Def Jam Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/01/2011
If there is one genre of popular music that I must confess to be lacking in knowledge of, it would certainly be the world of rap/hip-hop. I won't be disingenuous and deny that much of the situation has to do with me previously buying into the common stereotypes about rap: the lack of musicality, the banal lyrics, and the incredibly misogynistic viewpoints of the rappers themselves.
Maybe this is a case of with age comes wisdom, or at the very least an understanding of just what context means, but those stereotypes don't exist for this reviewer anymore. Such a blanket statement to the contrary was youthful naiveté; there is lousy rap out there that is no different than the lousy pop or rock that populates the airwaves. The great ones, though, are just as influential and brilliant as their more traditional counterparts.
Jay-Z is one of those artists that you could conceivably never listen to but still be aware of who he is and his reputation in the music community. His relationship with Béyonce will help that image along, but there is no denying that Jay-Z seeps into the culture in the same way a Justin Timberlake or a Bono does. His status as one of the elders, if not THE premier of hip-hop, lends him a certain gravitas that others do not have.
That gravitas is something that Jay-Z is clearly aware of; that much is clear after a listening of The Blueprint. Were one to thematically summarize the record, two words made popular by Cee-Lo Green this last summer come to mind: “Forget you!” (This is a family site, after all). Hell, there are multiple instances when Jay-Z comes straight out and calls out fellow rapper Nas in...ahem...very explicit insults. The track “Takeover” alone makes the veiled shots McCartney and Lennon took at each other seem downright gentlemanly. The perceived disrespect Jay-Z felt in 2001 essentially was akin to throwing gasoline on a raging inferno
The production on Blueprint is a masterstroke, and Jay-Z’s delivery is second to none. That being said, it is the lyrics that really fascinate and entertain. The image I had of rappers affected how I understood the music, and I didn’t take the time to sit down and actually figure out what the hell they were SAYING. Some would take a look through the liner notes and dismiss what they read as crude language unfit for the children of the world. Of course, crude is a matter of perspective, which many of the people that railed against records like this seem to have lacked.
There are so many threads that run throughout Blueprint, moving in and out of different tracks, coming out in different ways. My favorite intersection of those threads comes with the penultimate track, “Renegade.” Jay-Z brings in Eminem to trade off stanzas, and the results are mind-blowing. The two of them manage to hit on life in the ghetto, dealing with the success that comes with popularity, and the perception they share of America and how America views them. Frankly, to hear a 2001-era Eminem just lay the wood on mainstream America is reason enough alone to give Blueprint a listen.
It would be wrong not to elaborate on the production of Blueprint, and a glance at the jewel case reveals a few names that have come to be well known: Kanye West and Timbaland, for starters. With talent like that, it is no wonder that just listening to Blueprint is a treat. The appreciation those involved have for soul and ‘60s R&B is much evident; the samples and beats aren’t what the casual listener may expect, at least in 2001. “Rengade” stands out as the pinnacle of the album from a lyrical standpoint, but “Heart Of The City” is simply a production masterpiece. It legitimately transcends the notion of hip-hop. It’s got soul. It’s not a stretch to link it to Marvin Gaye or a young Stevie Wonder. The roots run deep, and to hear that respect being paid to the elders is heartening.
Jay-Z himself has been somewhat absent so far, mostly due to the unexpected enjoyment I took in the other aspects of the album. Addressing why Blueprint is a record of note is futile without addressing the contribution Jay-Z brought. It’s in the subtleties, especially when Jay-Z is paired up with other performers (aka “Renegade”). Jay-Z doesn’t beat the listener over the head with an over-enthusiastic approach, his flow is understated and deliberate. The ironies, the winks – they can breathe when delivered in this manner and it makes the record much more effective overall. The man has personality, and it comes through loud and clear.
There was no exact “Come To Jesus” for me when it came to hip-hop, but I’m damn sure pleased it happened at some point. I would ask that if you were to perhaps still have the same ideas and perceptions about the genre and those who find success from it, forget all that you believe about it. Sit down, put the headphones on, and listen. You might find that The Blueprint is a great record, in the same ways as any other great record comes to exist.