Somebody fetch Jay-Z some smelling salts, a Starbucks gift card, a midlife crisis -- anything to knock him out of the stupor he has settled into on "The Blueprint 3."
The rap icon's 11th album is the first full-scale disaster of his career, a collection devoid of the mega-jams we expect from hip-hop's undisputed alpha male. Instead, we suffer lyrics that suggest a new credo: Shrug that dirt off your shoulder.
The rap game? He's over it. Hip-hop's next generation? Yawn. The haters? Pffft. They say it's lonely at the top, but for Jay-Z, it's just incredibly boring. After 13 years of thrilling auto-hagiography, the man sounds fed up not only with hip-hop but with himself. How can he expect us not to agree?
Lukewarmth ensues immediately with "What We Talkin' About," an album opener that hints at early-onset dementia. "I don't run rap no more, I run the map," the veteran declares. Moments later, "I don't run rap no more, I run the map." Have we just witnessed Jay's first senior moment? Hard to say whether the slippage is due to laziness, carelessness or senility, but it's certainly a far cry from the dexterous salvos that usually launch a Jay-Z album.
The rest of "Blueprint 3" follows suit, pairing bromidic couplets with swatches of keyboard piffle -- save for "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)," a lead single that finds Jay bemoaning those pesky R&B whippersnappers and their zany pitch-correction software.
"This is anti-Auto-Tune, death of the ring tone," he groans, humbugging over a scratchy boom-boom-bap. "This ain't for iTunes, this ain't for singalongs." No kidding.
Such grumpy old mannerisms raise the question: Can hip-hop age gracefully? Without becoming boring or bitter? No living artist embodies the art form quite like Jay-Z, and with his 40th birthday fast approaching, the rap world is looking to him for life lessons from the other side of the hill. Instead, Jay chooses to define wisdom merely as the opposite of youth. Over the irritating clatter of "On to the Next One," he explains, "No, I'm not a Jonas brother, I'm a grown-up." (Glad he cleared that one up.)
This isn't his first stumble: 2006's "Kingdom Come" hinted at Jay-Z as an older, wiser (and more tepid) rap star, but the album still had a pocketful of tunes capable of rattling your speakers and raising your pulse. The only thing resembling that kind of excitement on "The Blueprint 3" is "Off That" -- a whizzing Timbaland track that could have been unearthed from the back of Nelly Furtado's freezer and reheated with a hook from Drake, hip-hop's incumbent cutie pie.
"Whatever you're about to discover, we off that," the heartthrob sings, pantomiming the ethos of his grouchy paymaster as best he can. Meanwhile, Jay summons the energy to lob a few spitballs at Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, before resorting to contempt for the wannabes. "If you're driving it, I drove it," he taunts, halfheartedly. "You got it, cos' I sold it."
It feels like a shoulder shrug at 111 beats per minute -- and don't mistake it for dancing. He's off that, too.