Unfortunately, my first foray into hip-hop in middle school began with some regrettable dabbling in the world of mid-2000’s ringtone rap (long live “Kiss Kiss” and “Crank That”). By that time, Jay-Z had reconsidered “fading into black,” as he suggested he would on his short-lived retirement record, The Black Album. In 2006, he returned to the rap game with Kingdom Come, a staid release that was probably the least cool record from an artist who once bragged about inventing swag (there’s a song called “30 Something,” if that’s any indication of how outdated this album sounded, even when it first came out). Then came American Gangster, a far more polished concept album, and a curiously low-key project (it wasn’t even on iTunes for several years) from a rapper who usually revels in the grandiose. The thing is, Jay-Z isn’t low-key, at least in his sense of musical spectacle. He’s not uncool, and I’m pretty sure he went into the studio for The Blueprint 3 sessions with the firm conviction to never make another “30 Something” or “Beach Chair” ever again. The result was the commercially successful, if critically divisive, Blueprint 3.
The Blueprint 3 was the second rap album I ever bought (the first was Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, which will always merit 1000 fire emoijis.) So, yes, it holds a special significance to me. I remember listening to the searing horns and vicious guitar riff of “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” cut through the speakers in the car with my dad while we drove to my younger brother’s travel soccer game on a dismally rainy day. With its opening stanza, the track shattered everything I had begun to suspect about the god-awful state of hip-hop at the time: “This is anti autotune/death of the ringtone/This ain’t for iTunes/This ain’t for sing-alongs.”
No matter what you have to say about The Blueprint 3, you can’t take “D.O.A.” away from me. I can’t understate how important and controversial that song was – not just to rap, but to the 2009 music scene in general. Every artist from Lil Wayne to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony jumped to remix it. Every conversation in hip-hop became historiographical in nature, and the discussion was no longer just about T-Pain or the robot music that dominated the airwaves, but instead about the state of the industry and its place in the progression of hip-hop. And that Kanye West produced the song after having just recorded an entire album using autotune—well, that was the most hilariously contradictory move of all. And, look, T-Pain had some bangers back in the day, but there’s really no doubt that someone needed to kill this trend.
I remembered adding “Run This Town” to the warm-up playlist of a dance class I had to take at the time. My teacher turned red and asked me to please turn it off after Kanye announced, “She got an ass that could swallow up a G-string.” I don’t think I even knew what a G-string was at the time.
Sure, “Run This Town” was a single built for the radio. It was a shameless corporate grab for the Billboard charts, and Jay-Z gets absolutely bodied by Kanye on it. But good Lord if it wasn’t the best version of what that type of song could be. From the “all black everything” verse, to Rihanna’s epic hook, to paying homage to Eric B, to the Maison Margiela references years before A$AP Rocky placed it into hip-hop culture, there’s no doubt that Jay brought his best here.
You didn’t have to be from New York to love “Empire State of Mind,” and it was completely inescapable when it first came out. However, it never really got as tiresome the way most overplayed radio hits do. With the Yankees’ postseason run (and eventual World Series title) coinciding with the release of BP3, it became evident that Jay-Z has perfect timing. That September, the man who made “the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can” was the heart and soul behind perhaps one of the most victorious moments of my childhood. When he and Alicia Keys performed before Game 2 of the World Series, and awestruck players forwent their professionalism to pull out their phones and film the show, there was a sense that in this moment, Jay-Z was a truly transcendent figure, the true “King of America,” as Rolling Stone would dub him on its cover that fall.
Vince Staples caused a stir last week after telling Billboard Magazine that ’90s hip-hop was overrated, and that he preferred the rappers of his youth, like Lil Bow Wow. Jay-Z is not Lil Bow Wow. My defense of The Blueprint 3 is rooted in something other than childhood sentimentality or an affinity for the three pretty unquestionable bangers on the album, “D.O.A.,” “Empire State of Mind,” and “Run This Town.” Tracks like “Real As It Gets” and “Off That,” (“Tell Rush Limbaugh to get off my balls/This 2010, not 1864”), might not exactly be exploring new territory for Jay-Z, but damn if they are not focused bursts from a surprisingly nimble-flowed Hova. No I.D., Kanye, and Timbaland carry the majority of the production on BP3, and, it’s true, none of them brought their A game there, which results in a fairly overproduced and micromanaged sound. Still, they’re star players regardless, and they give the project a cohesive feel. Because Jay decided to be a little more liberal with the features this time around, the BP3 is also fascinating because it was a roadmap for where rap would go in the next few years. Jay-Z gave rap’s rookie class, including Drake, J. Cole, and Kid Cudi, a chance to flex its creative muscles on the big stage.
This is not to say BP3 is Jay-Z’s best album. It’s far from it, as he himself admitted when he ranked it eighth out of his twelve releases. But when people like Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen say BP3 is “so certainly Jay-Z’s weakest solo album, you’ll be tempted to wonder if Kingdom Come was somehow underrated,” I shed a tear. It’s better than its overstuffed predecessor, The Blueprint 2. It’s also better than the complete marketing ploy that was Magna Carta Holy Grail, or whatever the hell Jay/Samsung decided to name it. It’s without a doubt better than Kingdom Come, an album more boring than watching paint dry. The Blueprint 3 is fun. And some of us, though clearly not Ian Cohen, see the light. As Jon Caramanica of The New York Times summarized, it is “an unexpected blend of maturity and youth.” Word up, music guru Roger Christgau, it is, dare I say, “fairly superb.” The Blueprint 3 is perhaps one of rap’s finest “elder statesmen” albums. It does not deserve the hate it has received. As Jay-Z said himself, “Sorry critics, it’s good.” Take it from “On to the Next One”: If you want Jay-Z’s old shit, buy his old albums.