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Jay-Z Stays Fresh On 'The Blueprint 3'

Jay-Z onstage in Anaheim, Calif., in August.
Jared Milgrim
Getty Images
Jay-Z onstage in Anaheim, Calif., in August.

The Blueprint 3 is the latest release by rapper Jay-Z; it's the second sequel to one of his best-known releases, 2001's The Blueprint. It's also Jay-Z's 11th solo album in 13 years, making him one of hip-hop's most prolific artists. Reviewer Oliver Wang suggests that, even this far into his career, the rapper is still finding ways to stay on top.

In a minute-long ad made to promote The Blueprint 3 and the music service Rhapsody, Jay-Z glides through a photo shoot, restaging every iconic pose from his previous 10 album covers. In the background plays his recent hit with singer Rihanna: "Run This Town." The commercial is all about reminding people where Jay-Z has been; there's even a song called "Reminder" on the album. But elsewhere, Jay-Z flips things around, urging listeners to stop dwelling on his past.

If Jay-Z can't decide whether to focus on the past or the future, he's clear on where he stands in the present. The Blueprint 3 is keenly conversant with contemporary pop trends, though not always in a friendly manner. The album's first single, "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)," critiques the ubiquity of the voice-altering software in today's pop music.

Despite his disdain for Auto-Tune, Jay isn't anti-pop. If anything, now that he's signing multimillion-dollar deals with music promoters such as Live Nation, he's more of a global entertainer than ever — and he knows it. The Blueprint 3 is easily one of his most commercially savvy albums to date, aiming for relevance in Walmart kiosks, Hollywood clubs and Brooklyn bodegas alike. It helps that the songs are generally brighter, less violent and less drug-oriented than past efforts. Jay-Z also invites on a few current 15-minute famers such as Drake and Kid Cudi. But nowhere are the album's populist ambitions more clear than in its dance-friendly, electronic-infused rhythms. All kinds of minimalist beeps, burps and claps bump alongside huffing synthesizer vamps and blaring banks of horns.

Though The Blueprint 3 is Jay-Z's strongest release since coming back from retirement in 2006, overall, it'd only rank somewhere in the middle of his catalog. It lacks the singular cohesion of the original Blueprint album, and Jay-Z's once-unrivaled flow sounds more pedestrian at times. There's also the matter of basing a song around Alphaville's 1984 hit, "Forever Young," a move that says anything but "forever" or "young."

To be fair, when you're on your 11th release (not including collaborations with Linkin Park and R. Kelly), Jay-Z has attained the rap equivalent of Bruce Springsteen or U2 status; each new album aspires to be "an event," but it becomes harder to reinvent yourself when you're this deep into a career. That's why The Blueprint 3's broad appeal is a powerful statement in its own right. Jay-Z has outlived — literally and figuratively — so many of his peers. And yet, in what could easily have been the twilight of his recording days, he's still standing, still striving, still shining.

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Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.