Songs in the Key of Z


But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. —Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Like the face of a Sprewell rim—which keeps spinning after the tire has stopped—best black MC Jay-Z has an out-of-sync relationship with his surroundings. Although not a revolutionary like his hero Biggie, Jay is a synthesizer of pop-hop’s most assured qualities. Anti-bling zingers may use the man’s many names as shorthand for radio hip-hop’s capitalist capitulation, but you need only note the mere two references made to big wheels over Blueprint 2‘s 25 songs to realize Jay’s indifference to hot accessories.

Most of ’em, anyhow—new girlfriend Beyoncé Knowles decorates the album’s first single and least compelling track, the Tupac-jacking ” ’03 Bonnie & Clyde.” Of course, she’s no after-market rim job (and that’s all I’ll say about that). Neither are the 21 other r&b singers and rhymers sprinkled throughout discs one and two (The Gift and The Curse, respectively). Jay could never hope to duplicate 2001’s The Blueprint, with its glittering, diamond-hard swing, untouchable but intimate flows, and Eminem’s singularly savage guest spot (Q-Tip, Slick Rick, and Biz Markie were relegated to singing the chorus of “Girls, Girls, Girls”), so he didn’t try. Instead, he brought in almost twice as many platinum-plated producers—re-inviting only Timbaland and personal faves Kanye West and Just Blaze—sketched out a dialectic that could accommodate marquee names from Sean Paul to Truth Hurts to Scarface, and rendered a new Blueprint, twice as long as the first, and equally engrossing.

Jay opens The Gift with “A Dream” about Biggie, his first verse composed almost entirely of lines rhyming the word “said”: “What he said, I said, has been said before. ‘Just keep doing your thing,’ he said. Say no more.” And then, over Faith Evans’s weepy modulations, rock-ballad guitar, plinking piano, and a syrupy beat, Biggie himself presents a classic verse from “Juicy,” off his ’94 breakthrough Ready to Die. Still utterly commanding in its woozy new sonic bed, the verse indeed emerges as if from a dream. At song’s end, Jay—sounding bewildered, about to weep himself—repeats a few of his lines a cappella, as if jolted from sleep and trying to recall the message from his unconscious. (This so affected me that last night I myself dreamed of chilling with a young Jay and a not-so-Foxxy girlfriend on a tenement rooftop; I believe he bought me a pair of Air Force Ones.)

Seconds later, Jay’s joking about his “band” (“Just Blaze and the Blazettes—ha!”) as some lady keeps announcing the song title in a slippery coo: “It’s ‘Hovi Baby’!” “Only two restin’ in heaven could be mentioned in the same breath as him,” Jay-Hova (or, if you prefer, “the male Madonna”) characteristically declares in the third person, while the drums keep tumbling in and out of that Blueprint-minted swing, and a rainbow of synths, in a near-hysterical jumble, keeps shooting skyward. Spare like a foundation, not a skeleton, “The Watcher 2” brings proceedings back down to earth. Jay hops over the precipitous voids; Dre lumbers along with the beat (which he produced); Rakim weaves a rope bridge over it; Truth Hurts sings out of her neck; and a jaunty, slow-surf guitar riff floats free of everything.

Jay, contrary to his stabbin’-cabin-boy image, prefers to be attached. According to his brief auto-bio in January’s Vibe, he’s a one-woman man. This surely beats being a one-minute man; of course he probably won’t turn out—as he cracks on ” ’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” after “The Watcher 2″—to be the “Bobby” to Beyoncé’s “Whitney.” As a savvy three-minute man, Jay goes directly from skipping down the straight and narrow to getting his swerve on with Neptune-N.E.R.D. Pharrell Williams. “Excuse Me Miss” floats in on Pharrell’s typically sultry falsetto, Jay gently paraphrasing Biggie: “I see some ladies tonight that should be rollin’ with Jay-Z.” Compare this to the original phrase’s second half, “that should be having my baby,” or Fabolous’s reinterpretation, “that should be eating my babies.” (Sperm, that is. Fab’s not looking to mate with a hamster. I don’t think). On the sleazily sweet retro-grooved “F*** All Nite,” also with Pharrell, mild-mannered Jay admits he’s been played as a “toyfriend” and an “emergency dick in a glass” (maybe they ran out of jimmy hats).

F***, I haven’t even gotten to the album’s better half yet. (So let’s just skip the minuscule-loop beat running “All Around the World”; OutKast’s “The Whole World” being outdone by Big Boi and Killer Mike themselves on the Fu-Schnickens-style “Poppin’ Tags”; Timbaland’s most memorable new track, the “Addictive”-aping “The Bounce”; and “I Did It My Way” ‘s melancholy Paul Anka sample.) Revealingly, the M.O.P. warriorz bless The Curse‘s “U Don’t Know (Remix),” rubbing the slightly reworked Blueprint highlight gloriously raw even as Bobby Byrd’s sampled voice, still sped up into Quasimoto helium tones, ribbons into the ether. The infectious confidence of Jay’s last record resolved even his beefs into a sort of Zen meditation. Essentially a mo’-money-mo’-problems koan in two discs, The Blueprint 2 cops the clichéd paradox simply for added texture.

“Some People Hate” gets no more specific than its title. Jay sets everyone straight with this choice tongue-twister: “Eight maniac cats strapped with gats/you can hate that!/Face facts/Fake rap cats can’t take back what I took back to the Brook/look!” But sampled soul-singer Brenda Russell tips Jay’s hand. After repeatedly unfurling the long, silky hook and punctuating proceedings with “I think they lost their mind,” she slips, surrounded by bursts of drum sounds and falling chunks of funk bass, into a serious but still silky lament—not threat: “Some people kill their brothers.”

“A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier,” a rather conventional slow jam produced by the Neptunes, draws the crude parallel, like Nas’s “My Country,” between inner-city and international war: “Bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhattan/crack was anthrax back then/back when/ police was al Qaeda to black men.” It’s Jay’s observation that “Life ain’t all rosebuds,” Citizen Kane allusion or malapropism, that makes a much more redolent point about those who don’t even have the luxury of pondering lost innocence. Meanwhile, “Guns & Roses,” featuring a surprisingly supple Lenny Kravitz, finds Jay shooting off his mouth again, to a hopping rock beat and crooked guitar line: “Hov hangin’ with Bono/You too can live like Salvatore Ferragamo/You too can cool out poolside at the Delano/ If you too flowed like you was outta your mind, yo.” From “Blueprint 2” ‘s Ennio Morricone sample that sounds like Philip Glass to “Meet the Parents” ‘s twisted-ending thug’s-life narrative couched in fuzz-metal and harp runs, Jay and his A-list producers refuse to follow anything to the letter. He might not be the only one from his generation, but Jay’s earned his Z.