Respect the Architect is a fitting title for the latest release from rapper Blueprint, since it finds the Columbus native stripping his music back to its barest foundation, like a house gutted in anticipation of a complete renovation.
Gone are the more experimental urges that fueled Adventures in Counter-Culture and its sister record Deleted Scenes, ditched in favor of a leaner, more-streamlined approach reflected in everything from the album's taught runtime (the entire affair clocks in at just under 30 minutes) to the beats themselves, which draw almost exclusively on vintage soul rather than venturing across the entirety of the radio dial.
“There is certainly artistic value in pushing the boundaries, but sometimes you can overlook how difficult it can be to do something that’s simple and really works,” said Blueprint, born Albert Shepard, seated in a local coffee shop during a mid-March interview. “A lot of times as musicians, we think more is more, and sometimes less is more. I wanted to adopt that strategy and say I can still be effective without all these layers here. I wanted to make the voice the focal point.”
It helps, of course, that the rapper's voice is in fine, fighting form — he delivers his words here in a cadence as fluid and weighty as just-poured concrete — and that he still has so much left to say, which is something he feared wouldn't be the case after he released 8 Million Stories, his debut full-length with producer RJD2 under the Soul Position banner, in 2003.
“There used to be a time I thought I’d run out of things to write about,” Blueprint said, and laughed. “I really wanted to quit rhyming after the first Soul Position record. I was like, 'That’s it. I did a record. I’m going to quit,' and my friends were like, 'What the fuck are you talking about?'
“I think what I've come to realize over the years is the more I learn and the more I experience and the more I evolve, then the more I have to talk about.”
These are words he's taken even more closely to heart since giving up alcohol in 2010 — a life-altering decision that led to a mental and creative renaissance. “When you get sober your mind just starts working again,” the MC said. “My brain was like, 'Feed me dude!'”
So Blueprint, who was born in the city's South Side and as a child daydreamed of landing a job at one of the factories that dotted the nearby skyline so he could walk easily to work each day, got a library card — his first — and started reading voraciously, absorbing books on everything from African history and philosophy to classic self-help texts like “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
The rapper, in turn, has adopted an author's approach to album construction. When he asks, “How should I begin?” near the onset of Architect, he chooses to start, as many great stories do, at the beginning, tracing his way back to the earliest point of his music career, when entire days, weeks and months blurred together in an alcohol-induced haze. “Lost a couple years/Drowning in beers,” he rhymes on “True Vision.” By the album's close, however, his focus has returned and he's taking stock of a damaged world corrupted by greed, violence and systematic hurdles seemingly designed to keep the working class down.
“The surface level stuff is the easiest thing to latch on to, but as the years go by you do have to dig deeper,” Blueprint said. “I’ll say this: Art is selfish. Primarily it’s an expression of you. You make the song based on what you’re feeling at the moment, and it’s not until you come in contact with other people that you have to think, 'Does anyone else relate to this? Is it useful to them?'
“These are conversations I have every year, and every year I get more of an understanding and maybe just an acceptance that music can and does have a use. It can help people through tough times. It doesn’t have to be this me, me, me thing. Maybe this is when art is the most helpful to others: when everyone can share the story.”
While Architect is undoubtedly a worldly effort — particularly tracks like “Perspective” and “Silver Lining,” a tune where ’Print casts himself as “a writer that uses rap to capture the times” (shades of Chuck D referring to the genre as “CNN for black people”) — it's also, in many ways, the most buoyant record the MC has ever released. He fills his verses with clever wordplay and playful boasts, and his voice tends to skip effortlessly across the surface rather than sinking like a stone into the murk. All of which makes the album’s heavy-hearted origins even more surprising.
“Emotionally, I needed to make a record that just feels good front to back,” said Blueprint, whose older brother died in 2012 when he was in the midst of finishing a different, much bleaker album. “After he passed I wanted to put out something that really makes people feel good instead of messing with the darkness. I’ve already got enough dark music in my catalog. I can come back to that anytime.”
Photo by Meghan Ralston