Like his late friend and collaborator Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z hasn't so much blurred the line between gangsta rap and pop music as rendered it meaningless. At once one of rap's greatest lyricists and one of its most malignant influences, Jay-Z has somehow maintained street credibility while pulling off some of the most shameless crossover moves since Hammer rapped about the Addams Family and big-upped his corporate sponsors on MTV. Still, by the time of 1999's Vol. 3: Life And Times Of S. Carter, Jay-Z's blend of trendy production, materialistic rhymes, and bloated guest rosters was beginning to feel a bit worn. He rebounded nicely with 2000's more intimate and soulful The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, and he hits new heights with The Blueprint, his strongest, tightest, most consistent album since his legendary debut, 1996's Reasonable Doubt. Picking up where The Dynasty left off, The Blueprint trades the chilly, futuristic minimalism of S. Carter for a warmer, more organic sound rooted in the soul and funk of the '60s and '70s. While producers like Blink, Kanye West, and Just Blaze might lack name recognition, they more than compensate with The Blueprint's laid-back, soulful grooves, soaring strings, and up-tempo funk workouts. With the guest roster limited to a single superstar (Eminem), the focus throughout is always on Jay-Z's mesmerizing flow and smart lyrics. Sounding more playful than ever, he rises to the occasion, whether promising to overcharge suits "for what they did to the Cold Crush" ("H To The Izzo") or laying into Mobb Deep and Nas with a wonderfully mean-spirited attack on, among other things, Prodigy's apparent predilection for ballet ("Takeover"). In keeping with Jay-Z's time-tested blueprint, The Blueprint offers an eminently accessible mixture of hard-hitting braggadocio, dance-floor-friendly celebrations of the lifestyles of the rich and jiggy ("Jigga That Nigga," "Hola' Hovita"), and rapping-through-the-tears pathos ("Song Cry," the title track). "H To The Izzo" is the requisite TRL-friendly single, a slavishly commercial but sprightly slice of pop-rap built around the same mile-wide "I Want You Back" sample recently freaked by Lil' Romeo. Of course, Jay-Z has been rapping for longer than Lil' Romeo has been alive, and if The Blueprint is any indication, he'll continue to reign over hip-hop long after Master P's progeny fades into obscurity.
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