for most of the disc, Jay sounds out of his element and on the defensive, particularly on “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” which, despite its killer acid-rock riff courtesy of producer No I.D., contains self-conscious bluster like, “This ain’t for iTunes … This might offend my political connects.” (For the record, yes, it is and no, it won’t.)
It’s hard to begrudge Jay the chance to broaden his style, but Blueprint 3 only truly succeeds when he resumes doing what worked so well on the series kickoff The Blueprint back in 2001: using easily recognizable samples—“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” then; “Young Forever,” which tinkers with Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” now.
Unfortunately, there are no fiery tracks like “Takeover” or “Renegade” to go along with those samples this time, so we’re left with an overall insubstantial work. But of course, despite his latest project’s failings, Jay will remain a beloved cultural figure capable of selling out venues for the rest of his life. And that suited the Chairman of the Board just fine.