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“I’m still fuckin’ with crime ’cause crime pays”: On “Never Change,” a Motown-soulful, lyrically swaggering cut on 2001’s The Blueprint, Jay-Z let us know that, despite all the mogul-sized cheddar rolling in from his albums, his record label, his film studio, and his clothing line, he hadn’t really changed since he was a teen Shawn Carter hustling the law in Bed-Stuy. He’d been boasting of his street supremacy ever since his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, of course, but for all the tough talk, Jay-Z was starting to sound defensive—as if he sensed that the purist hordes of hiphop were about to pounce.

The reason for his pre-emptive braggadocio, perhaps, was that The Blueprint—critically caressed and commercially conquering—was not only loaded with his trademark flow, clever rhymes, and obscure samples, but also blessed with a big bunch of MTV-chummy hits that sweetly celebrated his fame, his ladies, and his childhood: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love).” To put it simply, Jay-Z (or the Jigga or Jay-Hova or the Roc or…) wanted the blinged-out Puff Daddy throne without the soft P. Diddy rep—a tricky tightrope to walk for sure.

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For all the bullets-and-bitches chest-thumping on “Never Change,” however, Jay-Z followed up the near-perfect Blueprint with a string of cred-killing casualties: a warm ‘n’ fuzzy Unplugged appearance, a disastrous collaboration with allegedly teen-loving R&B softy R. Kelly, and a nuzzly relationship made in US Weekly heaven with Destiny’s Child pop princess Beyonce Knowles—basically the bootylicious opposite of his “Ain’t No Nigga” bed buddy, Foxy Brown. With his encyclopedic musical knowledge and quirky pop-culture tastes, Jay-Z had certainly made rap aficionados scratch their heads before—the 1998 hit “Hard Knock Life,” for example, sampled a children’s chorus from precocious-orphans show Annie—and yet his curious musicality was always too goddamn inspired to be mocked. But now, with his expanding empire (he added a liquor distributorship), his strange crossover attempts (good lord, he wants to work with Bono!), and his L’Oreal-shilling squeeze (they were caught smooching in a Waffle House—ain’t that cute?), just who was Jay-Z turning into?

The answer, according to the new double-disc The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse, is not Sean Combs. Jay-Z still has too much proud pimposity, not to mention talent, flowing through his veins to turn into that sham. Then again, the answer may just be Wyclef Jean, whose desire to be both a peacekeeper and a man of all genres has often made him look both brilliant and buffoonish in the span of an album side.

Like most sequels, The Blueprint2 is an overly ambitious attempt to top a far superior original. Jay-Z calls it an “extravaganza,” and he’s right about that. The 32-year-old MC provides 25 tracks on two discs (nearly two hours of music), and whereas The Blueprint featured only one big-time cameo (Eminem, on the blistering “Renagade”), the new album features more than 20 other voices, including those of heavyweights Rakim, Beanie Sigel, and OutKast’s Big Boi—and lightweights Lenny Kravitz, Paul Anka, and Ms. Knowles herself. The Jigga also called on white-hot producers the Neptunes, Dr. Dre, and Timbaland to ensure that all his hit-making bases were covered. On paper, it looks like the Cannonball Run of rapdom.

But despite The Blueprint2’s star-studded crowding and filler-up bloating—a handful of tracks are nothing more than muddled plugs for lackluster Roc-A-Fella artists, most of whom will no doubt be replaced by next month—Jay-Z has yet to be topped as the greatest showman in rap. His rhymes are instantly infectious, his loose-lipped MC skills are unmatched, and his pop-minded hooks and samples are catchy as hell. There’s truly no one like him, and when he’s on, he’s unstoppable. Plus, the Jigga is the rare rap artist who forgoes wandering intros and dumbass ‘tween-song skits and simply delivers the goods. And there’s certainly a lot of good here—purists be damned.

Disc 1—”The Gift”—is mostly a feel-good party platter, a hyped-up bacchanal of all those glittering things in Jay-Z’s tycoonian universe. Dr. Dre and Rakim guest on “The Watcher 2,” backed with a Duane Eddy-esque guitar line signaling that it’s high noon in the ‘hood—and that Jay-Z is the fastest draw around. On “Hovi Baby,” washed clean with—no shit—prog-rock keyboards (could Jay-Z be a Yes man?), our hero acknowledges his feud with archenemy Nas: “I got now/I don’t care who’s got next….Nigga, your whole career is an accident.” And on “I Did It My Way,” a syncopated, kitchen-sink reworking of the standard made famous by Sinatra, Jay-Z offers a chin-up chairman-of-the-board response to his various legal troubles, including his alleged beat-down of an Undeas Records exec.

Of course, there’s more to the high life than smiting your enemies: On the randy, Pharrell Williams/Chad Hugo-produced thumpers “Excuse Me Miss” and “F**k All Nite,” the jazz-inflected beats and digital accouterments of the Neptunes are so ubiquitous and persuasive that Jay-Z sounds as if he were guesting on the latest, greatest N.E.R.D. disc. The man can brag all he wants about his beneath-the-sheets prowess, but trust me: You’re not gonna believe a single groin-grabbin’ come-on once you hear him coo, “You ready, B? Let’s go get ’em” to commence The Blueprint2’s first single, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde.” The track, decorated with some classically gassy nylon-string-work, is a guilty-pleasure duet with Knowles that leans more toward her pop-safe stylings than his jagged-edge approach. “All I need in this life of sin is me and my girlfriend,” he raps, honoring Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend” just three tracks after checking in with the praise-Biggie album-opener, “A Dream.” Then, with his curvaceous paramour by his side, he admonishes, “The problem is/You dudes treat the one that you lovin’/With the same respect that you treat the one that you humpin’.” Coming from the same Fella who gave us “Big Pimpin’,” it’s not only romantic but downright revelatory.

Although it starts out with a big burst of heaven-sent gospel swoon, Disc 2—”The Curse”—is a far darker experience, with Jay-Z abandoning the security of his gold-encrusted penthouse for the bullet-ridden climes of the old neighborhood. Pretty boy Kravitz gets dirty on his guitar and pitches in with a fuzzed-out falsetto on “Guns & Roses,” a funk-rap hybrid intricately produced by an adventurous Heavy D. Studio hotshot Just Blaze plays an eerily baroque piano on the Chronic-ish “Meet the Parents,” an unsettling and very much relevant story examining the effect a fatal shooting has on the parents of both villain and victim: “When you live by the gun/You die by the same fate/End up dead by 38…/It’s a cold world.” And Brenda Russell’s wailed refrain on “Some People Hate”—a sample Moby is no doubt kicking himself for never swiping—lends a sunny ’70s-soul shine to the dark-cloud dread of a consummately Jay-Z-esque track about those who “try to take me out the game.”

Take the best of “The Gift” and “The Curse” and you’d have a stellar single disc—if not a match of the near-perfect 13-track Blueprint, then an effort that’s at least admirably close. As it is, there’s certainly some garbage to wade through, especially on Disc 2: flat-beaten sales pitches for the album you’ve already bought (“Show You How”); an embarrassing cut in which the hook is basically a lousy impersonation of—gack!—Austin Powers (“Blueprint2”); and a song (“As One”) in which the Jigga lazily raps about unity over Earth Wind & Fire, possibly the most oversampled band of all time. Still, chunky but funky is fine with me. And you certainly can’t fault Jay-Z’s ambition: A double album is a rarity in the rap world, and if anyone has the clout, talent, and big ol’ balls to give it a try—and come close to succeeding—it’s Jay-Z. As he said on “Girls, Girls, Girls”: “I got an appetite for destruction/But I scrape the plate.” So let Jay-Z have his empire, his buddy Bono, and his sweet Beyonce. I, for one, hope he never changes. CP