The story goes that in the early 1990s, an as-yet unknown black boy from the New York City projects recorded a single with Foxy Brown, took the tape to the musical director of Hot 97, the premiere rap radio station of New York, and dumped $10,000 worth of hustling money on the director's desk, saying, Play this song." Well, that single blew up all over the radio, the boy got signed to a record label, and then went on to form his own Roc-a-fella Records and become one of the preeminent icons of the hip-hop world. It's hard to say whether all the details of this urban legend are true, but honestly, I wouldn't put it past Jay-Z.
His new album, Blueprint, is the newest achievement of an ex-drug slinger who is known all over America for his unique style and talent. Hard Knock Life," his breakthrough single, used a sample from the Annie song of the same name as its background, a pretty audacious move in a business known for its tough image. Jay-Z has also released a staggering amount of music during his career; Blueprint comes hot on the heels of his last album, The Dynasty Roc la Familia, released just last year. His extensive catalog of songs and undeniable musical prowess apparently make for a hot live performance as well. His two shows in Chicago, scheduled for early October, both sold out in less than a day. Jay-Z seems to take it all in stride, embracing the good and ignoring the bad as best he can. He has stated, for example, that he tries not to acknowledge Nas' public disrespect for him in lyrics and in interviews. Blueprint showcases all of these elements of Jay-Z's musical style and public image, featuring his tight raps and lyrics, creative sampling, and that cocky yet charming boy-from-the-streets confidence.
Several songs off the album, including H to the Izzo" and Girls, Girls, Girls," have already made it big, flooding radio airwaves and club floors everywhere. After giving the entire album a listen, it's clear that these songs are the instant hits of the bunch. They feature lyrics, especially choruses, that are easy and fun to sing along to, smooth rapping on Jay-Z's part (you just try to sing shizzel my nizzel used to dribble down in VA" at his speed), and inherently danceable beats. And happily, in contrast to many rappers of his generation, it's not just insta-hits that make Blueprint worthwhile. He brings his lyrical prowess and impeccable ear to each song, rapping about his normal repertoire of hoes," Cristal," and why he's the best of the new hip-hop bunch. His songs are creative on several levels whether he's rapping about Right Said Fred on The Ruler's Back" or letting surprise guest Eminem cameo on Renegade," one never knows what's coming next. Admittedly, nobody can keep up that kind of musical energy all the time, and the album is a bit uneven. Some songs are more forgettable than others, like the too-slow Takeover" or the lyrically unambitious Hola Hovito." However, none of the songs are bad, per se, it seems instead that Jay-Z simply outdoes himself on some tracks, make others less musically exciting by comparison. He also keeps the tracks short to combat the possibility of boredom. The CD clocks in at just under an hour, a wise move in an era rife with double-disc albums and 20-minute long trance remixes.
One complaint a lot of people have with contemporary male rappers, and Jay-Z is no exception, is their misogynistic and materialistic attitudes. These complaints are definitely not unfounded. For example, the track Girls, Girls, Girls" is Jay-Z's ode to his various conquests around the globe, and showcases a sometimes demeaning attitude towards them. I got this African chick, she ask me, Jiggaman, why you treat me like animal?" he raps. The need for money and its corresponding power also shine through on the album. On All I Need," he sings, all I need, a new coupe, a doo-rag, and a pocketful of loot ." These types of comments seem to be representative of Jay-Z's generally cocky attitude, which can be interpreted negatively. But one must remember that lyrics are a form of entertainment, not an autobiography. Jay-Z may come off as rude, but you can't hold it against him for long when the next song you hear is Momma Loves Me," a heartfelt ode to his upbringing and mother. He has an energetic, magnetic confidence, and more personality than most musical artists of our time do. His astonishing success just in the past couple of years suggests that the public is in agreement. As he says himself on U Don't Know," You are now looking at one smart black boy."