The true crime–cum–Horatio Alger story that Jay-Z shilled into a profitable empire is a timeless one: Fatherless ghetto kid becomes successful drug dealer, sees error of his ways, and becomes an even more successful rapper by romanticizing old lifestyle. Yet, like all rags-to-riches tales, it lost steam once the hero triumphed. This is the dilemma of most autobiographical hip-hop: New battles must be perpetually conjured. Conveniently, some have. Jay has been dissed in verse recently by various MCs, notably Nas. More seriously, he is awaiting trials for both the 1999 alleged stabbing of former associate Lance ''Un'' Rivera and charges in April of illegal gun possession (he has pleaded ''not guilty'' to both charges).
This makes The Blueprint a journalistic as well as an artistic event, and the rap mullah reports it for all it's worth. He reminds us he's ''got great lawyers'' on ''The Ruler's Back,'' leads a rousing chorus of ''not guilty/y'all got to feel me'' on the single ''IZZO (H.O.V.A.),'' and rips rappers Nas and Prodigy on ''Takeover.'' Jay spits his outlaw boasts and pimp-slap toasts with the same coolly obstreperous flow that's always gilded his thug-life clichés. But lyrically and musically, ''Blueprint'' is mostly bear-market. In place of the ethno-futurism of frequent collaborator Timbaland (who gets one unremarkable track) are sentimental collages of '70s soul. Some are dazzling: ''U Don't Know'' lays sped-up vocals and R&B screams over ''Ben-Hur''-ish fanfare, while ''Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)'' uses gospel organ to revisit the gangsta tearjerker, a trope Jay helped define with 1997's ''You Must Love Me.''
But for an MC claiming to represent ''for the seat where Rosa Parks sat,'' one expects a bit more. On the telling ''Renagade'' [sic], Jay and fellow heavyweight Eminem brag how they've ''never been afraid to talk about anything.'' But Jay just replays his hard-knock life, while Em carps yet again about being a cultural scapegoat. Alas: two of the world's greatest rappers, afraid to talk about anything but the same ol' shtick.