Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3

Jay-Z cooks up a CD with fantastic potential – then makes a dog's dinner of it

"People talking about, Hova take it back," raps Jay-Z on his 11th studio album. "I'm doing better than before, why would I do that?" He sounds bullish – in fairness, Jay-Z always sounds bullish, timidity not getting one terribly far in the world of hip-hop – but there's a detectable defensiveness about that remark. His vast wealth and success might suggest otherwise, but things haven't gone entirely according to plan since the former Shawn Carter decided he hadn't retired after all. His albums Kingdom Come and American Gangster sold, but they didn't scale the artistic heights of his pre-retirement oeuvre. In 2009, he's more famous than ever, which is part of the problem: he's running the risk of becoming better known as a celebrity – married to Beyoncé, friends with Chris and Gwyneth, and, as he puts it, "a small part of the reason the president is black" – than a rapper.

He could do with making a definitive musical statement to redress the balance, which is presumably why his latest album is named as a sequel to his most definitive musical statement of all: 2001's unequivocally fantastic The Blueprint. But The Blueprint 3 certainly doesn't arrive in a particularly grand manner, at least if you're reviewing it. You don't have to travel to a secret location or sign a document swearing you to secrecy. You just go to a website called copthat.com, where all 15 tracks are hosted, alongside the kind of low-rent banner adverts you suspect no one ever clicks on: Click here to get debt help now. Fat burning furnace cuts down 3lbs of your belly using one weird old tip.

If it's hard to feel like you're experiencing a musical event of vast significance when someone's trying to flog you a Private Body Fat Analyzer at the same time, Blueprint 3 goes out of its way to suggest you are, at least at first. The brace of opening tracks are superb. What We Talkin' About? sets Jay-Z's voice amid huge, enveloping synths and a strange, staccato, falsetto vocal from, of all people, Luke Steele, the eyeshadow-sporting Australian singer-songwriter behind the Sleepy Jackson and Empire of the Sun. Thank You boasts lush orchestration and a propulsive turn from the rapper: it doesn't exactly say a great deal, beyond confirming that it's nice to be enormously wealthy and inhabit a jet-setting world of international celebrity, but it does so pretty spectacularly. A continually shifting patchwork of roughly cut-up samples – clattering drums, a spidery guitar solo, jazzy clarinet – powers DOA (Death of Auto-Tune) to gripping effect. The dread figure of Alicia Keys hoves into view on Empire State of Mind, but the track boasts none of her self-consciously laboured soulfulness, just an incredible, breezy pop chorus.

But just as The Blueprint 3 seems to have pulled it off, it peters out in a mass of indistinct tracks. There are occasional flickers of greatness, as on the fantastic, Justice-sampling On to the Next One, and the odd brilliant line, as on Already Home, when Jay-Z addresses disparaging remarks about his appearance. "They call me a camel … what the fuck, I'm an animal," he says, throwing in a nonchalant chuckle, as indeed you might if you were boffing Beyoncé, your resemblance or otherwise to an even-toed ungulate notwithstanding. But these moments are outweighed by filler along the lines of So Ambitious, which isn't, being one of those lazy Neptunes efforts on which Pharrell Williams reveals to an awestruck world that he likes having it off, employing that weirdly supercilious manner that suggests he thinks everyone else does it once a year under extreme duress, like visiting Ikea. Elsewhere, Reminder and A Star Is Born both appear to feature Auto-Tuned vocals on their choruses. Given that not half an hour ago, the man who made them was rattling on about how appalling hip-hop tracks with Auto-Tuned vocals are, this seems both baffling and a bit galling, as if the Arctic Monkeys had rounded off their album with a track called Anyone Who Sings Wryly Observed Vignettes of Everyday Life in a Sheffield Accent is, By Default, a Thundering Tosser.

It ends with Young Forever, which takes the intriguing step of basing itself on Alphaville's unctuous 80s hit Forever Young. Intriguing because it's not impossible to draw out a raw emotional power from that song if you approach it with your tongue in your cheek, as the makers of Napoleon Dynamite demonstrated when they used it to soundtrack the film's ghastly high-school dance scene. But Jay-Z and collaborator Mr Hudson play it dead straight: gloopy sentimentality ensues. As you listen, you get the sense Jay-Z has had a bold idea that he hasn't quite thought through properly – and that's The Blueprint 3's problem in a nutshell.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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