He may not have the profile of indie-rap figures such as Atmosphere's Slug or East Coasters El-P and Aesop Rock, but Columbus, Ohio, indie-lifer Albert "Blueprint" Shepard is one of the scene's most prolific artists and most grounded, relatable voices.
A multithreat rapper/producer à la Kanye West (with a surer flow but fewer ideas), Blueprint has made several obscure records during the past decades via his own indie label, Weightless, alongside other Ohio artists. As a national figure, he first made waves as a producer for indie MCs such as Aesop Rock and Murs and then as a guest MC on records by DJ/producer RJD2.
Blueprint finally had his coming-out party a few years ago via a series of recordings for Rhymesayers, the well-connected Minneapolis indie label run by Atmosphere. The 2005 release 1988 was probably Blueprint's first real solo album, while Things Go Better With RJ & Al, the 2006 sophomore album from the duo Soul Position (Blueprint rapping, RJD2 producing), is maybe his finest MC showcase.
1988 is ostensibly an homage to the year itself, the apex of hip-hop's golden age. This theme is manifest in many ways: an opening soundbite of KRS-ONE intoning "fresh for '88, you suckas!" from "My Philosophy"; the Public Enemy sample that drives "Trouble on My Mind" (a sample from later than 1988, for what it's worth); the beat-boxing Doug E. Fresh tribute "Fresh."
But best of all is "Beatbox," a tribute to Radio Raheem (from Do the Right Thing, natch!) that is rich in the ways of winning portable-radio battles, including the helpful tip that Duracells beat Rayovacs. "Wherever I'm at, the b-boys follow/My box turns bus stops into the Apollo," Blueprint raps, and you can almost see Radio Raheem pounding pavement, box booming at his side: "I'll give you 15 minutes of fame and have the downtown sidewalks looking like Soul Train."
Blueprint knows that any hope of 1988-level cultural impact is a pipe dream, which lends the record a moving undercurrent of defeat, Blueprint admitting it's "just another good record with bad distribution" while outlining the travails of his career in eloquent detail on the harried "Trouble on My Mind."
There are plenty of stand-alone songs on 1988 that thrive outside of these dual past-and-present themes: "Inner City Native Son" is a straightforward narrative with a hip-hop O. Henry twist ending. "Big Girls Need Love Too" is a tribute to plus-size babes that balances between appreciative and tasteless. And "Kill Me First" is a police-brutality tale that makes great use of a sped-up Richard Pryor sample.
This stretch of songs is more suggestive of the appeal of Things Go Better With RJ & Al, where Blueprint gets to focus strictly on rapping and shows off a wider range of styles and emotional tones.
Because hip-hop is so conversational, verbally it has both more content and higher expectations than other pop forms. That's why it's a bummer that so many MCs stick to genre tropes, meaning not just guns, drugs, and women, but bitching about rappers who only talk about guns, drugs, and women. The best thing about Blueprint is that he knows life's bigger than hip-hop: Sure, he's tired of sucker MCs peddling stereotyped, sensationalized notions of blackness, but he's also pissed about Tavis Smiley being taken off BET and fools using up his cell-phone minutes (flashing an Eminem-esque flow on "I Need My Minutes"). And, here, RJD2 animates it all with soul basslines and understated beats.
"Hand-Me-Downs" is a more grounded, more knowing anti-anthem than any other indie naysayer has produced. "My mama gave me Donny Hathaway, Young, Gifted & Black/I miss the positivity/I wanna bring it back," Blueprint raps, before segueing into a moving story about ignoring another young black man on the bus and being shamed by the more welcoming example of a civil-rights-era matriarch.
At first, "Keep It Hot for Daddy" is just a particularly good-natured take on the typical pick-up song, with a call-and-response litany of desired female traits: "Personality [check], nice salary [yup], got a bubble [no doubt], stay out of trouble [uh huh]." But then the song evolves into a bit of oddball romanticism that breaks genre convention: "I wanna hold your hand, whisper in your ear/I volunteer to hold you tight when you're full of fear/We can fall asleep Friday night staring at the moon/And wake up Saturday morning watching cartoons."
The purely comic club song "Blame It on the Jager" drops a bit of self-knowledge that sums up the solid appeal of all Blueprint's work: "I'm just a regular dude/I'm not shy, I'm not a player."
Blueprint's official follow-up to 1988 is due later this year on Rhymesayers. Until then, he's peddling a barely available, legally sketchy collection of original raps over Funkadelic tracks: Blueprint vs. Funkadelic. Look for it when he plays the Hi-Tone on Saturday.