OK, so he speaks in yoga metaphors and describes wealth that regular humans can't hope to comprehend. Auh! His late career adjustments to the forever-young rap game consist mostly of the genre's most repulsive ad-lib—auh!—and indifferent patronage toward hip-hop's untested and uneven powers. Auh! He mispronounces as many as two out of the three words in the brand name Maison Martin Margiela, though no one doubts he can afford it. Auh! And, though this part is painful to admit, pretty much every working rapper has put out better music in 2009 than Jay-Z has. Auh! Yet here we are. Auh!
With his 11th studio album, The Blueprint 3, now four months into its release and with the man born Shawn Carter now two, almost three months past his 40th birthday, what are we to make of Jay-Z?
As theater, Shawn Carter's decision to "retire" with 2003's The Black Album was characteristically surefooted. It took a mythological career that began with Jaz-O and Big Daddy Kane and Biggie Smalls, and the first real stirrings of rap's burgeoning commercial ascendance, and posited that career's end as the genre's crowning achievement. Most of all, the decision to stop rapping provided fresh artistic motivation to a guy who always seemed to bore easily, not least on 2002's sprawling The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse.
Jay-Z and Young Jeezy perform Tuesday, February 23, at the American Airlines Center.
"What more can I say to you?" Jay asked on The Black Album. "You've heard it all."
As for the inevitable un-retirement, well, that was spectacular theater too, if of a different sort. Carter announced his 2006 return to the game via a Budweiser Select commercial that shoehorned the rapper into the middle of a two-way, Ian Fleming-inspired road race between race car drivers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
His eventual comeback album, Kingdom Come, introduced the world to the phrase "30's the new 20." The day the record came out, Jay-Z was two weeks short of turning 37. The artist himself would later tacitly admit that he had no idea who the fuck Kingdom Come had been made for, explaining that he had named his next album after the 2007 Ridley Scott drug-dealing flick American Gangster in part because of his gratitude over how the film helped him get in touch with the more youthful Shawn Carter—i.e., the one his fans actually wanted to hear rap. Gangster had given Jay-Z an excuse to pretend like he wasn't currently living a life in which Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were two of his best friends. Whether there was an audience for the irrevocably grown-up Jay-Z—the one with an art-filled Tribeca loft and a BlackBerry full of dudes who wore suits to work—that was a question for another time.
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Well, time's up. On The Blueprint 3, he tries out "A Milli"-inspired production trends, YouTube, an English accent, MDMA (twice), Alphaville's "Forever Young," synthy Southern trap-rap, a Justice sample, Futuresex/Lovesounds cast-offs, an Empire of the Sun-sung chorus, and a couple of sublimely ineffective PDA-related sex metaphors. A disproportionate amount of the record is concerned with the get-off-my-lawn business of killing trends—AutoTune, cashmere sweatpants, stabbing people in the club, throwback jerseys, Timberland boots—that Jay-Z often helped father in the first place.
But that's not the point. Rather, the more important question is whether Jay-Z can still rap. Like Jordan wearing the 45, Jay's not the wickedly smooth, lyrically arrogant technician he once was. But that doesn't mean he can't do it—just ask Young Jeezy, who lends Jay a gauzy Inkredibles beat and BP3's best hook, only to have the song snatched right away from him: "At a snail's pace, I won this race that y'all trail/Blueprint's for sale/Follow in my footprints, you can't fail/Set sail/I used to duck shots, but now I eat quail." Bourgeois, sure, but at least he's being honest.
As recently as last year, The Blueprint 3 might well have been nothing but this kind of thing, a devilishly stultifying combination of industry-spectator Bob Lefsetz's Lefsetz Letter and Gulfstream's newest private-airplane catalog. That it's not is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Chalk it up to the man currently in the White House, or to that big 4-0, or to that old sense of engagement, which, at long last, Shawn seems to have discovered once again.