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Toward the end of The Blueprint, Jay-Z trades verses with Eminem, offering a profile of himself mixing fact and metaphor: “Do not step to me, I’m awkward, I box leftier often/My pops left me an orphan and often my momma wasn’t home.” The line is a vivid example of Jay-Z’s patented technique of imperfect braggadocio. In his own eyes, Jay-Z is not simply the best rapper on the planet or a very successful ex-hustler, but also a scarred Horatio Alger character, haunted and restless.

It’s an image that the Brooklyn-born MC has pushed throughout his career. Make no mistake about it, however: Jay-Z, like most rappers, has always sold himself as a blaxploitation hero for the new millennium. But what distinguishes him from any other talented braggart is the subtle sense of tragedy he attaches to even his most unlikely boasts. Whereas the average rapper must make himself into Superman to confront his foes, Jay-Z goes to war as Clark Kent.

This is the quality that moved his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, from simply good to classic. On “Dead Presidents II,” Jay-Z depicts himself in the hospital room of a friend on death’s door, both mourning his fallen comrade and threatening retribution: “I saw his life slippin’, this is a minor setback/Yo, still in all we livin’ just dream about the get-back/That made him smile though his eyes said, ‘Pray for me’/I’ll do you one better and slay these niggas faithfully.”

There are moments like this throughout Reasonable Doubt, boasts juxtaposed with horror and pain. The combination makes the album not so much touching as touchable. The average rap LP rarely transcends the stereotypical—the gangsta rapper is less a real person than an idea. Jay-Z at his best is the only gangsta rapper who doesn’t sound like one. Consequently, he establishes a rapport with his audience that no other current rapper can.

Moreover, he possesses a sense of humor, which mitigates his otherwise morbid worldview. On “So Ghetto,” off his 1999 album, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, he admonishes a rival, “I put your crew in hard bottoms/The priest is like, ‘God’s got him, he never did nothin’ to nobody, but them boys shot him.’” On “Where I’m From,” a profile of his native Marcy Projects from 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, he explains, “I’m from the place where the church is the flakiest/And niggas is prayin’ to God so long that they atheist.”

To be sure, Jay-Z’s songs generally possess all of the qualities that lead critics like me to dismiss him: an overemphasis on materialism, rampant sexism, and clubby production that rarely surprises. He also has a knack for packing his albums with cameos from verbally challenged MCs—the awful Memphis Bleek being perhaps the most egregious example. At his worst, Jay-Z is utterly nauseating—I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through the video for “Big Pimpin’.” But, at his best, he might be the most intelligent rapper with a recording contract.

For five albums, Jay-Z has waxed and waned in his use of the Everyman aesthetic, and the quality of his work has followed. He was clearly at his best early in his career, on Reasonable Doubt and the woefully underrated In My Lifetime. Since then, he’s become an MTV darling with all the trappings—including the right to put out subpar music. Though his decline hasn’t been as precipitous as that of his adversary Nas, even Jay-Z has admitted that he couldn’t make another album that rises to the level of Reasonable Doubt. Until now.

The Blueprint is perhaps the most shocking hiphop album since the Fugees’ The Score. On first listen, it sounds like standard Jay-Z: violent, comic, and boastful. But it gradually reveals itself as an angry testament by a besieged antihero. For all who have been living under a rock for the past year, Jay-Z is currently at odds with no less than five different MCs. These conflicts set the stage for The Blueprint, the best hiphop album released this year and Jay-Z’s best album to date.

Production-wise, The Blueprint is more consistent and imaginative than any of Jay-Z’s earlier discs. The lion’s share of the studio work is handled by unknowns Just Blaze and Kanye West, both of whom seek to paint a nostalgic soundscape reminiscent not only of hiphop’s glory days but also of black music before “soul” became a marketing tag for any old cotton-candy crooner.

On “Girls, Girls, Girls,” a sampled Tom Brock harmonizes to soaring strings and old-school heads Biz Markie, Q-Tip, and Slick Rick offer up the chorus. On “Never Change,” David Ruffin’s rugged voice is essentially manipulated into a percussion instrument. And on “Takeover,” Jim Morrison growls snippets of the Doors’ “Five to One” in the background.

The production lays down an awesome soundtrack for our antihero’s miscellaneous ruminations and fulminations over his childhood, hustling days, and war with some of hiphop’s top contenders. In this last exercise, Nas and Mobb Deep in particular draw Jay-Z’s ire. This is a different Jay-Z, who only one album ago responded to his critics by coolly noting, “Let niggas take shots at me, no response/I just flip and pop my collar like the Fonz.”

Now, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy is dismissed as “a ballerina,” and Nas is ridiculed as an artist who produces “one hot album every 10-year average.” On the Timbaland-produced “Hola’ Hovito,” he tells his critics, “Yeah you shinin’, but the only thing you’re leavin’ out/You’re a candle in the sun, that shit don’t even out.”

On “Heart of the City,” Jay-Z addresses his adversaries in simple terms: “Younguns ice-grillin’ me, oh you not feelin’ me/Fine, it cost you nothin’, pay me no mind…I don’t want much, fuck, I drove every car/Some nice cooked food, some nice clean drawers.” The song is a fascinating effort to humanize celebrity, with each verse beginning with a notation on the tragic fates of stars, from Richard Pryor to Ike and Tina Turner to the Fat Boys to the Fugees.

The album’s crowning achievement is its last song, “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me).” Praising single mothers is standard fare in hiphop, but Jay-Z elevates the form by never telling us too much. Instead, over a subdued drum track and organ riff, he runs through a list of the most significant events in his life—from his father leaving to getting a record contract—and then simply offers, “My momma loves me.”

The Blueprint is that rare hiphop album that succeeds by virtue of the way its parts work together. The record isn’t particularly strong in pieces—it isn’t really heavy with singles, and Jay-Z’s wordplay is pretty average for him. But The Blueprint is in another league because it moves beyond proficient technique into real expression. Though Jay-Z doesn’t offer lyrical pyrotechnics, he doesn’t need to: He says just enough and allows the tracks to carry his emotions. Simply put, The Blueprint is a whole album.

As for where the album puts Jay-Z, it immediately removes him from the range of his would-be adversaries. Not even Nas and Mobb Deep—and certainly not the LOX—are capable of putting together an album this well-conceived and -constructed. If anything, the question now is where Jay-Z belongs in the pantheon of great rappers. He can no longer be judged against his contemporaries, but must be judged against the masters of the art: Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Biggie Smalls. Though The Blueprint doesn’t establish Jay-Z as the greatest of all time, it at least suggests the possibility, a virtue that none of his competitors can claim. CP