Like a lot of things in hip hop, it seems like today's incarnation of Jay-Z has become one of those pointlessly polarized issues, as if there's no possibility for middle ground. Either you think he's totally lost it and should've stayed retired, or you're a Roc stan unwilling to admit the obvious deterioration in his technical ability in recent years. Granted, sometimes the middle ground just amounts to equivocating and not having the guts to say what you think. In Jay's case, though, I think it's perfectly reasonable to recognize that he's not the rapper he once was while still finding something to like about his post-Black Album output.
When it comes to Jay's albums, there's a tendency to write off his efforts that don't have any particular conceptual focus or sonic unity. While it's fair in some cases (i.e. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 is a schizophrenic street/crossover mess,) it's a disservice to the albums where he's not rhyming about any one thing in particular but he's sounding dope doing it. Stylistically he raps better on The Blueprint 2 than The Black Album for instance, where the breathy tone started creeping into his flow more noticeably. And his 1998-2000 period may be slightly inconsistent, but it's got some pretty incredible highs. 'Course, I might just be painting a backpacker strawman here, cuz I'm sure most hip-hop fans would admit there's more to Jay than Reasonable Doubt/The Blueprint/The Black Album, and you don't have to tear down one era of his work to appreciate another. Point being though that dude really is one of, if not the most consistent artists in hip hop, and that's not just an empty talking point.
If Kingdom Come was failed grown-man rap and American Gangster was a more abstracted, idealized Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint 3 finds Jay not tied to any particular concept. Not to say it's totally uncompromised -- there's the shitty attention-grabbing street single ("D.O.A.,") the shitty Rihanna-assisted big radio single ("Run This Town,") and the dope Super NES Timbaland club song ("Off That") -- but Jay's not forcing any "serious" subjects to show you how grown-up he is, or mining strictly soul-lite beats to get his "you know, I don't even like Jay-Z but this is really good!" props. In that way BP3's an album that's right up my alley, because as much as I dig the first Blueprint, sometimes it's more fun to listen to albums that're all over the map and have big standouts that make up for some of the bad ideas.
A big plus is that other than a few songs on American Gangster, this is probably Jay's best post-retirement album from a technical rapping standpoint, even though the first two singles suggested otherwise. His flow is energized in a way it hasn't been in a long time, although the breathy tone still threatens to derail certain songs, his awful rushed second verse on "Empire State of Mind" being probably the worst offender. But there's definitely more urgency in his rapping here, which goes a long way in making BP3 more entertaining overall than either of its predecessors.
Then there's the production. It's already been dismissed in some corners as too soft, too synth-happy, too Y chromosome-less Timbaland, too hipster-bait, too whatever the fuck. Comparisons with the aesthetic of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 will probably only exacerbate those criticisms. In any case, maybe it's just my affinity for certain brands of flashy, big-budget sheen rap, but I think most of these beats are pretty great, provided you're wary of Swizz Beatz trying and failing to get his "A Milli" on and the godawful power ballad cover at the end, which serves to only reinforce the caricature of '80s music I have in my head. To be honest, the whole Jay pandering to the hipsters (tm) card has been overplayed with the exception of a few tracks. Kanye West and No I.D.'s hypnotic, simple loop on "Thank You" practically sounds like something Common could've rocked over back on Be, only with more balls. "Real as It Gets" is the best Young Jeezy song Jeezy forgot to make on his last album. "Venus vs. Mars" is vintage loping Timbaland weirdness, "So Ambitious" is Pharrell at the top of his swanky yacht rap game even if it'll annoy space-age Neptunes fans...anyway, point being that if you come into this album as objectively as possible, and not worried about whether Jay's trying to court an audience that isn't as into hip hop, you'll probably find something to like.
Ultimately I respect Jay, and Nas for that matter, for trying to evolve and come to terms with their position in hip hop, even if the results have been hit or miss. The whole "well at least they're not talking about money cash hoes" argument is a cliche, but it's not quite what I'm getting at. When you reach a certain point as a rapper, you can mine the same material your fans think you're best at -- Cuban Linx 2 for example. You can go all experimental because you think you're stuck in a rut, a la Electric Circus, Andre 3000 and other projects of varying quality. Hov's wisely decided to split the difference between the two, expanding his sonic template without veering off into territory he knows nothing about, and staying true to himself in the process. The fact of the matter is that regardless of whether you think he sounds insecure or whiny on this particular album, at this point it doesn't make much sense for Jay to be rapping about something other than his status in and out of hip hop, conceptual ploys to keep rapping about drug-dealing aside. Of course, none of this would mean anything if BP3 had nothing else going for it, but when the music's this good, I can't complain much.