Unless you’re a Fugee, hip-hop is mostly about the beats. The newest release from the ever-prolific Jay-Z, however, hopes to inject the genre with some much-needed soul. With tracks like “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” The Blueprint follows in the steps of Moby’s celebrated Play, adding ’70s soul to the rapper’s predictable mix of self-declaration and catty peer-dissing. The album’s first single, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” adds another piano-sample-based anthem to Jay-Z’s repertoire, this time courtesy of the Jackson 5’s classic “I Want You Back.”
Producer Kanye West’s sample-heavy tracks, though, are juxtaposed with the slick production of Trackmasters (“Jigga That Nigga”) and perennial Jay-Z collaborator Timbaland (on the electro/raga-infused “Hola’ Hovita”). Guest rapper Eminem even takes production credits on one track, “Renegade.” It’s a match of hip-hop’s finest MCs, yet the track is lyrically boilerplate, retelling the same old personal manifestos we’ve heard time and again. Rather than acknowledge himself as a symbol of a much larger social problem, Eminem continues to whine about his status as Cultural Scapegoat: “What did I do?/I’m just a kid from the gutter!”
“Takeover,” bravely structured around the Doors’s “Five to One,” deftly acknowledges one of hip-hop’s rock forefathers by interpolating chopped-up samples of Morrison’s gritty growl throughout the track. While sampling has become universally accepted as part of hip-hop’s art and craft (an often reminiscent reflection of culture’s past, present, and future), the caliber with which one dips into the annals of music history can be a barometer of the artistry itself. In other words, less is often more, and with tracks like “Never Change,” Jay-Z fails to make the samples his own. They are the “blueprints” on which the rapper lays his rhymes and, in essence, takes all the credit.