Cocky people are almost always irritating. In the rap world, though, being arrogant and overconfident is a requirement for relevance. And no one does conceited like Shawn Carter.

Jay-Z

The Blueprint 3
Roc Nation

The self-proclaimed “Greatest rapper alive” and “Motherfuckin’ greatest” is back in full swing after his Michael Jordan-like retirement in 2003. Since then it has been non stop: a comeback album, a soundtrack and a marriage to long-time girlfriend Beyoncé Knowles.

Jay-Z uses The Blueprint 3 as a statement record to voice his domineering yet compelling declarations and opinions on celebrity beefs (“What We Talkin’ About”), politics (“Off That”), the state of his career (“Young Forever”) and current musical trends (“D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”). The album even provides a condensed history of recent hip-hop emcees (“A Star Is Born”).

The album’s cover depicts an all-white collage of musical instruments and equipment. It’s an image that seems to scream “It’s all about the music.” The first single “D.O.A.” confirms this sentiment with its penetrating guitar loop and a wailing clarinet during the chorus featuring Kanye West. Jay’s aggressive lyrics, “This is anti-auto-tune / death of the ringtone / this ain’t for iTunes / this ain’t for sing-a-longs,” are instantly ironic since West’s entire last album 808s and Heartbreak was dominated by the vocal-altering demon that Hova forcefully condemns. It’s an announcement that the whole rap world can’t avoid. He’s forcing both artists and listeners to take a side. Should rappers be able to sing? One spin of this convincing track and you’d be hard pressed to disagree with Jay.

In addition to this attempt to place rappers’ focus on spitting rhymes rather than singing, Jigga’s also trying to set a permanent personal legacy by comparing himself to Frank Sinatra on both “Empire State of Mind” and “D.O.A.” Yes, the assertion might be ridiculous, but basing his claim on the overall strength of catalogue, career longevity, deep-seated connection to New York and careful collaboration selections, he certainly has a point.

Collaborations on The Blueprint 3 remain spot-on and range from the familiar (Kanye West, Pharrell) to the obscure (Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun). It also includes a sprinkling of fresh faces (Drake, Kid Cudi). Jay has an endless pool of artists at his disposal and has honed his skill to choose the perfect person for any given track over the course of his 11 albums.

“Empire State of Mind” is the record’s best example of this impeccable ability to insert the right artist to complete the overall feel of a song. The ever-so-classy Alicia Keys lends her soulful pipes to this ballad about Hova’s hometown. The tasteful piano jingle and grooving drumbeat propels the track to a level that begs to be put in the conversation of New York City mainstays alongside Billy Joel and, yes, Sinatra himself.

But despite The Blueprint 3’s many high points, it still features a few duds over the course of its 15 songs.

Timbaland’s unwieldy beats and Beyoncé’s strangely complacent chorus weighs down “Venus vs. Mars,” a love song about how opposites attract. Unfortunately, the magic that sparked unforgettable efforts like “Crazy in Love” or “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” hasn’t been rekindled.

Dragging tempo and muddy production plague “Haters,” which marks West’s only misstep on a record chock full of his vocal and production contributions. It’s also uncharacteristic for Jay to address his dissenters in such a halfhearted manner and the song seems to underscore his endearing cockiness.

Across the board, though, Jigga’s confidence is on par with previous efforts as he decides “I don’t run rap no more / I run the map” and concludes he’s the “Only rapper to rewrite history without a pen,” in his signature passive-yet-in-command voice.

Above all, The Blueprint 3 is an announcement that Jay-Z is back for good. “Young Forever” plays off one of his many nicknames (Young, in this case) and acts as a closing statement. And with a line like “I ain’t waiting for closure / I will never forfeit,” it does seems like Jay-Z will be making music for a while.

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