Blueprint returns from the brink with ‘Falling Down’

Following a stretch in which he questioned if he would again pick up the mic, the Columbus rapper is back with a new EP and a release show at Ace of Cups on Saturday, April 27.
BlueprintCourtesy the musician

Moving into 2020, Blueprint was gearing up to begin another album cycle. The Columbus rapper had nearly completed work on a new full-length, titled Vessel, and had started to plot out an extensive, 70-show tour that would have kept him on the road through much of the year.

“And then [Covid] happened, and everything got shut down. And it just kind of killed my momentum,” said Blueprint, born Al Shepard. “And that domino set everything else in motion.”

These dominoes toppled gradually, starting with a forced exile from the road that created financial hardship, which eventually led Blueprint to get his Commercial Driver License (CDL) and take up long-haul trucking as a way to make ends meet.

“When 2021 rolled around, I was supposed to do a spring tour with [the Los Angeles rapper] Murs. And then it got pushed back and pushed back. And by the time he reached out, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to try and do something late fall,’ it was like, ‘Bro, I’m already about to get my CDL. I’m running out of money,’” Blueprint said in a late April Zoom interview. “And so, in 2022 I started driving. … And I knew I needed to get at least a year of experience with it to get to the next level with it and maybe own my own truck. And the next thing you know it’s fucking 2023, and it’s like, Jesus, where the hell did it all go?”

Amid this career pivot, Blueprint shelved Vessel and briefly wondered if he would ever again pick up the mic – particularly as he continued to hear horror stories from his musical peers who had returned to the road only to be greeted by higher touring costs and smaller audiences. On the open road, behind the wheel, he also began to question if people even cared, or if his music was even missed, comparing his situation to the years Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi spent in hiding on the planet Tatooine. 

“And he’s just there working, processing fish or something, and someone will see him and be like, ‘Obi! What’s up?’ And he’s like, ‘Nah, my name is Ben,’” Blueprint said. “And for two years I felt like Ben, who is really Obi-Wan Kenobi. I didn’t want anybody to notice me. I didn’t want any of my coworkers to Google my name and find my Wikipedia page. I just wanted to blend in. I have no opinions on anything. Music? I don’t even listen to music. I was doing my best to not bring any attention to myself, trying to get my money right and get back on my feet. And there were definite times in there where I wasn’t really sure. The thing about music, man, is that every artist has a run. And sometimes the run will end and it’s not up to you.”

Blueprint joked that he'd long held the belief that his career would unravel more gradually, coming undone amid “a series of shitty records,” like a pro athlete laboring through those late-career years before ceding to retirement. Covid, he cracked, robbed him of this steady fade to black. And over time he began to realize he wasn’t ready to walk away, and that he did still have more to say. Rather than returning to Vessels, however, he decided he first needed to excise these bleaker recent years, recording a series of songs beset by romantic failure, financial hardship and a prevailing feeling of solitude hardened by the year-plus he spent alone on the road.

“Once I sat down, it was like, ‘This has to be said or else I won’t be able to move on to the brighter side of the story,’” said Blueprint, who will celebrate the release of his return EP, Falling Down, in concert at Ace of Cups on Saturday, April 27. “Part of me is like, this is very dark. But then another part of me is like, people can relate to this. And I know there will be somebody who hears a track like ‘Falling Down’ and will be like, ‘Yo, I’ve been there. I’ve been at my lowest, too.’”

Built on syncopated horns and a strutting bassline, the sparsely funky “Falling Down” finds Blueprint surveying life from a low point, his bank account balance hovering precariously above zero and the hangers-on who used to move with him through the music scene having long departed his side. Elsewhere on the EP, the rapper grows overwhelmed as unpaid invoices accumulate (“Bad Boy Bill”) and takes ownership of a relationship gone to seed (“It’s Over”).

Throughout, Blueprint addresses even these bleaker themes with beauty and skill, flashing both lyrical dexterity and a graceful touch with the pen. “They say your woman branches out before she ever leaves,” he raps on “It’s Over.” “By the time you find out/She’s in the breeze.”

The production is purposely straightforward, with Blueprint expressing a belief that these heavier verses should be met by more spacious instrumentals. “I wanted to keep [the beats] simple,” he said, “in order to make sure the listener had enough room to take in the words.”

The lone exception is the album-closing “Tough Times Don’t Last,” a lush instrumental track that incorporates operatic-strains and serves as a moment when the weather finally breaks, sunlight beginning to find a way through the gray.

This slight upturn, Blueprint said, reflects the more hopeful space he’s moving in these days – even if it wasn’t quite enough to sway some listeners. When the musician picked up the CDs he had manufactured for the release show, for instance, the woman working at the duplication plant pulled him aside to express her concerns. 

“She was like, ‘Is everything okay with you? We read the liner notes. We heard the record. Is everything okay?’” Blueprint said, and laughed. “And I was like, ‘I’m good! I’m good! Everything is cool now. But thank you.’”

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