Jay-Z’s ‘Blueprint’ is back

Jeremiah Lim

Sequels suck. Not always, of course – think “The Godfather Part II” – but the general trend in art seems to be that any artist returning to the same source material well will find his inspiration run dry.

Blame creative exhaustion, or maybe the law of diminishing returns, or maybe complacency. Even Jay-Z, the self-proclaimed best rapper alive (ever?), can’t avoid the inevitable entropy.

Hip-hop’s resident lion in winter recently dropped his latest album, “The Blueprint 3,” as the final chapter in a saga he began eight years ago. The original “Blueprint,” perhaps the best rap album of the decade, was a towering work of musical cohesion and swagger, while “The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse” was an underappreciated and sprawling collection of hit singles and street songs.

“The Blueprint 3” is solid. No more, no less. It’s the sound of an aging rapper who halfway succeeded in trying to remain relevant in a game that typically eats its young. It’s also the sound of said rapper patting himself way too hard on the back for half-heartedly trying to make a forward-sounding, progressive rap album.

Lyrically, there are snatches of melancholy insight into his past and sharp, clever rapping amidst the dismissive “I’m a bored millionaire” talk. And, of course, Jay has always been one of the best “flow-ers” in hip-hop, and he still knows how to wrap his voice around precise and unique beats.

Unfortunately, most of the album consists of Jay-Z confusedly trying to define his legacy, expounding upon where he’s been and what he’s done, rather than what he’s doing.

“Off That” basically consists of Jay talking down to his audience, informing them of what trends have been played out and sneering at rappers’ fascination with “Timbs and rims,” even though he was clearly the biggest trendsetter in hip-hop over the past 10 years.

“A Star is Born” has him reading a laundry list of rappers who have fallen and risen over the years with the clear subtext: “I’m still here, and I’m still important.”

“Run This Town” with its dark and clunky guitars is better, although Rihanna’s hook is weak and Kanye West clearly raps circles around his one-time mentor.

The one, true standout on the album is the enervating and glorious “Empire State of Mind.” Unlike on other tracks on the album, Jay-Z seems truly comfortable navigating between the world he inhabits and the world he came from, going from Brooklyn to TriBeCa. He “used to cop in Harlem,” and now he sits so close to the court he “can trip a referee.”

It’s a truly mature statement from a man who seems to always struggle with his relatively newfound fame. And that hook. The hook is simply a musical breath of fresh air, whether you’re from New York or not.

In the hands of say, Beyoncé, it could have been overwrought and needlessly sentimental, but Alicia Keys manages to find the right way to breezily ride the song’s bumpy piano-pop driven beat.

Indeed, it is in the beat production that the album’s strength truly resides. On “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” No I.D.’s relentlessly churning guitars give Jay’s anti Auto-Tune polemic a hint of menace, while the soaring synthesizers on “What We Talkin’ About” carry the song.

Timbaland also makes a few appearances, most notably on the slinky, electronic “Venus vs. Mars.” No one knows what to do with a Timbaland beat better than Jay-Z and this song is no exception. Creepy, faux-seductive lyrics aside, Jay-Z manages to twist his flow to match the song’s electric groove.

The most interesting case on the album may be “On to the Next One,” which has Swizz Beatz taking a jackhammer to Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” and putting it back together. Swizz Beatz takes the French house duo’s melodic hit and loops it into a thumping “A Milli,” like an anthem that drills its way into your skull.

There is plenty of interesting sounding music to be had on “The Blueprint 3,” but considering the context of Jay-Z’s career, it can’t help but be underwhelming.

The man made his name by making adventurous choices. Don’t forget that he was the first rapper to sample a Broadway show when he flipped the theme from “Annie” into 1998’s “Hard Knock Life.”

He once used his influence to expose underrated rap legends like UGK and MOP to a wider audience. Now he’s content featuring flavor-of-the-month acts like Kid Cudi and that guy who was on “Degrassi.”

Throughout “The Blueprint 3,” Jay-Z seems pleased with making safe, competent music.

When you call yourself the greatest rapper of all time, anything less revelatory and exciting than the original “Blueprint” is just disappointing.