Wherein Jay-Z’s rapping takes a dark turn for the worst. He does fine on opener “What We Talkin’ About”, but I expect significantly more beat-wise from a combined team of Kanye West and No I.D. By contrast, they do deliver it on the following “Thank You,” but Jay-Z sounds a bit awkward when he speeds up (“I just got ten #1 albums, maybe now eleven” and “We tip the waiter a hundred dollars to keep the ice cold, alright”) when he should have kept a deliberate pace throughout. But that’s just the start: he lays “Venus vs. Mars,” Timbaland’s best beat on the album, to waste via corny one-liners like “Body like a Coke bottle, I crush it like a Coke can” and “Took my whole flavour, I call her Coke Zero” and a fucking Star Wars reference in 2009. And “Empire State of Mind” gets a lot of hate because the ubiquity of the bombastic chorus, but the song was problematic to begin with: there’s something choppy about the way Jay-Z lists NYC reference after reference like a travel guide, and once the song hits the first chorus, that’s it, it played its hand and if you’re in a private karaoke room, you can go ahead and skip to the next song.
But at the same time, the backlash against this album was kind of pathetic; Pitchfork called it the worst Jay-Z album at the time, which wasn’t just emblematic of the opinions of the indie rock crowd (at the time) against a mainstream (rap) record, it was also pretty similar to the opinions of the hip-hop crowd … against a mainstream rap record. I agree: Jay-Z didn’t need to resort to measures like “Empire” or “Young Forever”, and to a lesser extent, “Run This Town” (which is actually great): the big hits of The Black Album (“99 Problems” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”) didn’t resort to leveraging big names to sing bigger choruses, they succeeded through the force of sheer swagger alone. But while his rapping has deteriorated, his ear for beats – or maybe more precisely the mainstay beatmakers he keeps on-call – hasn’t/haven’t, and I think Jay-Z’s own ranking of the record is closer to the truth. I guess naming your record after a classic wasn’t going to win you any favours when the two albums have nothing to do with each other, sonically, but not like The Blueprint Squared did, or was any good. And other than featuring some up and coming newcomers (Drake, J. Cole, KiD CuDi), the clean synth sound throughout wasn’t the blueprint of anything to come.
I mean, dig the guitar squawk and its perfect hand-off to the horns on No I.D.’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” (and yes, it’s kind of silly to have a song with that sort of mission statement on an album with so much auto-tune later on); the Neptunes linking a triumphant horn blast in the choruses with a thick bass-line on “So Ambitious”; the synthesized strings and the capping horn line on Kanye West’s “Already Home.” To say nothing of the drums in some of those songs: the drum-rolls that sound like they’re played on the back of garbage pails on “D.O.A.”; the machine-gun rattle of “So Ambitious.” Elsewhere, Swizz Beats deploys military drums to push the choruses on “On To The Next One”, which has plenty of other components worthy of note (ie. the chant of the title words, the spacey blips and bloops). Put it this way: there are no beats on either Kingdom Come or Magna Carta… Holy Grail worth any of these, let alone all of them.
Which makes this Jay-Z’s most frustrating album. All it takes is the trimming of the second half – reducing it to a tight 45-minute album – to make it a ‘B+’. “Off That” is too cluttered (though you know the cowbell tap transition is Timbaland’s handiwork, even without the credits handy); “A Star Is Born” is too processed (both in the hook and in the handclaps; it’s like they didn’t want you to know that humans were involved in making the beat), plus J. Cole drops another Star Wars reference; “Hate” and “Reminder” are non-starters. And yes, “Young Forever” deserves all the vitriol, which alerts you to its awfulness the moment the sterile synth blasts into existence seconds before Mr. Hudson even shows up, but it’s far from the worst song in Jay-Z’s discography so long as “A Dream” exists. A hard ‘B’. I look forward to the eventual revaluation to place this slightly higher in his discography, and hopefully a reissue that delegates “Young Forever” to bonus track status that it should have been.