When Jay-Z first made a series out of his best album, 2001's The Blueprint, it became a game of high expectations. The Blueprint of the first volume was Jay-Z as vital as he'd ever been, storming back to the hardcore after a few years of commercial success. The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse was a complete turn, a set of half-cocked crossovers, bloated to bursting with guest features that obscured his talents. The Blueprint 3 is somewhere between the two, closer to the vitality and energy of the original but not without the crossover bids and guest features of the latter (albeit much better this time).
Kanye West is in the producer's chair for seven tracks, and it's clear he was reaching for the same energy level as the original Blueprint (which he produced). "What We Talkin' About" begins the album with a wave of surging, oppressive synth, while Jay-Z enumerates (with an intriguing lack of detail) what he's said and what's been said about him, ending with a nod not to the past but the future (and Barack Obama). West also produced the second, "Thank You," and while it starts with typical Jay-Hova brio, the last verse piles on the unrelenting criticism of unnamed rappers doomed to weak sales.
There's plenty more lyrical violence to come, but most of the targets are much safer than they were eight years earlier. (Jay doesn't sound very convincing when he claims in "D.O.A. [Death of Auto-Tune]" that it's not "politically correct" to rail against one of the most reviled trends in pop music during the 2000s.) From there, he branches out with a calculating type of finesse, drawing in certain demographics via a roster of guests, from Young Jeezy (hardcore) to Drake (teens) to Kid Cudi (the backpacker crowd). The king of the crossovers here is "Empire State of Mind," a New York flag-waver with plenty of landmark name-dropping that turns into a great anthem with help on the chorus from Alicia Keys. The Blueprint 3 isn't a one-man tour de force like the first. Jay is upstaged once or twice by his guests, and while the productions are stellar throughout — Timbaland appears three times, and No I.D. gets multiple credits also — it's clear there's less on Jay's mind this time. Not tuned out like on Kingdom Come, but more content with his dominance as a rap godfather in 2009.