To say I don’t know much about hip up would be an egregious understatement. It would be like saying hippies don’t know much about hygiene. I know one or two Beastie Boys albums a little. I like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. And I don’t know if this is blasphemous to real hip hop fans or not, but I love the good time, white boy party jams of Ugly Duckling.
One person I have never once consciously listened to and who doesn’t have a single song I could name off the top of my head, also happens to be one of the genre’s most successful… Jay Z. My hip knowledge might be pretty shallow, but even I know his 2001 album The Blueprint has an unimpeachable reputation. So, does that reputation hold up to someone’s who is, at best, a casual listener of the genre?
Straight away, The Blueprint offers up a couple of examples of one thing that’s always turned me off hip hop, the unbridled, dick swinging hubris. The opening track is called The Ruler’s Back. The follow up, Takeover bangs on about “niggers gotta learn to respect the king”, while calling out others as lame.
Now, I’m fully aware of how this might make me sound like a middle class white guy from suburbia in his thirties, but I’m a middle class white guy from the suburbs in his thirties, so bugger it. But I’ve always thought artists who have talk about how great they are, probably aren’t all that great. That goes for metal and punk rock too. Styles of music I do have a better than average knowledge of.
Having said all that, later on U Don’t Know, he manages to brag constantly for over three minutes, but it somehow has a sound that’s more earned and proud than arrogant and big headed. I also give Jay Z the same pass that I give metal and hip hop. I generally don’t give a shit about lyrics, as long as the music and melodies are good.
Or in this case, I generally don’t give a shit about lyrics, as long as the beats, rhythms and flow are good. On The Blueprint, and especially on a track like Izzo (H.O.V.A), I fully understand how and why Jay Z has become such a massive force in not just rap and hip hop, but music and culture in general.
Which makes Girls, Girls, Girls a little bit of a letdown. After an amazing trio to kick things off, Girls, Girls, Girls has such a gimmicky and hacky intro and hook. As great as the versus are, they can’t cover the bad taste left in my mouth by those opening seconds.
The Blueprint does stand out in one huge way compared to other landmark hip hop albums I’ve heard. I like that it’s billed as a Jay Z album and backs that up with Jay Z doing most of the work. I hate listening to an album that’s full of collaborations and cameos that over shadow the person who’s name is on the CD cover. I remember listing to Dr Dre’s The Chronic and liking the Dre bits, but also hating that I had to sit through a lot of Snoop Dogg, really amateurish skits and other bull shit for long stretches.
It’s always a good sign when an album that has already impressed me in the first half steps it up a notch later on the track listing. Here, Heart of the City (Aint No Love) made me go from kind of understanding why the reputation of The Blueprint is so enduring, to fully getting it. I might not know much about hip hop, but I can recognise this is a great track.
But like the drop from Izzo to Girls, the rapid descent from Heart of the City into the boring cliches of Never Change and Song Cry is like the traditional track 8 acoustic number on so many heavy / guitar based albums. I don’t need to see your sensitive side, Jay Z.
As for the closing track, three different unnecessary songs spread over twelve minutes?… All I’ll say is, The Blueprint could have only been made better if it was twelve minutes shorter. For someone who already had plenty of success before this, The Blueprint comes off as amazingly insecure. Not in execution, that’s immaculate and shows why Jay Z is such an admired practitioner of what he does. It’s just so insecure lyrically and thematically.
But I guess that’s what makes Jay Z the king of this world. He wasn’t content with the “plenty of success” he’d had before this. To my uneducated and uninitiated ears, The Blueprint sounds like someone who decided he had to really deliver something big and ground breaking, and all of that insecurity was just Jay Z’s mission statement. And again, to my uneducated and uninitiated ears, it sounds like it was mission accomplished.