The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse
Commercial hip-hop's near total immersion in the cliches of guns 'n' girls 'n' cash is a given--complaining about it has become almost the biggest cliche of all. And perhaps no rapper has cashed in on those materialist commonplaces quite as spectacularly as Jay-Z. The Brooklyn MC has been rapping diffidently about fighting and fucking, over expensive-sounding beats, for over a decade. But while his predecessor as east-coast hip-hop's number one thug, the Notorious B.I.G., laced his street tales with enough humor and pathos to forge a testament to the intelligence wasted every day on the proverbial block, Jay Hova is a man of modest artistic ambitions. His principal innovation has been to drain any messy, confusing sincerity and conviction from hip-hop's saga of inner-city violence. He creates product about products.
But what product he's churned out. Time was, nobody could match Jay's reinvigorating touch with a been-there-done-that idea. When he's on, the man can work miracles of lyrical novelty while never straying from his favorite subject--how great it is to be Jay-Z. His rhymes bristle with unexpected metric shifts that never jar against the track--he navigates the rhythmic nuances of his 1998 hit "Can I Get A..." with unflappable calm while Timbaland's stuttering beats reduce guest artists Amil and Ja Rule to hapless braying. And his jokes parachute in from out of nowhere--when he brags about his Mercedes 600 collection, he says he's "got more Sixes than first grade."
But though Jay-Z's subject matter has remained constant, his popularity seems to be waning. His fifth album, The Blueprint, camped out at the top of the Billboard charts for a month, selling almost 500,000 copies during its debut week despite its inauspicious release date of September 11, 2001. From "Ain't No *****" in 1996 to "Izzo" and "Girls, Girls, Girls" in 2001, his singles have locked down prime real estate on the radio--on a recent DJ Mikey Mike mix-tape freestyle, he bragged, "I get so much airplay / You'd think I got a deal with British Airways." But while his current sleepwalk of a single, "'03 Bonnie and Clyde," is enjoying endless exposure, the album that spawned it is struggling. Less than two months after its release, his new double CD, The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse, is sliding slowly but steadily down the charts, now resting uneasily in the 20s.
Even worse for an artist who defines himself by his numbers, Jay's acknowledged competition ("only ones selling is Em, Nelly, and us," he asserts on Blueprint 2) is killing him. After half a year, The Eminem Show is barely out of the top ten (and the 8 Mile sound track has been popping in and out of the top slot) and Nellyville, also more than six months old, is holding strong as well.
Jay's slump is hard to explain. The new record is hardly inaccessible--if the first Blueprint was a downbeat, rueful album, anchored by classic soul samples and a newly mature perspective, Blueprint 2 returns to the lite-funk swipes and headlong hedonism of Jay's youth. And his overreliance on tired subject matter never bothered anyone before. So maybe it isn't what he's saying, it's how he's saying it--the tone of his lyrics. If he's going to work the crime-chicks-cash shtick as joylessly as his many imitators, fans might muse, why not switch over to the more ingratiating Nelly?
The constant demand for novel rhetorical stances is the engine for rap's endless self-reinvention: if your rhymes don't sound new, the audience will find some that do. A knack for tonal contrast allows a major artist to freshen up cliches, as when Eminem links shock rap's gory fantasies with the surreality of lower-class despair or Nas makes gangsta boasting a metaphor for the benefits and pitfalls of African-American social ascendance--or when Jay-Z pries unexpected humor out of a grim narrative.
For a guy with a carefully manicured public image as a coldhearted veteran of urban warfare, Jay-Z tends to be slightly antic with his wordplay; even at his darkest (which is pretty goddamn dark), he can sound like kind of a goofball. On his early masterwork "D'Evils" he tortures a rival's wife in order to learn her hubby's whereabouts. After literally feeding her wads of cash, Jay can't resist a bleak punch line: "She said the taste of ones was shitty / So I fed her fifties...'til her shit started to make cents." Exploding such a convoluted pun in the middle of a parable about money and corruption throws the story into sharper relief.
The Blueprint is an even more resounding victory of tone over topic. There aren't any startling deviations from Jay's typical subject matter here. The once ubiquitous "Izzo" sounds like just another of his thumping summer anthems until you pick out its clear-eyed descriptions of ghetto life ("Smokers out back selling their mama's sofa") and note the specific refutation of its writer's past as a dealer. The album stands as a complex and sorrowful look at the subjects that, when presented more raucously, made Jigga a star.
"Song Cry," possibly the finest cut of Jay-Z's career, is another good example. In its subject matter, "Cry" isn't much different from any number of fairly lousy rap tunes: Jay tells the story of his breakup with the woman who helped him become a star, caused by his newfound riches and ability to attract hordes of sexually adventurous, insanely gorgeous women. The topic permits its author to touch upon a few of his favorite topics (how put-upon Jay-Z is, the kinds of girls he can pull without even trying, how much money he has); the tune would be a chore to listen to if not for its complexity. He runs through a series of rationalizations ("I was just fuckin' them girls / I was gonna get right back") and recriminations ("I'm a man with pride, you don't do shit like that") before settling on the ugly truth: "I got to live with the fact I did you wrong forever." The average I-screwed-up-and-you-left-me track, whether defiant or repentant, usually stakes out a position and sticks with it. The speaker in "Song Cry" moves through an entirely human set of emotions and then repents.
There's no such insight in the dopey "Excuse Me, Miss," Blueprint 2's song about how hard it is for a cat as swinging as Jay-Z to be true to one lady. This more chipper jam takes the same ingredients as "Song Cry" and goes exactly nowhere. The chief bone of contention between Jay and the object of his affections is, again, his weakness for groupies. But now Jay-Z is unwilling to take any responsibility; he just "treats women like he treats them." As he rattles off a list of kitchen products--"You don't even need to do the dishes / Got two dishwashers"--and climaxes with a promise to give his one and only love his "keys and security codes," "Miss" sounds less like a pledge of devotion than a prenuptial agreement. Wherever the titular miss ends up, Jay's still just a rich, arrogant bastard with a fading knack for one-liners. He's no different at the end of the song than he was at the beginning, and neither are we.
The title track on Blueprint 2 inadvertently reveals what made Jay-Z's magisterial "The Takeover" (on the first Blueprint) one of the all-time great battle raps. Both songs are attacks on his arch rival, Nas. But while Jay gets off a few good cracks this time around ("Just because you can't understand him don't mean that he nice" is a pithy dig at his opponent's fondness for oblique "prophecy"), "Blueprint 2" sounds piqued and whiny. "The Takeover" was the sound of a man in charge--instead of fury, the typical tenor of choice for battle tracks, Jay sounded bored and slightly amused, as if he was annoyed, more than anything, that he was expected to answer such feeble assaults. "Blueprint 2" sounds like any rapper fighting another; Jay seems at a loss for any response at all, other than a list of past record sales and some feeble boasts about how much he donates to charity.
There are already enough Jay-Z copycats on today's rap radio: those few precious moments of non-Jigga airtime have been ceded to player's-club members like Ja Rule (sample song titles: "Livin' It Up," "Murder, Murder") and Cam'Ron (who's so big on conceptual clarity he named an album Sex, Drugs and Entertainment). There's nothing on Blueprint 2 we haven't heard before; what's worse, we've heard it all exactly this way before.