Jay-Z’s been in a weird place these last few years, career-wise. After “un-retiring” in 2006, the rapper seemed to struggle to find his way. That year’s “Kingdom Come” was a credible attempt to make a “grown folks” hip-hop album, but it didn’t appeal to Jay’s younger contingent of fans and underperformed commercially. The following year’s “American Gangster” found Jay revisiting the hustling themes of his older albums and restored his position critically, although I personally don’t think it was much better than “Kingdom Come”. He’d been promising “The Blueprint 3” for at least a year, tossing off a bunch of teaser singles that sounded, well…tossed off. To my ears, it sounded like Jay had lost his passion for rhyming. I wasn’t holding out hope that “BP3” would be worth the money I would inevitably spend on it.

Surprise! Jay apparently regrouped at some point and came out of the studio with one of the stronger albums of his career. The production is uniformly solid, sounding right in the pocket of current radio trends without sounding like Jay’s trying particularly hard to appeal to a younger audience. Jay sounds rejuvenated on the mic; he hasn’t sounded this spirited and in love with words since “The Black Album”.

Every Jay album-even the best ones-have a few songs of fast-forward material, so what surprises the most about “BP3”-besides Jay’s renewed vocal dexterity-is that it’s a consistent listen all the way through. The only other Jay album that flows this well is the first “Blueprint”. The embarrassing moments on this album have nothing to do with Jay himself. Pharrell Williams delivers a lukewarm synth-pop beat on “So Ambitious”, but I’d give a pass to the song if it wasn’t for Pharrell’s God-awful chorus. “Reminder”‘s insistent chorus is somewhat repetitious (and therefore annoying as hell), but Jay’s solid verses make up for the crappy hook. Other than that, there’s a forgettable verse (surprised?) by Young Jeezy on “Real As it Gets”, and the rest of the album is gravy.

Jay’s at his best when his songs follow some sort of narrative, and “BP3″‘s standout tracks are the ones that focus on a subject other than Jay himself. The piano-spiked “A Star is Born” gives props to a string of other rappers. Jay even extends an olive branch to a few of the rappers he’s had beef with over the years. I wasn’t too keen on “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” when it hit the airwaves a few months ago, but it’s grown on me. It’s a back-to-basics Jay tune; straight-up New York boom-bap. Speaking of New York, “Empire State of Mind” is a loving tribute to Jay’s home, with a triumphant chorus from Alicia Keys.

Whenever Jay’s rhyming about himself gets a little tiring, the producers come in to save the day with hot beats. “On to the Next One” features a bassy, head-nodding beat flavored with vocal samples from Justice’s hit “D.A.N.C.E.”. “Off That” spotlights Jay’s awesome flow and proves that he can even rhyme on one of Timbaland’s more dance/pop oriented beats. Kanye West even digs up Alphaville’s 1985 synth-pop tearjerker “Forever Young” for the album closer “Young Forever”. Aside from the aforementioned “So Ambitious”, there’s not one bad beat on the “BP3”.

Two more things that stood out to me: Jay successfully experiments with his flow on “BP3”, whether overdubbing his vocals on top of one another on the dark, mysterious “Venus Vs. Mars”, or trading off lines relay-race style with Kanye on “Hate”. It’s nice to hear that even though he’s 15 years into his career and pushing 40, he’s still exploring what he can do with his voice. The album is also fairly devoid of guest rappers, with the exception of Young Jeezy’s yawner of a verse on “Real As it Gets”. J. Cole (one of Jay’s newest proteges) contributes an inobtrusive verse to “A Star is Born” and  Kanye delivers some of the most entertaining verses on the album with his contributions to “Hate” and the smash single “Run This Town”.

I’ve gotta admit, “Blueprint 3” was a pleasant surprise. It has a consistency missing from a lot of Jay’s catalog, and his rhyming sounds more focused, more joyful, than it has in a number of years. It’s not a stone-cold classic like the first “Blueprint” (that would have required Jay to do a little more soul-searching on the lyrical tip than he did on this album), but it’s also thankfully not the overambitious, disjointed mess that was “Blueprint 2”. What you get with “Blueprint 3” is a solid, enjoyable album, which proves that even in his advanced age (in hip-hop years), Jay-Z is still capable of recording material that challenges his best work.