This album has taken longer to record than anything Jay-Z has done before it. The rapper says that he finished the project in November, then held it back as he negotiated with Def Jam. "The time gave me a chance to step back, touch it, step back, touch it, rework it. Then I had to keep motivating myself because of the current state of music. My album is a single album, but it's part of a collective-the collectiveness of hip-hop," he says.
So Jay-Z took his time, and let his hair grow out-as he usually does when he's in the studio-and came back with collaborations with producers like Kanye West, No I.D. and Timbaland, as well as musician contributions from MGMT, Drake, Mr. Hudson, Rihanna and Kid Cudi. (As of now, there are no collaborations with Beyoncé, although he doesn't rule out the possibility.)
The album's first single, "D.O.A. ("Death of Auto-Tune)," entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 24, providing yet another confirmation of Jay's stature. On it he rhymes "I know we're facing a recession, but the music y'all making gonna make it the great depression . . . this ain't politically correct/This might offend my political connects/This is the death of Auto-Tune, moment of silence" over a sample from Janko Nilovic's "In the Space."
"In hip-hop our job is, once a trend becomes a gimmick, to get rid of it. We've done that since the beginning of time. This isn't some newfangled thing," Jay-Z says about the track, which criticizes the egregious overuse of the Pro Tools plug-in. "When people were wearing the black medallions Ice Cube came along and said, 'Get it outta here!' When Hammer was selling 50,000 records, Q-Tip came and said, 'Get it outta here!' Then Biggie Smalls came and said, 'Your life is played out like Kwame in the fucking polka dots. Get the polka dots outta here!' It's just a part of hip-hop."Oddly enough, the song was inspired by West, who used Auto-Tune on his most recent album, "808s and Heartbreak." "He actually sparked the idea," Jay-Z says. "When he heard the beat he said, 'Man, this is just so hard! This has to be against everything. No Auto-Tune. None of that type of stuff!' " He adds that he and West recorded one track with Auto-Tune for the album that didn't get used. "He didn't know what I was going to do or where I was going to take it, but it was actually his fault."
Other tracks on the album include the intro, "What We Talking About," which Jay-Z likens to a track from Mobb Deep. "It has these dark strings and it's fitting because it's the beginning of the album, and it sets the tone," he says. "As a person who doesn't have to make albums anymore, the first thing you want to ask is, 'We going to do some real shit? If so, I'm with it.' If we're going to do some manufactured stuff that's already been done, then I don't want to be a part of this."
Another track, "Thank You," is full of sarcasm, arrogance and big horns. "Already Home" addresses anyone who thinks Jay-Z is too old to be a rapper.
Despite his reputation as one of the masters of the music industry-or maybe because of it-Jay-Z still finds himself a target for rappers looking for beefs. One longtime naysayer is the Game, who recently attempted to call out Jay-Z during a show overseas. "I'ma tell you like this: I don't care what a n*gga say. This is how I am coming out today. Fuck Jay-Z. Old-ass n*gga. Straight up," he said, before implying that Beyoncé was promiscuous. This came in response to Jay-Z's debut performance of "What We Talking About" at a Las Vegas show recently, in which he rapped, "I ain't talking about gossip/I ain't talking about Game/I ain't talking Jimmy/I ain't talking about Dame . . . grown men want me to sit them on my lap/But I don't have a beard and Santa Claus ain't black."
But that's as much of a response as the Game - or, really, anyone Jay-Z deems an upstart - is getting. "I hear it all the time-'Yo, he should let the young guys, the new generation of guys come in.' But you don't become the front-runner in music because someone lets you. You have to claim your shoes," he says. "If you grow up listening to hip-hop, you love hip-hop and that's the end of it. But if you're a 30-year-old rapper still trying to make music like you're 15, then you're making it narrow. At my age, I can't relate to a 15-year-old. I deal with mature and relevant topics for my age group-it has to all be based on true emotions. The more diversity and the more mature we make hip-hop, the bigger the net you cast."
Jay-Z criticizes some new artists for passing the buck and blaming others for their lack of popularity, but he acknowledges that more successful rappers need to serve as mentors to help develop the genre.
"Kanye is really the father to the next generation-he's from the school of Q-Tip, and now Drake and Kid Cudi are from the school of 'Ye," he says. "And, when you look at Kanye, you have to look at Lil Wayne. I think they're like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James."MARKET SHARE
Jay-Z is currently on a 10-city U.S. tour with Fabolous and Ciara. His 2008 tour grossed $38 million and attracted an audience of more than 350,000, according to Billboard Boxscore.
In a nod to his headlining performance at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival, which was considered "wrong" by Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher but received rave reviews, Jay-Z will head to London and potentially Ireland for four concerts with Coldplay. Afterward, he plans to come back to the United States and tour in the fall, then return to foreign markets next spring. He is also planning single performances, including a benefit on Sept. 11. (Details weren't available at press time.)
As the album's release date approaches, Jay-Z will also put out another single that he hopes to introduce in a nontraditional way. He first generated buzz for "D.O.A." by performing it live for the first time at WQHT New York's 2009 Summer Jam concert, and last year he debuted the promo single "Jockin' Jay-Z" at West's New York concert. But neither "Jockin' Jay-Z" (which sold 23,000 digital copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and peaked at No. 51 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart) nor "Brooklyn Go Hard" (No. 61), another promo single released last year, are on "The Blueprint 3."
Any strategizing about singles is just one more part of the promotional power of Jay-Z Inc., which constantly hums in the background. Jay-Z also has a deal with Iconix, the company that purchased his Rocawear fashion line, and a partnership with Scion for the purchase of the clothing line Artful Dodger in 2007. "We bought that for $15 million, and we'll continue to build that company. It hasn't been active in the last year because of what's going on with the recession, but, when everything bounces back, we'll focus on it. We're also looking to buy other companies together as well," he says.
Then there's Roc Nation and its various departments, which are practically a full-service business for musicians. The label has artists like Jay Cole and Rita Ora, while the management side boasts Kid Cudi and Melanie Fiona; there's also a publishing arm for songwriters. The company has a deal with Parlux, through which Roc Nation will soon release Rihanna and Kanye West fragrances.
Jay-Z also has a three-book publishing deal. And although he hasn't said much about it, he told radio host Ryan Cameron from WVEE Atlanta that he plans to call his first book "Decoded," "because I'm going to decode the lyrics from my records."
Jay-Z is perfectly aware that this kind of branding-done for years in the hip-hop world and only now gaining recognition in the overall music business-is key to his success. "All these things are just part of the culture-it's part of living your life," he says. "It's not really separate, and if it all has some type of synergy and is all in one place, it has a cohesiveness that it wouldn't normally have if the guy from Arden was doing your fragrance deal and then this guy was doing your movie deal. They're not really conversing with each other. If the conversation is happening all in one place, then there's a more organic and natural thing."
When Jay-Z speaks like this, it's easy to imagine him as a full-time mogul-especially since he threatened to retire from hip-hop in 2003. But don't expect him to leave the stage any time soon. "One day you'll wake up and say, 'Man, it's been five years since this guy has put out an album,' " he says. "Then you'll realize that I'm gone."
For now, though, he's just getting started.
Jay-Z By Numbers
Thanks to a combination of his own work and numerous collaborations, Jay-Z's chart totals register beyond the Billboard 200.
Number of albums sold in the United States since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. Among hip-hop artists, only Eminem has sold more, with 34.6 million.
Number of songs downloaded, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That figure includes his collaborations with everyone from Rihanna ("Umbrella," 3.3 million) to Linkin Park ("Numb/Encore," 1.8 million).
Number of charted singles on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart-the most of any artist since 1990. He also holds the record for the most hits on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1990, with 55. Those hits include songs where he was a second-billed or featured artist.
Number of his Hot 100 No. 1s that came by way of helping out a diva. Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker" spent two weeks atop the list in 1999, Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" spent eight weeks at No. 1 in 2003, and Rihanna's "Umbrella" reigned for seven in 2007.
Chart position of his biggest Hot 100 single where he was the lead artist, on the track " '03 Bonnie & Clyde" featuring Beyoncé. It went to No. 4 in 2002.
Number of No. 1 songs on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Song Chart, including his own singles "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" and "Excuse Me Miss."