Thursday, October 4, 2007

[055] The Blueprint

Album: The Blueprint
Artist: Jay-Z
Release Date: September 2001
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: Kanye West, Just Blaze, Bink, Timbaland, Eminem, Trackmasters

“Hova’s back, life story told through Rap,
Niggas acting like I sold you crack,
Like I told you ‘sell drugs’;
No, Hove did that,
So hopefully you won’t have to go through that”
- from “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”

Over the years, I’ve held firm, defending modern music to my parents’ generation. The battle isn’t always easy though because they play 'The 60’s Card', whining that music was so much better back in their day. But we all know the secret – all the great artists of their day were on top of the charts. Amazing music can be made when commerciality and creativity peak at the same time. I can understand how someone that’s not familiar with Hip-Hop wouldn’t understand, but Jay-Z’s sixth album in as many years, The Blueprint is one of those rare albums. By 2001, Jay had cemented his place as the biggest name in Hip-Hop by consistently turning street corner classics into radio and club favorites, and on The Blueprint, he rests, sounding so triumphant; he’s almost dismissive, like how dare you ask him how it feels to be the hottest rapper alive.

This album is here on the list for a simple reason: It is the album that changed the divide on which the original intent of this website was built. “Cut Shallow Radio” means something to me – that the best music is usually the stuff that’s bubbling under the mainstream, good enough for the world, but banging its head on the glass ceiling of radio formats and video playlists; the good shit is out there if you look hard enough, which is exactly what my parents’ generation didn’t have to do, and that’s why they don’t get it. For years, so many of my age-group with discerning taste have stuck to their Aphexs and Pavements and Björks while trying to be at peace with their secret Duran Duran or Prince or Biggie Smalls addictions. Jay’s Blueprint was simply too strong, too charming, too flawless to resist, and it smashed the jaded hipster dismissal police. You expected the hallowed "Five Mics" from The Source and the full "XXL" from XXL. But there came cries of ‘Sellout!!’ when Pitchfork Media just decided to review the album, let alone give it a massive rating of 8.7 out of 10. Then came “Crazy In Love”. Now Kanye West is one of the biggest stars in music. You have Indie Rock bands playing network TV on The O.C., while The Strokes fan in the dirty Chuck Taylors and skinny jeans wasn't afraid anymore to say he or she loved Cassie’s “Me & U” or that Lil' Wayne was turning out to be a pretty decent MC. Pitchfork even went back and named Blueprint the second-best album from 2000 through 2004, behind only Radiohead's Kid A.

While the sequencing is brilliant, the split is there - the commercial and the creative. Jay-Z clearly felt comfortable enough with his status as top dog to allow some new young talent to bless him with beats that took him back to the early 90's heyday of sampling, while mostly leaving the high-powered producers home this time around; there's nothing from the ubiquitous Neptunes, no Dr. Dre, no Swizz Beatz, even no DJ Premier, and just one from Timbaland. Jay took his commercial sound - the one that "held you down six Summers" - and streamlined it, brushing off the look-at-me bling culture, and getting down to really enjoying being the best. He even doesn't mind that Eminem, his only guest, shows him up on his own album. Coming in, "Jigga That Nigga" is the kind of song you would've expected from Jay, and you might have rolled your eyes, but you'd be missing a great dancefloor filler. On Timbaland's latin-flavored "Hola' Hovito", Jay asserts that he's the Sinatra of his day, "Michael, Magic and Bird, all rolled in one", and if he's not better than BIG, he's the closest one. Sounds like it's pretty easy living being the best...

Maybe it's not, because on the creative side, over scrambled Soul samples, he stretches out his problems with being king of the hill, and getting older in the Rap game; he brilliantly addresses the petty beef on "Heart Of The City", by pointing out "I'm not looking at you dudes, I'm looking past you." This is unheard of - MC's don't get older and better, but here's Jay deciding maturity is the way to go, and that line sums it up even if you never heard the infamous "Takeover", one of the greatest diss tracks in Hip-Hop history. Jay skewers Mobb Deep's Prodigy and then takes to burying Nas; for good measure, he ends it with, "For all you other cats throwing shots at Jigga, you only get half a bar: Fuck y'all niggas!" This all takes place over a scorched-Earth beat crafted from The Doors' "Five To One" by a young producer named Kanye West. Not many people knew Kanye at the time, and no one knew he had rhymes to go with these beats, but if it's possible, Kanye re-revolutionized sampling just by having the balls to do it; Hip-Hop had gotten so over-synthesized because everyone thought they could be Timbaland or The Neptunes just by buying a Korg keyboard, and Kanye pissed on that with dusty records in hand. Of his four tracks here, three - "Takeover", The Jackson 5-sampling #1 hit "Izzo", and "Heart Of The City" - still remain among the very the best work either he or Jay has ever done, and go to prove that if Kanye had stayed behind the decks instead of in front of a mic, the two could have been one of those kind of teams, like The Beatles & George Martin, Michael & Quincy, or Snoop & Dre.

Right along side of West was Just Blaze, Jay's other up-&-coming Roc-A-Fella house producer. Blaze is now rightfully known for his insanely genius bombast, injecting street Rap with soulful warmth, but of his three home run contributions, only one, the screaming "U Don't Know", hints at his future; the other two, "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Song Cry", took their laidback grooves to radio with success. The former takes it old school, with chorus cameos from Biz Markie, Q-Tip, and Slick Rick, while the latter is likely the most beautiful Hip-Hop ballad that's ever been recorded, a shockingly honest and genuine moment of humility. Jay would continue to explore the theme of his maturity Vs. the game of Rap in the coming years, but it was here that he made the turn, and that goes a long way to making this a classic album. When you're an artist on top, it never hurts to keep challenging yourself creatively even if you've conquered the commerce.

01. "The Ruler's Back"
02. "Takeover"
03. "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)"
04. "Girls, Girls, Girls"
05. "Jigga That Nigga"
06. "U Don't Know"
07. "Hola' Hovito"
08. "Heart Of The City (Ain't No Love)"
09. "Never Change"
10. "Song Cry"
11. "All I Need"
12. "Renegade" [feat. Eminem]
13. "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)"
14. "Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)"**
15. "Girls, Girls, Girls (Kanye West remix)"**
**unlisted hidden track

"Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" [video]

"Takeover" [audio]

- BONUS: "The Ruler's Back" [audio]
- BONUS: "Girls, Girls, Girls" [video]
- BONUS: "Jigga That Nigga" [audio]
- BONUS: "U Don't Know" [audio]
- BONUS: "Heart Of The City (Ain't No Love)" [audio]
- BONUS: "Never Change" [audio]
- BONUS: "Song Cry" [live at Madison Square Garden, NYC, 11.03]
feat. Mary J. Blige; from the documentary Fade To Black
- BONUS: "Renegade" [audio]

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