Hip-Hop Fridays: In Defense Of Jay-Z And Blueprint 2

For nearly a month now I have been telling a couple of my very close friends that I was beginning to get the feeling that Jay-Z's double CD, Blueprint 2 would be greeted with the same lukewarm reaction that Wu-Tang Clan's 1997 Wu-Tang Forever received.

My growing feeling was based upon the fact that Jay-Z's album would be a double CD, as was Wu-Tang Forever, and because some of the cuts that we were hearing, and the many more that we weren't. From the tracks that we were hearing I noticed that the production that Jay-Z was rhyming over sounded very distant from that on his classic album last year. And the greater number of tracks that we weren't hearing on the street had led me to believe that while Jay-Z had seemed to overcome his 3-year battle with having his album leaked and bootlegged in the northeast. The lack of advance Blueprint 2 material on mixtapes and the meteoric rise of 50 Cent (who at last count has 11 Best Of albums on the street - all selling), meant that the demand for Blueprint 2 would be there but not as intense as has been the case with Jay-Z's last three albums. I also wondered why his first single with Beyonce was so "late" and out with no video, and why H.O.V. wasn't co-hosting major mixtapes. Little "inside baseball," industry type-stuff that sends up red flags.

When I first heard the album, last Friday, I knew what the reaction would be. The album is Jay-Z's most diverse, most creative, and least "aggressive." He rhymes about his travels, makes social commentary, and gives the usual stuff on women and jewelry all over the most ecclectic array of beats that he has ever laid lyrics over, on an album.

He is an artist in transition.

Like RZA did with Wu-Tang in 1997, Jay-Z had gone way ahead of where he had last left his audience, without telling them. Dr. Dre did the same thing in 1996. Prince or (I can't make that symbol) The Artist did similar things, years ago, as did Michael Jackson as have so many others. It is dangerous territory. I remember RZA telling me in 1997 that it would take Hip-Hop three years to "catch-up and figure out" Wu-Tang Forever. He was right. In 2000, in D.C., RZA and I talked about Hip-Hop's 3-and-a-half year cyclical nature. Interesting stuff. Think back to where Jay-Z was in 1998-1999 and in 1995-1996. Jay-Z is starting his third stage of growth, as an artist, if we allow it.

By Monday afternoon while driving in New York City, I was hearing the popular 107.5 WBLS drive time host Wendy Williams renaming Jay-Z's yet-to-be-released album "Blueprint 2, The Curse and The Mayhem." The official title is "Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse." By Tuesday morning I was listening to Hot 97 Star and Bucwild refer to the album as an enigma, with Star repeating that he liked a few songs but "can't figure it out." Others could be heard in the background making references to wanting the "Old Jigga" back.

On the street, I was hearing that there was no real buzz for the album like last year and that people felt that the double-CD release really only has one CD worth of decent material.

On balance it sounded like some really genuine criticism mixed with humor, a dose of "hatorade" and alot of dissappointment.

I share and understand some of the legitimate criticism and disappointment. I think that Blueprint 2 commits some cardinal sins and has its share of creative mistakes and errors, if there is such a thing. I shared what I felt those were with the folks at Roc-A-Fella this week. In summary:

1) I think that the song placement on the album was subpar. I come from the Quincy Jones/RZA/P.Diddy school that believes that the order of songs can make or break an album. The beginning of Blueprint 2, specifically the order of the first 6 songs to me displays some of the worst song placement I can remember on a major album. The deep " A Dream" should have never been first, as an example. Too much too soon, although the song is beautiful especially when you imagine what it was like to have Biggie's ex-wife and their little son in the studio when the song was recorded. Jay-Z gets a little emotional when he describes the recording session and how important the song is to him.

But it is too deep for an intro cut and isn't supported anywhere else. No context. It appears in a vacuum.

2) The album should not have been called Blueprint 2. The longer the album the more order you have to put to the motion. Double CDs work best when they are theme or concept-driven. This album really is neither, actually less introspective than the first, overall. And it certainly is not the spiritual or musical successor to the original. By linking this album to the last, which was near-perfect, Jay-Z sets the stage for disappointment and comparison.

Of course, the linkage also will mean more sales, at least for the first week. Gotta respect the marketing strategy, always. But this approach may mean that Jay-Z does 615,000 in week one and 150,000 in week two, like Wu-Tang Forever, if the street is not satisfied with what they heard off the bat. Too steep a fall. Nowadays you usually strive and hope to not lose more than 50% of first-week sales, as a goal.

3) Too many ad libs. One of my best friends in the world has indicted Jay-Z on "lyrical laziness" charges. He tells me that he believes that H.O.V.'s consistent use of the same word as endrhyme is reaching the point of diminishing returns. I see his point and think another problem is Jay-Z's penchant for talking all over the beginning of a track. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't. P.Diddy has already shown us what not to do in the way of ad libs. Blueprint 2 features a little too much of Jay-Z as talkshow host and sound effects specialist for the first 30 to sometimes 45 seconds of a track.

4) Heavy D.'s involvement. OK, this actually bothered me the most, tongue-in-cheek. While I respect Heavy D. and feel guilt and remorse because my old group Wu-Tang dissed him something terrible at Hot 97s Summer Jam in 1997; and know that he has a great level of respect for Jay-Z; and that he was instrumental in bringing this song to the table etc...we don't need to hear Heavy D. anywhere on this album. We certainly don't need to hear Heavy D. talking over (much less cursing) the monumental Jay-Z/Lenny Kravitz collaboration, "Guns and Roses," introduction. I told Roc-A-Fella they shouldn't have even given Heavy D. the credit for producing the song. His mere presence is distracting. It was a joke. It was Heavy D.'s great idea, I gather, but a little discretion goes a long way, no?

5. Just Blaze's evolution. Just Blaze is still hot no doubt. But the producer who receives more shout-outs than any other, is growing and evolving in ways well beyond last year's Blueprint original. Like RZA in 1997, Just Blaze is well beyond the initial creative box that he is known for. But man, we like that box (smile). Small gripe but more of the old Just Blaze tracks would have been just fine with all of us. For example check "Some How Some Way" with Jay-Z featuring Beanie Sigel and Scarface. (By the way, can we get a H.O.V., Sigel and Scarface double-album asap? One disc produced by Just Blaze and the other by Kanye West, would be my preference)

The people at Roc-A-Fella acknowledged the validity of my points and took it in good spirit. It is legitimate criticism and an explanation of some disappointment, not hate.

But what I am hearing now is mostly hate that extends beyond a personal opinion of the album. Stuff meant for Island/Def Jam head Lyor Cohen is being aimed at Jay. Drama behind the scenes. Corporate expectations of profits during the fourth quarter are at stake. Tensions between Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam are being played out in defenses of the album by both sides. And years of envy and jealousy are being unloaded all at once, on an artist who is the one generating some serious multinational dough for people in Europe who don't like Black people or rap music (The exact same thing happened in 1997 with Wu-Tang.). People who would rather see 50 Eminems rather than one Jay-Z, you know.

Of course Jay-Z warrants and deserves some criticism on a variety of fronts, as did Wu-Tang. But proportionality is needed.

And it couldn't be happening at a worse time. Jay is evolving musically, spiritually, and mentally. A keen eye and not-so-keen eye should be able to notice it. His album promo and marketing is some of the best I have ever seen - no frills, acapella raps, as well as glitzy, ritzy stuff. And of course there is all of the community development that Jay-Z is now involved in. Actually he has been doing things very, very, very quietly for years. Now, you can see the Jay-Z scholarship fund, Jay-Z's interest in fixing the public school system and providing alternatives for inner-city children. Building and investing in Black business. There's more I have learned. It is impressive. There is something to the argument that Jay-Z walks what others talk - without quoting scripture, without wearing Afro-Centric garments, without preaching.

Then of course there is the business of Roc-A-Fella. We already dealt with this commerce protecting art issue in an earlier Hip-Hop Fridays. Remember what I wrote in "Hip-Hop Fridays: The "Consciousness" Of Wu-Tang Clan, Suge Knight and Jay-Z Part 1" at http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=529

That people can't recognize a form of consciousness in Jay-Z through his handling of business alone is beyond me. What we need to do is combine a higher consciousness and spiritual power in the lyrics with a greater understanding and mastering of the science of business. Both are necessary for producing a revolution. You can't have one without the other. And I said the "science of business" not capitalism. There is a difference between the two.

That is why I think some moderation in the knocking down of Blueprint 2 and Jay-Z is in order. Hip-Hop artists should be free to explore artistic avenues, new instruments, and collaborations and evolve into consciousness over time. This myopic view of positive and consciousness in Hip-Hop has to be challenged whereby an artist is praised for saying something positive that nobody hears or buys. That is great but what about artists who, as Minister Farrakhan recently put it, "have the whole world in their hands?" Can we not support artists who have influence in abundance and who begin to move away from the worst part of our reality, and toward seeking the ideal and speaking truth to power? We should.

I wonder how many people - "conscious" Hip-Hop afficionados - missed Jay-Z's line in , "A Ballad For The Fallen Soldier," where Jay-Z says:

"Bin Laden been happenin' in Manhattan'

Crack was anthrax back then,

Back when, police was Al-Qaeda to Black Men"

If Jay-Z does 600,000 to 700,000 units in week one as is optimistically projected, alot of people now have that police as Al-Qaeda line as food-for-thought - in a form they can accept - sandwiched in between songs about the block, world travels, beautiful women, materialism and degeneracy. Light mixed with darkness has an awakening effect.

Just look at the sky at dawn.

Next Week: On The "New" Eminem

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, November 15, 2002