This is how the rap game works: when someone is pushed, they push back harder. That’s why the more someone like Eminem is criticized, the more unapologetic and extreme his lyrics become. There’s something about being persecuted, or at least believing oneself to be persecuted, that makes people embrace and reaffirm their own identity — witness Jay-Z’s sixth album, The Blueprint.
At the time of its recording, Jay-Z was feeling less Rockefeller and more Michael Milken — nine songs on The Blueprint were reportedly cut in two days. Jay-Z was awaiting two criminal trials, one for gun possession, another for assault. In addition, he had become one of hip-hop’s most dissed artists, with Nas, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Jadakiss and others attacking him in song. Not unlike Tupac and his Makaveli persona, personal and legal problems have provoked Jay-Z to write what may be his most personal, straightforward album but also his most self-aggrandizing work.
Though Jay-Z came on the scene like he’d stepped out of the pages of The Robb Report, obsessed with the make of his watch and the president in his billfold, he has almost outgrown his materialistic obsession. It’s no longer enough to be the godfather he portrayed on Reasonable Doubt; he must now be God himself. Jay-Z makes earlier rap megalomaniacs pale in comparison as he identifies with Jehovah (nicknaming himself J-Hova, H.O.V.A. and, on this album’s hits, Hovito and H-to-the-izzoh V-to-the-izzay). Elsewhere, he’s the “God MC,” “the eighth wonder of the world,” and, in one of many overstatements of his ability, he raps, “If I ain’t better than B.I.G., I’m the closest one.”
Half of The Blueprint becomes, then, a battle album, in which Hova, from on high, attacks Nas, Prodigy, and all manner of prosecutors and persecutors. For much of the rest, Jay-Z gets real. “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)” offers the hustler’s autobiography, but not in the sensational gangsta-in-the-embryo style of classics like Ice Cube’s “The Product.” Instead, he names family members, and listeners get to envision them fussing over a spoiled baby Shawn Carter, changing his diapers and scrubbing soap behind his ears. In many ways, The Blueprint is a new-school old-school album, full of playground boasts, harmless battling and simple odes to the good life.
Delving further into his roots, Jay-Z deepens his sound on The Blueprint. Here, Jay-Z and his producers (especially Kanye West) turn to vintage soul, fueling almost every song with a stirring vocal sample: Al Green, Bobby “Blue” Bland, David Ruffin and the Jackson Five, for starters. In addition, instead of rallying the Roc-A-Fella family around his songs (as on his eleven-month-old Roc La Familia album), Jay-Z takes on most of the tracks single-handedly, without guest rappers. These tactics are both the album’s strength and its weakness.
Though he’s a sharp, detailed writer, a meticulous craftsman and an influential stylist — as well as lifestylist — Jay-Z is not extremely expressive or innovative, and The Blueprint threatens at times to slide into monotony. This is not just because of his unvarying flow, but because he never turns it off. He rarely pauses to let the beat breathe, and has a bad habit of talking back to every sample. So when the sped-up voice (RZA-style) of Bobby Byrd sings, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Jay-Z responds, “Sure I do”; when David Ruffin sings, “Never change,” Jay-Z responds, “I never change”; when Bobby “Blue” Bland sings, “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city,” Hova asks, “Where’s the love?”
The highlights here (as on Reasonable Doubt) are the few and far-between collaborations: the helping hand from rap’s warmer, fuzzier voices — Biz Markie, Slick Rick, Q-Tip — on “Girls, Girls, Girls,” a classic summer song for the fall that comes across like a more elaborate “Mambo No. 5.” (And a little more likely to offend with lyrics like, “I got this Chinese chick/Had to leave her quick/’Cause she kept bootlegging my shit.”) On “Renegade,” Eminem breaks the album out of the soul-sample loop and produces a slow bounce, full of strings and pings and wildly alliterative rhymes. Where Eminem likes to play fast and on both sides of each argument, Jay-Z moves through his rhymes solid and dependable, almost obsessive about making every word heard and every intention understood. After the chorus of his first single, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” he even goes so far as to announce, “That’s the anthem, get your damn hands up,” just in case anyone doesn’t know what to do.