15 November 2002

for reader ease, here is the entirety of the jay-z review, in chronological order, with the addition of 'the curse.'

"i want to thank...bono and family for your hospitality and for showing me how to live in the south of france." (from the liners of the blueprint 2: the gift & the curse)

listening to the blueprint, the first, i'm reminded of how rich an album it is, how the flow, the music, and even the sleeve combine to produce this sumptuous piece of music. in this 'cribs' era, it's very easy, with the aid of a little bling, to create the appearance of opulence -- home movie theatres, waterproof pool tables and personal starbuckses. the blueprint's singular accomplishment, however, was to exude class. at the time, i said it was like floating in a glass of kristal: the blueprint 2, then, is what happens when that glass overflows and one drowns in it.

when building a structure, a second blueprint is only necessary when the original is found to be flawed in some way, or when a refinement of sorts is required. running contrary to this, the blueprint 2 is an explosion of the first: 'the gift' disc is an expansion of the light-hearted, celebratory half; 'the curse,' a disc full of the introspective material that largely comprised the second half of the blueprint. 'the gift,' by and large, is being able to be jay-z and to share in the benefits reaped thereby; 'the curse' is having to live off record, having to go through real life being sean carter -- young, black, and rich -- and dealing with the problems that have plagued his past and present.

the blueprint 2 is also a refutation of its forbear: the sound is far less cohesive and, unlike the last record, relies heavily on superstar producers (timbaland, dr. dre, the neptunes). the sleeve is no-frills and no-nonsense: gone are the measurements and the actual blueprint, replaced by close-ups of jay-z throughout and, for the back photo, a christ-like pose, jay in white, emitting white light from his hands, while an adoring crowd looks on. the cover shot recalls earlier jay-z albums where the emphasis was on his face. the blueprint was an aberration, with jay smoking a cigar, shot from above, and the feet of his crew visible along the right border. it's a pose that says: "i've made it."

"this must be the way the nigga pac felt when he made me against the world, all eyez on me..." (from "some people hate")

the double albums that seemed to start the trend amongst rappers were 2pac's all eyez on me and b.i.g.'s life after death. with these two, what the double seemed to imply was a sense of having made it; that they were at the point where their personalities had expanded so that they couldn't be contained on a single disc. that album for jay-z seemed to be the blueprint: from the cover down to the songs themselves, it represented all that was great about the man. jay's fecundity is renown: since 1996, he's released at least one album a year. this double contains a great deal of material, but what's even more shocking is that, with all the music floating around since the blueprint, he could easily fill another disc. he really has nothing left to prove, so i can only guess that he wanted to create that hip-hop, no, that rock n' roll anomaly: a great double album.

"the sinatra of my day" (from "hola hovito")
"we made us, the ratpack, i'm sinatra..." (from "i did it my way")

not exactly hyperbole. like frank, jay-z doesn't work with what is considered traditional r&b, stax loops notwithstanding, yet he does posess a certain soulfulness in his delivery. consider jay-z the vegas sinatra: despite the heavy drinking and all of the skirt-chasing, when he's on, and has the right song, he's able to tap into something very real. "you must love." "soon you'll understand." "song cry." like eminem, his chief artistic and commercial competitor, jay posesses two distinct identities: the jigga-man and sean carter. the one fucks hos and drinks mo, the other reflects on the poverty of his childhood and mourns black-on-black crime. what he has over eminem is that both of his personas are enjoyable; he doesn't grate when he turns and faces himself. the presence of one only improves the other, just as sinatra sings for only the lonely balances out songs for singin' lovers. jay is not ashamed to cry; eminem can't get past anger and consequently, as on "cleaning out my closet," bitches and moans.

"for those that think hov fingers bling bling'n either haven't heard the album or they don't know english, they only know what the single is, and singled that out to be the meaning of what he is about..." (from "the bounce")

'the gift' begins on something of a dour note. spidery guitars and moby pianos make "a dream" sound more like foreboding nightmare. since the whole nas feud, jay-z seems somewhat shaken, unsure exactly of where he stands with the hip-hop community. (perhaps this is why he released a double, to reassert himself?) b.i.g. comes to him in his dream and basically tells jay to stay the course, his appearance serving to remind the listener of jay's pre-eminence on the scene.

"a dream" plays like a prelude, containing an underlying motif of insecurity and defensiveness that will haunt the rest of the set, especially on the 'the curse' disc. "hovi baby," then, acts as the true album opener: like "the ruler's back," it's more in the spirit of jigga-ness that prevails on 'the gift.' when i first heard it, i was quite pleased. not necessarily with the song, which was good if not great, but with the fact that it seemed as if jay had a band backing him. i said at that time: "jay-z owns his career." despite record company pressures or commercial concerns, jay's career will go exactly where he wants it to (see the unplugged album with the roots, for one). disappointment set in when i saw the credits: "hovi baby" contains a sample from the video mix of tlc's "diggin' on you," suggesting that perhaps jay-z will go where his producers take him.

from the rest of the disc, one gleans the following:
-jay-z's been in the game since, very likely, the listener was suckling at his mother's (i.e. the listener's) breast. ("the watcher 2")
-jay-z may or may not be bonking beyonce. ("'03 bonnie & clyde.")
-jay-z, at times, makes music "for the grown and sexy" ("excuse me miss.")
-jay-z is an international lover ("all around the world.")
-jay-z, it's safe to say, has more money than you. ("poppin' tags")
-jay-z can fuck all nite if you can. ("fuck all nite.")
-jay-z is more than a match for osama bin-laden. ("the bounce.")

and all of this is very humorously told -- it's what we expect. what we *also* expect are great beats, club bangers. it's on the count that 'the gift' disc the fails. "the watcher 2" offers more of the monstrous precision that has ruined a number of modern-day dre productions. the neptunes tracks ("excuse me miss," "fuck all nite"), and this holds for their productions on 'the curse,' sound more like kelis tracks than n.o.r.e. or clipse or benzino beats. not a bad thing in itself since their r&b productions are frequently less one-dimensional, but here the synths are of a sugary, hi-c variety that go down easy but pass through one's system quickly.

"all around the world" sounds like a blueprint outtake and "poppin' tags," despite big mike -- sans cock rhymes -- and big boi's presence, bores and trundles on for an inconceivable six minutes. "'03 bonnie & clyde," though, surprises: up to this point, it had probably been my least favorite jay-z single, but in the context of the album, it sounds fantastic and, truth be told, it makes me crane my neck. and, per usual, timbaland doesn't disappoint: on "what they gonna do," sean paul grumbles and talks about anal sex (i think) while fresh sly stone percussion rattles and thudding synth notes fall from the sky. then a dancehall beat emerges and makes one wonder why timbaland hasn't produced a beenie man or sean paul single (or has he?). "the bounce" does just that during the voices, hardly exciting, but the chorus has a classic timbo touch, this undecipherable, crackling vocal sample that becomes incredibly addictive.

the last track on the disc is "i did it my way," which samples the song of the same name. as sung by paul anka. jay rhymes about being the new sinatra on this track while anka -- the song's english translator -- sings one of ol' blue eyes's signatures. besides coming at a higher price, a sinatra sample would've been difficult to contend with -- the song would no longer be all about jay-z, which would be a sin. sinatra made "my way" his own through experience; elvis, by sweat; sid vicious, through sneer. jay accomplishes the trick through juxtaposition: the production is similar to "hard-knock life," but the difference here is that the sample is off-set by a hard hip-hop beat, which makes the chorus twinkle brighter and the pause more poignant. a very bizarre, very affecting success.

by touching on his troubles with the law and with a tenant review board, "i did it my way" is the segue between the two discs, foreshadowing the perils of fame that become an unfortunate pre-occupation of 'the curse.' it's fitting that the jay-z persona begins to fade away before the conclusion of this disc and that the beat is 'affecting' rather than, say, 'slamming.' what i expected from 'the gift' was, well, an orgy of beats and rhymes. the disc blew its load early and had a hard time keeping it up throughout. sounds like a curse to me. but what does 'the curse' sound like?

"it ain't just hos and gun shit, i switch topics..." (from rell's "it's obvious")

'the curse' disc is where we expect to find DEEP THOUGHTS, to discover the state of s. carter and hopefully get more of that redeeming vulnerability. if you weren't aware, jay-z has become rather famous. as evinced by the shout to bono, he's gone global. i believe it was b.i.g. who said "mo' money mo problems," a sentiment echoed by jay on this record. and so here is the problem with 'the curse': fame may indubitably be a bitch, but is there anything more fucking boring than listening to a famous person bemoan their situation? tackled correctly, it's presumably possible to evoke sympathy from the listener, but that album, as of november 15, 2002, has yet to be made. what we learn from 'the curse':
-sean carter had his application rejected by a condo governing board ("diamonds is forever.")
-sean carter has been hated on and continues to be hated on ("some people hate.")
-sean carter is a philanthropist and no one gives him his due. ("blueprint 2.")
-sean carter, it is safe to say, has more money than you. ("nigga please.")
-sean carter is bothered by fans in clubs, especially by his male fans. ("2 many hoes.")
-sean carter owns a record company, a record company with artists ("diamonds is forever"), artists who appear on jay-z's album ("u don't know (remix)," "as one.")

intrigued yet? of course, i lathed this disc to fit my purposes. the tragic thing is that jay-z hasn't forgotten how to tell a story, to make the listener genuinely feel something. "some how, some way" is a beautiful throwback to the previous album. it's a standard tale of finding one's way out of the hood, but the attention to detail and the sighing of the track elevate it.

"meet the parents," on the other hand, isn't standard. the song is told through the vantage point of a woman whose wayward son has just died and his body is available for viewing down at the station. jay-z recalls the events that led up to the woman's pregnancy, aspiring to poetry with lines like, "it was just this night, the moon was full, and the stars were just right." striking an autobiographical note, jay-z, raised by a single mom, exhorts, "niggas, be a father, you're killing your sons." it is positively galvanizing and its presence on the album merely illuminates all of its faults.

ironically enough, the beats are better on this disc than on 'the gift.' "u don't know," a remix of a blueprint track, benefits, like all tracks laced with landmines, from the appearance of new roc-a-fella signees, m.o.p; "diamonds is forever," with its hushed synths, is insidious; "2 many hoes" pulses with indian strings, boom-bap beats, and a yelping vocal sample; "ballad of a fallen soldier," though dubiously comparing nyc cops with al-qaeda, weeps like an s.o.s. band ballad. 'the curse' is a triumph of style over substance, like the blueprint 2 as a whole. i've nothing against such an arrangement, except when, by and large, the style is about as happening as karl kani or cross colors.

the blueprint 2 calls to mind another double album that appeared at about the same time as all eyez on me and life after death. drunk on their own essentiality, the wu-tang clan released wu-tang forever and the whooshing sound that accompanied it was the sound of their commercial prospects going down the shitter. not that i think that this album should hurt jay-z's commercial standing, but at the foundation of both of these records is colossal self-absorption. the blueprint 2 makes for a house that is often very impressive to look at with many modern accoutrements, but it's not a home where you'll find jay-z's heart. like a blueprint, it's all plan, little execution; lots of talk, little action. jay-z may want to take a look at this blueprint and reconsider it; issue a third blueprint with amendments and refinements. or maybe he should scrap the plan and start from scratch: there's enough evidence on record to prove that he's still got the raw materials.

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