Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.
Blueprint: “So Alive”
Known for his lyrical virtuosity, Columbus MC Blueprint won fame as half of Soul Position with legendary indie-rap producer RJD2. After that group dissolved, he produced and released an admittedly retro solo album, called 1988, in 2005, and went six years without releasing a new solo LP. But while RJD2 has spent his time moving away from hip hop, Blueprint’s new record, Adventures in Counter-Culture, makes it clear that he has spent his time going deeper.
As the album unfolds, its sounds swerve and mutate, breaking away from the tropes of the genre and presenting an arresting hip-hop record. Though not all of the experiments pay off, the sheer inventiveness that Blueprint puts into his production and lyrics make Adventures in Counter-Culture worth a look.
The album’s first song, “Go Hard or Go Home,” serves as the album’s manifesto. Over a beat with droning, echoing synthesizers, Blueprint outlines his intentions: “I’ma tear rap down, then rebuild the shit, with total disregard of if the pieces even fit.” From a production standpoint, Blueprint delivers on this promise. Distant, sterile, inorganic synthesizers dominate the beats, serving as an aural complement to Blueprint’s lyrical themes of disconnection and alienation.
In an era when most of the critically acclaimed rap albums mimic the sounds of a bygone era, it’s refreshing to hear something new and unusual. The humming synthesizers chiming throughout “Stole Our Yesterday” sound like they’d be more at home on a Brian Eno record than a rap song, yet their unearthly sound fits the song’s message of disillusionment with a changing world.
Blueprint’s flow on the album is generally relaxed and deliberate, but he breaks out of it as the situation demands. He even sings on several songs, pulling off the rare feat of being a rapper whose signing isn’t torturous. In fact, he’s not bad — single “So Alive” is an agreeably soulful synth-rocker that makes a case for Blueprint striking out on a second career as an R&B singer. On “My Culture,” his flow sounds suitably forceful and indignant as he rails against the unsolved murders that continue to stain the rap world. Then closer “The Other Side” caps the album off with a verse describing the close relationship that Blueprint had with his deceased sister, with sincerity and emotion clear in his impassioned delivery.
But the album’s best qualities don’t fully coalesce until “Radio-Inactive,” one of its most intense tracks. Over a simple, repeating guitar phrase, Blueprint gives an honest, self-effacing account of his life, art, and career. A common indie rap mistake is to fetishize poverty and obscurity, somehow thinking that those will automatically make a rapper more legitimate. On “Radio-Inactive,” Blueprint avoids falling into this trap through his brutal honesty. He’s obscure, yes, but through his own choice and for his own reasons. The guitar steadily increases in intensity throughout the song, and the crescendo reaches its peak as Blueprint raps, “They tried to hit me with the same thing that you fell for: ‘Make it more commercial, Print, you probably would sell more.’ But I’m eating now, so I’m like, ‘What the hell for?’ Asking me to change only makes me rebel more.”
Some songs, however, don’t seem to reach as far toward originality as the rest and seem out of place on such a decidedly forward-thinking record. “Keep Bouncing” tells a braggadocio-infused story of a night in the club getting drunk and hooking up with women. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s simply far more usual than the rest of the album. If it’s supposed to be satire, it’s confusingly subtle, and if not, the unabashed self-aggrandizing complicates how the listener takes Blueprint’s later exhortations of honesty and innovation. “Mind, Body & Soul,” meanwhile, is dominated by a lengthy chorus sung by Angelica Lee that relies heavily on Autotune, a tool so controversial and ubiquitous in modern rap that one wonders why Blueprint would use it.
However, the majority of Adventures in Counter-Culture is successful, living up to the album title’s promise of something unbound by the clichés of both mainstream and independent rap. Though he took his time in making it, Blueprint is offering something new and important to the hip-hop discourse.
[Have you pre-ordered yet? Don't forget to visit the Kickstarter page for Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music, our next book that profiles independent musicians and artists who explore color in unorthodox ways.]