All good things must come to an end. After six years as hip-hop’s most dominant force, Jay-Z has finally fallen off. But like all great dynasties, the Carter Administration is neither ending voluntarily nor dissipating slowly. Jay-Z didn’t just fall off; Nas pushed him. Though “Ether”, Nas’ visceral retort to Jay-Z’s “The Takeover”, was lyrically inferior, the court of public opinion (i.e. New York urban radio) named him the victor. The man who often declares “I will not lose” was handed a stunning and unexpected loss by questionable decision.
Much like Muhammad Ali after his legendary battles with Joe Frazier, Jay-Z has emerged from the greatest rivalry in hip-hop history as a shell of his former self. The swagger is no longer as pronounced. When he boasts “I’m focused MAN” on a track, we no longer believe it. Jay-Hova, the god MC, has fallen from grace. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Jay-Z’s lackluster double CD, Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse. Despite showing several flashes of brilliance, Jay-Z stumbles through his most uninspired and disappointing album to date.
The Gift begins powerfully with “Dream”, where Jay-Z waxes spoken word poetic as he recounts a dream conversation between him and Notorious B.I.G. : “The first thing I wanted to know was the reason he was dead/ ‘More money more problems better believe it’, he said/ ‘Be careful what you wish, you might receive it’, he said/‘I see’, I said/‘Jealousy’, I said/‘Got the whole industry mad at me’, I said/ Then B.I. said, ‘Hov remind yourself/Nobody built like you, you designed yourself’.” Unfortunately, the track loses steam as Jay-Z superimposes B.I.G.‘s entire first verse from the classic “Juicy” (“It was all a dream . . . “), minus the now politically incorrect reference to the World Trade Center, over the much slower track (Not to worry though. Rappers still have the permission of record execs to talk about “bitches”, “hoes”, “fags”, and “niggas” ad nauseum.) In addition to being trite, the sample fails to match the style and intensity of the first verse, encouraging the listener to compare the two MC’s out of context and declare Jay-Z the winner.
The strong lyricism continues with the hypnotic “Hovi Baby”, perhaps the most lyrically satisfying song on either disc. Listening to Jay-Z spit complex verses and subtle metaphors over an addictive jazz beat, one cannot help but wonder how amazing Jay-Z would be if he committed himself to this type of artistic experimentation instead of courting suburbanites and club hoppers. On the Dr. Dre-produced “The Watcher 2”, Jay-Z brings enough lyrical heat for himself and Dr. Dre, while Rakim continues his admirable comeback with a strong verse of his own. The Gift’s obligatory radio song comes in the form of “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde”, as Jay-Z and sidekick Beyoncé Knowles simultaneously jack Tupac (“Me and My Girlfriend”) and Prince (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”) for hits.
The remainder of The Gift disc is a thoroughly unsatisfying collection of bland lyrics (“Excuse Me Miss”, “All Around the World”) and tepid beats (“Fuck All Night”, “The Bounce”). The one exception is the Timbaland produced “What They Gonna Do” featuring Sean Paul. Timbo’s fusion of yard rhythms and his typical futuristic sound makes this a sure fire club banger in spite of S. Carter’s lackluster lyrics. The disc ends with the uninteresting “My Way”, which features a nostalgic Jay-Z reflecting on his road to success. Inexplicably, Jay-Z compares himself and partners Damon Dash and Kareem Burke to the Rat Pack, yet samples the Paul Anka version instead of Frank Sinatra.
The Curse, easily the more enjoyable of the two discs, features better production and superior lyrics. On “Meet the Parents”, Jay-Z returns to storytelling form with a tale from the ‘hood reminiscent of his classic “You Must Love Me”. On “Some How Some Way” the now perennial team of Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, and Scarface use their uncanny chemistry to make yet another wonderful track. This time around, Hova muses about the fetters of ghetto life and the promise of hope: “I planted my seed in unfertile land/ Myrtle Park, Marcy, Flushing, and Nostrand and/ Still I grew, somehow I knew the sun would shine through and/ Touch my soul, take hold of my hand/ Look man a tree grows in Brooklyn.”
On “Ballad for a Fallen Soldier” Jay-Hova finally fulfills his role as (in the words of my colleague Mark Anthony Neal) “Gramscian Thug”. His brilliant comparison of a soldier to a street hustler demonstrates the type of organic intellectual activity that few rappers are able and willing to engage. He summarizes his critique of America’s anti-terrorist fervor and simultaneous indifference to ghetto suffering in a few lines: “Bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhattan/ Crack was Anthrax back then, back when/ Police was Al Qaeda to Black men.”
Unfortunately, the beauty of the aforementioned songs is obscured by more underwhelming material. On “Guns and Roses”, his first foray into rock, Jay-Z squanders Lenny Kravitz’s talents by sampling Cake’s “Arco Arena” almost in its entirety. Despite an energetic appearance by M.O.P., the “You Don’t Know” remix pales in comparison to the original. On the dreadful Rocafella posse cut “As One”, Hova’s underlings remind us why he’s so reluctant to retire. Jay-Z attempts to redeem himself after a very public loss to Nas with “Blueprint 2”. Although Jay-Z does an admirable job of challenging Nas’ hypocrisy (“Is it Oochie Wally Wally or is it One Mic?/Is it Black Girl Lost or shortie owe you for ice?”), he comes across as wounded and desperate.
Blueprint 2 contains so much filler that it is difficult to fully appreciate the splashes of artistic genius that keep this album afloat. If Jay-Z had taken the top 12 songs from the two discs and made a single album, this could have been another classic. Instead, we are left with the first mediocre album of Jay-Z’s incredible career and the realization that the God MC’s best days are behind him.