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The Blueprint 3 Stephen Eddie , September 17th, 2009 08:37

When Jay-Z released The Blueprint on 11 September 2001, perhaps even he didn't expect that he'd end up taking its title quite so literally. But, just over a year later and with the same production team (Kanye West, Just Blaze, Timbaland) in tow, The Blueprint 2 was released — a two-disc, collaboration-heavy dilution of the original. Then, on 11 September 2009, the artist oft called The Best Rapper Alive released The Blueprint 3 online and in the US. While the original Blueprint's release date has become a dramatic piece of trivia, putting out its third incarnation on the same date is a clear attempt at history-making. Add to that comments by Jay-Z suggesting The Blueprint's third incarnation will revive a genre that's apparently lost its way ("As a person at the forefront of my genre, it's my responsibility to make my contribution to correct it . . . It's like, 'Come on, wake up!' This is a call to arms"), then it's fair to expect a lot, even after the digital leaks.

Recycling 2001's template for a second time is hardly a fearless move, but there are some daring and great moments here, mostly at the top end of the record. 'What We Talkin' About' is an absorbing opener with its brash, dreamy 80s synths, and Luke Steele from Empire Of The Sun's backing howls as Jay-Z's ratatat lines skirt over the top. There's an overblown, humourous arrogance to 'Thank You' which comes accompanied by a loping soul sample mined by Kanye West. While the rough-and-ready 'Death Of Auto-Tune (DOA)' definitely trumps the pitch-correcting software by sampling a psych-jazz track with no obvious melody by French composer Jack Nilovic.

Then, on single 'Run This Town', featuring Rihanna and West, things start to come undone and The Blueprint 3 turns into a 'Jay-Z & Celebrity Friends' showcase. His “call to arms" for listeners to pledge allegiance to Roc Nation (his label backed by Live Nation) is not Hova's most inspiring lyric; Rihanna's cool, edgy performance grabs more attention.

A criticism levelled at The Blueprint 2 was that there were too many collaborations aimed at chart success (Sean Paul, Beyonce, Lenny Kravitz) which dampened Jay-Z's spark. But this tendency was evident on its predecessor too, even though it only had one guest: Eminem, on 'Renegade'. Mathers, the most popular rapper in the world at the time, produced, and with an even amount of verses each, it could easily have been an Eminem single.

On other duets here, Jay-Z isn't upstaged exactly, but certainly sounds restrained compared to a jubilant Young Jeezy or Kid Cudi's breezy flow (on 'Real As It Gets' and 'Already Home' respectively). Alicia Keys' piano adds some spring to 'Empire State Of Mind' but otherwise it's a sappy run through Jay-Z's New York upbringing. On 'Hate' (with West again) and 'On To The Next One' (which samples Justice's 'D.A.N.C.E.'), his rapping is flattened to a drone by monotonous synth tunes.

Timbaland and The Neptunes produce four tracks but it's been a while since either released the kind of weird, forward-thinking beats that defined the early 2000s. 'Off That' just updates electro-rap by stealing the electro from a more recent year, while 'Venus vs Mars' employs Timbaland's familiar, once exotic, clicks and a creepy call-and-response chorus (Jay-Z: “Shorty get it in"/Unnamed female: “D-d-daddy go hard"). Jay-Z recovers some of the lost swagger of 'Thank You' on 'So Ambitious', but it becomes a platform for Pharrell to try to pull a pair of sisters. Frequently, Jay-Z allows his guests to spoil or steal the limelight, perhaps because he no longer has to prove he's the best, as he did on previous albums. He's going to get called The Best Rapper Alive regardless.

The original Blueprint was an exciting display of what Jay-Z could do and where hip-hop could go, but eight years on those ideas have evolved and been overtaken — even by Jay-Z himself, on 2007's American Gangster and by association on The Grey Album. But rather than leading the way, The Blueprint 3 merely keeps pace.