By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A few songs before the cautionary tale about a man who loses everything to booze, Blueprint laughingly de-scribes his own drunken forays into club-land. He vows, "No calling women 'bitches' just to prove that I'm a man," then later jokes about slapping a broad's ass hoping to get laid. Immediately after trying to sweet-talk the pants off a honey, he advises his niece to find a churchgoing man and lie to protect her honor from would-be players.
What kind of man would dish out such high-and-mighty advice while boasting about his own sins? A two-faced, holier-than-thou, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrite. In other words, someone like you and me. And that's just how Blueprint, the rapping half of underground hip-hop superduo Soul Position, wants to be known: a regular dude.
"There are two sides to every coin, and it's the same in hip-hop," the Ohio native (born Albert Shepard) says during a phone interview while on break from his current tour. "For every positive message, it's inherent that there's something negative. And you sometimes contradict yourself. It's not like you're lying.
"I look at my life as a positive dude who's grown up. I don't want to cast the depiction like I'm this perfect, positive guy who never fucks up. I want to be a regular guy who sometimes comments on what's wrong that he sees."
On Things Go Better With RJ and Al, his second album with indie-rap production mainstay RJD2, he sees a shitload that's wrong with the world, black entertainment and hip-hop, and he comments on each almost to exhaustion. "If you let the TV define what black is, you think ice and violence is all we think matters," he raps on "Hand-Me-Downs," which laments the black entertainers who perpetuate negative stereotypes.
But he seems to hint early in the album that his proclamations and boasts deserve a grain of salt. On opening track "No Gimmicks," he rattles off a list of things he won't do to sell out. "No 20-inch rims rollin', no gold fronts." "No payin' for a radio spot." And then he drops this one: "No funk music." He must know better than anyone that producer RJD2's samples and beats are nothing if not indebted to the history of funk, but this kind of jab fits the album's lighter moments--faster beats, less showing-off.
"We definitely didn't want to be making art for art's sake," Blueprint says. "I wasn't trying to do the most intricate rhymes, and RJ wasn't trying to make the most intricate beats. I look at Soul Position as songwriting. I'm writing hooks, verse, bridge, chorus. If I do stuff by myself at the house, I might rhyme for five minutes, and it won't have a chorus at all."
It's a careful balance on Things Go Better, as Blueprint goes from unrelentingly heavy-handed social commentary or cautionary story-raps to light-hearted joints so punchline-dependent they'd be mere novelty songs in the hands of a lesser producer. Some of the serious stuff could use a little injection of humor for a bit of relief, but there is little middle ground, and Blueprint admits he's still working on finding the balance between the two poles.
"I don't want to be the super-preachy guy, so I try to make the record have some fun stuff on it," Blueprint says. "If you take off everything that's fun and you're all serious all the time, people just look at you as a mad rapper."
That's why he puts on an energetic live show, he says, though catching the crowd by surprise is an added bonus: "They come thinking I'm going to be all serious." Not quite with lines like on "Blame It on the Jager": "When I was sober that broad looked like Al Gore/Now she look a lot more like Demi Moore," rapped over a bass line that slaps you silly.
The contrast between "Jager" and "Drugs, Sex, Alcohol, Rock-n-Roll" is quite intentional. The latter tells two stories: A man loses his job after he starts drinking, and a girl becomes a lesbian after her dad molests her. Not exactly the hedonist anthem the title suggests.
"What's going to happen if 'Blame It on the Jager' is the only message that deals with alcohol?" Blueprint asks. "So sometimes I'm self-contradictory." And it might be worth noting that "You become a hypocrite, you become a liar, you try to paper up your own cracks"--spoken by Thom Yorke in the Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy--are the words that open his Greenhouse Effect vs. Radiohead mix from last year.
Flip-flopping isn't the best thing to do in a liberal music genre like underground rap, but at least Blueprint hasn't contradicted his no-sellout stance from "No Gimmicks." So far, he has no regrets or second thoughts about his music. In fact, while his mainstream value is rising with each hot single, he fears pandering to the industry would cost him his current audience.
"Pretty much every record I've done, it's been something where we didn't know who was going to put it out," Blueprint says. "I wasn't worried about doing a single, getting radio play or doing a video. As an underground artist, you can't really make a commercial record without losing those underground fans. They wouldn't like it if it did sound commercial. People know to look to [underground rappers] for content."