Significance can be a real motherfucker. No MC had maintained fame and relevance for fifteen years, and The Blueprint 3 offered uncomfortable suggestion why. That sequel’s sequel’s might not have been as dreadful as heads who think Jay never topped Reasonable Doubt thought, but its lame drizzle of singles sure showed the strain of his prolonged tenure on top. Not content to drag down a weirdly sui generis No I.D. track with tired complaints about Auto-Tune (this decade’s answer to tired complaints about drum machines–if not tired complaints about rap), he then teamed with two of megapop’s spoiledest-sounding celebs to sneer at you nobodies on the wrong side of the velvet rope.
But if “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” and “Run This Town” were merely a big shot’s hymns to himself, the album’s hugest hit smugly carved a victors’ history into a lumbering white elephant with the sort of tasteless provincial triumphalism that only thrives east of the Hudson. Sure it’s Alicia Keys’ soaring vacuity and Al Shux’s dire lounge piano that render “Empire State of Mind” as chintzy as a Statue of Liberty snow globe or a powder blue Yankees cap, but let’s not excuse Jay’s telling “eight million stories,” quoting “New York, New York,” and implicitly demanding that we admire his restraint in not specifically ID’ing a referenced “apple” as “big.” Few songs are not half as hated as they should be. This is one.
“On to the Next One” may be no less a boast, but it’s lighter, more offhanded in its mastery, with Jay’s flow as good-humored and insinuating as the ride-cymbal pattern that Swizz Beats pairs with a chopped Justice vocal sample (“under the spotlight,” fittingly). Flaunting his long-lived resilience and new-found access to presidents, dropping a more casual (and therefore smarter) dis of Auto-Tune than “D.O.A.,” and once more obsessing over the slovenly fashion sense of young black men as critically as Bill Cosby, Jay goes about his business with such confident nonchalance that “Y’all should be afraid of what I’m gon’ do next” comes across as no empty threat–even after you realize that what he did next was “Young Forever.”