- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

Didn’t Jay-Z retire?

That’s what the rap heavyweight said he was doing, way back in 2003, when he released “The Black Album” and hung up his mic. But rap retirements are about as permanent as comic-book deaths, and sure enough, even as he pushes 40, he’s returning once again — with his third full-length studio record since announcing he quit.

At this point, Jay-Z isn’t merely a swift-tongued rapper; he’s a pop superstar with decades of experience. So it’s no surprise to find that “The Blueprint 3” is the sure-handed product of a master entertainer, confident and casually cool enough to cover its few mistakes.

Even more than that, it’s a record that, thanks to its easygoing accessibility and proud pop ethos, embraces the age of both its creator and his chosen genre: His edge has disappeared. Like most rappers of his era, Jay-Z still drops N-words and calls himself a hood, but “The Blueprint 3” is as safe a record as they come.

Jay-Z’s original “Blueprint,” in September 2001, proved a turning point in hip-hop: Slick, spry, soulful and unabashedly hit-driven, it expanded the genre’s boundaries, spawned a decade of imitators and ushered rap into its populist prime.

Now, with the release of “The Blueprint 3,” Jay-Z has once again dropped a mid-September hip-hop landmark. And once again, it suggests a pivotal moment in the genre’s evolution. Not only is “The Blueprint 3” a hip-hop triumph, it’s a nearly perfect pop album. Innovative, expansive and accessible, it owes as much to Prince and Justin Timberlake as to Public Enemy and N.W.A.

Once a trash-talking criminal underdog from Bed-Stuy’s projects, Jay-Z originally established a persona as a mobster, playboy and thug king.

Since then, he has rhymed his way to the top. These days, he’s the reigning king of hip-hop high society and happy to let anyone listening know: Though he grew “up at Brooklyn/Now I’m down in Tribeca/right next to De Niro,” as he raps on “Empire State of Mind.” Married to pop princess Beyonce, he has blessed longtime collaborators including Kanye West and Timbaland with stardom of their own and, starting just a few years ago, made a point to bring rivals together. As power broker and peacemaker, he treats his position in hip-hop as a benevolent dictatorship — one world under Jay-Z.

Naturally, “The Blueprint 3” features a who’s who of hip-hop collaborators. Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Pharrell, Drake and Young Jeezy all drop in for guest spots, and the production credits go to superstar beat-makers such as Timbaland, Kanye West and the Neptunes.

On “Off That” and “Reminder,” Timbaland provides his usual tranced-out sci-fi soundscapes, while on “So Ambitious,” the Neptunes go for tweaked-out, minimalist soul grooves. But Kanye’s celebratory party beats are what drive the record’s 15 tracks.

As always, though, Jay-Z’s nimble rhymes take center stage, and he doesn’t disappoint. Just as on previous records, he’s out to trash his enemies, though his targets (which include Internet haters and the pop-production fad auto-tune) are less serious. Defending his turf, once serious business, now seems like a game.

Granted, he hardly needs to defend it. Early in the record, he boasts that he’s “the new Sinatra,” and despite the braggadocio, it’s an apt comparison. Jay-Z may not pal around with the president (yet), but he helped headline President Obama’s inaugural concert and might be the only rapper yet to be offhandedly referenced on the campaign trail. Like Jay-Z, Sinatra was a bit of bad boy, but he also was about as establishment as it gets.

“The Blueprint 3” feels like a declaration not just of Jay-Z’s entitled, establishment cred, but of hip-hop’s. Under Jay-Z’s pop-culture and business-savvy influence, rap finally has become something that’s not merely safe, but middle-aged. It’s less edgy, more relaxed and more fun. Purists might not love it, but really, what else should we expect from a retired guy?

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