Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3

Now updated.

This striking cover from hip-hop maestro Jay-Z immediately caught our eye and we featured it yesterday. However our readers were quick to point out that we’d only scratched the surface in our review. So thanks to our learned, intrepid and (let’s face it) sexy readers, here’s an updated feature.

This month sees the release of The Blueprint 3 by Jay-Z . The legendary rapper is in top form, with the usual emphasis on slick production and collaborations with big names that include Kanye West, Timbaland, The Neptunes and Rihanna. In many ways, it’s business as usual for this consummate businessman – with the exception of the cover art.

It’s not a new thing to bemoan the paucity of quality hip-hop sleeves, which is what makes The Blueprint 3 so refreshing. Check out the behind the scenes video to appreciate the craft that has gone into making it.

Many have noted a passing resemblance to the muted cover of U2’s No Line on the Horizon.

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While others point to Now Here is Nowhere by The Secret Machines.

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Or Kingdom of Comfort by Christian rockers Delirious?.

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But the album’s aesthetic and concept owes its biggest debt to the previous work of photographer Dan Tobin Smith. The assorted of junk is also reminiscent of his work for Athlete’s Tourist album.

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Tobin Smith worked with art director Greg Burke and set designer Nicola Yeoman to create the mod, minimalist cover art for Jay-Z. With its gathered assortments of white instruments and electronic equipment, it makes me feel like I’ve stepped back into some avant-garde gallery in the 70’s.

And in a way, it turns out that’s the decade where Jay-Z wanted to take us.

Referring to the gathered instruments he says: “These things are like the forgotten pieces in hip-hop. It’s still about music. It’s not about radio, making gimmicks — it’s still about making music. Those things are piled in the corner. These are the forgotten things about music. It’s still about music. It’s not about radio, it’s not about making gimmicks, it’s about music.”

The three red stripes are also a symbolic call for a return to simpler times.

“The three stripes that everybody is asking about is made from the original [number] three. The first three they made on the wall was someone carving. If you look at [the number] 3, all they did was connect lines. The whole thing about this album, how I approached it, is that I wanted to make a new classic to start that all over again — to go back to making classic albums like the ones we grew up listening to.”

At this stage of his career, it’s a worthy goal to set out to make a classic. It’s also admirable that he would put so much thought and effort into a concept cover. After all, the sentiment that hip-hop needs to return to the ethos and integrity of a bygone era is nothing new – it’s just surprising to see it expressed in such a lateral and subtle way.

Update: there is a great interview with Dan Tobin on Itsnicethat.com who goes into great details about the cover and the process.

Here’s a quick excerpt.

This is one of the most anticipated albums of the year, and the first album Jay Z hasn’t appeared on the cover, how did you get involved in the project and what was the reasoning behind a much more sculptural approach?

Greg Burke, the creative director on the project at Atlantic records had seen the Letter ‘E’ I had shot with the set designer Nicola Yeoman and I guess he had it in the back of his mind when he was thinking of ideas for Jay Z’s new artwork for Blueprint 3. I think Greg and Jay Z had lots of ideas about what the album meant and it seemed to be about taking it back to the source, in terms of the music itself and then subsequently the artwork. For the album and the idea was it was very much about the music and all the things that make music. The 3 is represented by 3 bars which is of course the old way of writing ‘3’ so that seemed to work really nicely with the idea behind the album and the set design that evolved. We all liked the idea that the installation was almost machine like, like all these things were interlinked. That’s why everything is packed and jumbled together. Like it had kind of grown out of this corner.

I think it was a brave approach for Jay Z as all his previous albums have had him on them. I love still life, and the way I shoot is quite old school. It took 3 days to shoot, was all shot on 10×8 inch film, so the quality in the whites is fantastic, so much subtle tone. We worked long and hard on the colour work on the post and even in a single page mag advert I can see that effort. You could blow the image up to the size of a building and it would still hold up. It seems the album is about that old school crafted production so its nice that that same method went into the shoot.

Here is the letter E piece Dan refers to

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I’ll leave it to the designers to argue over the merits of including the artist name, website and album title on the cover. This could simply be a clear case of Jay-Z the artist making one compromise with his old friend Jay-Z the businessman.

Note: This is the first album cover to not feature Jay-Z. Lucky as it would have been hard to quick change into this one.

The Blueprint 3 Outtakes
And for those interested Alex Goose has released for free “The Blueprint 3 Outtakes” album with tracks that didn’t make the initial cut.