onventional wisdom has it that the weakest tracks on RJD2's magnificent 2002 LP Dead Ringer were the three non-instrumentals. Unremarkable verses from Blueprint, Jakki and Copywrite did little more than detract from the soulful hip-hop symphony that the Ohio-based producer stirred up from a series of well-placed samples, strings, horns, organs and drums, and the general consensus from even the most rhyme-conscious hip-hop heads was that RJ's beats needed no verbal exposition to blow up the spot.
Now, it's never hurt an emcee to have a chance to flow over RJD2's soultronic sonics, and in fact just about the whole Def Jux stable (Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock, and Can Ox just to name a few) has benefited from RJ's spot-on guest production and remix work, not to mention other underground up-and-comers such as Diverse and Cunninlynguists.
While there's no doubt that RJD2's genius comes across even as a pinch-hitter, his deep-soul subtleties and masterful command of mood demands the stylistic breathing space of a full-length LP. Just ask a fan of Can Ox's The Cold Vein about El-P's dense, claustro-cluttered maestro act, and you'll understand just how momentous (and rare) it is to come across an end-to-end artistic statement from a hip-hop producer in this era of Neptunes/Timbaland-branded Svengali shorthand.
And so while DJ-savior purists might scoff at this collection of otherwise quite capable stand-alone beats, RJD2's collaboration with the aforementioned Blueprint under the too-positivist misnomer Soul Position does allow the new-Shadow scratch fanatic to expand on the sonic template he set forth on Dead Ringer, but also to prove he has the talent and vision to create the kind of whole-cloth soundscape that can sustain an emcee across two sides of wax.
From start to finish, RJ exhibits complete control over the pace, flow, and emotional character of the record. The dark, carnival-esque organs of "Inhale," the mischievous slapstick funk of "Jerry Springer Episode," the cellos that add menace to "Greenhouse Effect," then underscore sadness on "Run" - this is all rookie shit for RJD2, as his atmospheric touch remains effortless and unimpeachable. However, RJ steps up his game and ups the emotional ante on "Share This" and "No Excuse for Lovin'," a pair of tracks that threaten to come apart at the seams from so much new-world heartache and old-soul regret, the former with its furious drum work and defiant horns, the latter with its distant harp and deathless vocal sample.
With such a pitch-perfect sonic backdrop, RJ makes it almost impossible for 'Print to fail, each track equipped with all the genetic material an emcee needs to deliver either a sage-solemn message or a quick-witted punchline (which is just what Blueprint does on the album's most outrageous cut, the hilarious bad-manners diss track "Jerry Springer Episode," wherein 'Print's boo harasses fast-food wage slaves to the point where he declares, "I knew right then and there she was about to take a loss/'Cause the cook cleared his throat and gave her taco special sauce"). To his credit, Blueprint knows how to move between lightheartedness and gravitas, and while it seems de rigueur in certain backpacker circles to eschew straight-forward, literalist depictions of ghetto life in favor of esoteric abstractions or sci-fi/super-hero parables, 'Print chooses instead to deal head-on with real-world situations that have sacrificed none of their rhetorical impact just because of their mainstream codification.
However, noble intentions don't quite obscure the fact that 'Print's version of the ghetto seems far more bloodless and restrained than the hellish, hemmed-in urban jungle of entrenched ghetto diarists like Ghostface or Ice Cube. While the visceral, violent frontline reports of those emcees function both as social critique and blood-soaked poetic expression, 'Print's milquetoast verses threaten to transform the trenchant sociological observations of "Look of Pain" (from a ghetto dream deferred) and "Run" (from ghetto violence, not responsibilities) into a lump of Afterschool Special medicine.
Of course, Blueprint's innocuous ghetto narratives also don't allow the listener to escape into voyeuristic detachment, the kind of grotesque fascination that causes white-flight refugees to venerate hip-hop icons based on just how wide the gulf happens to be between their own gated communities and the brutish, dead end landscape that inspires so much of the music.
After all, even a backwards-assed white kid from rural North Carolina like myself can vibe with the shout outs to Big League Chew and Masters of the Universe that constitute the three interconnected "Candyland" interludes, in which Blueprint lists his favorite snack foods, cartoons, and playground hijinks in alphabetical order. It's a brilliant bit of nostalgic retreat from a well-meaning emcee who can't seem to find a tunnel with a light at the end.