Rap: [Jay-Z], The Blueprint ( * * * * out of four) On the horn- driven opening salvo, Jay-Z proclaims The Ruler's Back. But with six albums in five years and an endless string of soundtrack and guest- appearance hits, he has never gone away. He also never runs out of things to say, or inventive ways in which to say them. The musical backdrop here is more soulful than before, and Jay-Z's sentiments have a harder edge. He spends little time cataloging his high-end consumer purchases. Instead, he shoots venom at rivals Nas and Prodigy, proclaims his innocence in pending assault and gun trials, contemplates his earlier life of poverty and crime, and exults in the burgeoning successes of his various businesses. Infectious first single Izzo (H.O.V.A.) is an anthemic party jam that nevertheless is filled with pointed statements. Next up is Girls, Girls, Girls, a sexual world tour on which he makes it clear he still loves a good time. Still, Jay-Z has never been just about his radio-friendly singles, and that's one of the keys to his success. This album is a bloat-free 13 tracks, unburdened by throwaway skits, filler tracks and unneeded guests. Slick Rick, Q-Tip and Biz Markie provide the chorus for Girls, and Eminem shows up on the defiant Renegade. Aside from them, it's all Jay-Z. Other rappers might want to think about that as a blueprint. -- Steve Jones
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