Happy 15th Anniversary to Jay Z’s The Blueprint, originally released September 11, 2001.
There has long been a complicated relationship between hip-hop and commercial success. It’s become a quaint idea to many that during the ’80s and ’90s, rappers that sold lots of records were often considered less than “real.” At its core, hip-hop is a culture built on being everything that other genres of music are not. In its early days, the idea of a rapper making an album was completely alien to hip-hop, much less a rapper making an album that was designed to sell millions of records. The concept of “No Sell Out” was built into rap music’s DNA. And one of the things that “No Sell Out” entailed was that rappers didn’t compromise their music for the sake of sales.
This tenet held through the mid ’90s, at least partially because “pop” friendly rappers were viewed as less-than-skilled cornballs. But slowly, as Bad Boy and Death Row exploded onto the scene, the template for the commercially successful rapper shifted from Young MC and Vanilla Ice to Snoop Doggy Dogg & Biggie Smalls. Suddenly, the idea of rappers making music designed to sell millions didn’t seem that weird anymore. Rap tracks were being played on mainstream radio during the daytime. Rap videos were getting regular run on MTV, rather than isolated to Yo! MTV Raps.
Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z (now stylized hyphen-free as Jay Z), first made a name for himself during this mid ’90s environment. Jay Z had never been a slouch on the mic. He’d displayed his skills with guest appearances on Jaz’s “The Originator” and “It’s That Simple” to Original Flavor’s “Can I Get Open?” to Big Daddy Kane’s “Show & Prove.” He eventually teamed up with Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke to create Roc-A-Fella Records, and starting with his debut album Reasonable Doubt, released in 1996, ascended to heights of fame seldom seen in hip-hop. After his friend and rhyme partner/peer Biggie’s tragic death in 1997, Jay-Z slid into the Notorious One’s role as “King of New York,” the vanguard of New York hip-hop.
But with his early albums that he released himself, there was always the sense that he wasn’t living up to his potential. It seemed he was going the route that Puff Daddy famously laid out for Biggie: create hype with poppy tracks with recognizable samples and catchy hooks, while the lyrical and musical red meat was to be found on the album tracks. Sales-wise, the strategy very much worked for Jigga. Among his first five albums, two went platinum and his other three went multi-platinum. His third, In My Lifetime: Vol 2, went five times platinum. And in fairness, it wasn’t like Jay Z was the only rapper that spent the late ‘90s going this route. Peers like Nas, Snoop Dogg, Mase, and Cam’Ron all followed this path, to varying degrees of financial success.
However, on the infamous morning of September 11, 2001, he released The Blueprint. It was a commercial and critical success. It’s his best album. It’s also one of the best albums recorded during the ’00s, across hip-hop and other genres. It’s an upper-echelon album recorded by an artist at the height of his success that works masterfully on a lyrical and musical level. And it eschewed the strategy that had worked so well for him in the past.
What made The Blueprint different relative to Jay Z’s past albums, not to mention albums by other multi-platinum rappers, is that it didn’t sound like it was “designed” to sell millions of records. It didn’t sound like Jay Z was watering down his style and sound in order to broaden his fanbase. He wasn’t going with the trends. He wasn’t enlisting the hot producer of the minute. He sounded like a rapper who, now that he had found commercial success, had decided to make an album that was not explicitly commercial. An album like this, by a rapper at the top of pyramid in terms of record sales, was very much an anomaly back in 2001.
The production line-up for The Blueprint is one of the first things that set it apart from other Jay Z albums. Yes, there’s one beat by the Trackmasterz and another by Timbaland, still one of the most- acclaimed producers in music at the time. However, the lion’s share of the production was handled by three guys considered largely unknown quantities at the time: Bink, Just Blaze, and Kanye West.
Bink had gotten his start producing for the Lost Boyz, and had done singles for Kurupt and U-God. Just Blaze had made his name creating dramatic sounding, orchestral-influenced tracks for artists like Black Moon’s Buckshot, Killa Priest, and Busta Rhymes. Kanye West secured his first work producing for Chicago artists like Grav and Infamous Syndicate, and eventually started orchestrating album tracks for Foxy Brown, Made Men, and The Madd Rapper.
All three first came into Roc-A-Fella Records’ orbit through the production work with Beanie Sigel, and all contributed beats to Jay Z’s previous album Roc-La-Familia. Still, it was a big leap to go from providing a few scattered tracks to setting the tone for a marquee album by one of rap’s biggest superstars.
This trio of producers created the vibe of The Blueprint, with their soulful, sample-driven production. With the continued rising cost of sample clearances, sample-based production was falling out of vogue on mainstream records in the late ’90s/early ’00s. The beats of Bink, Just Blaze, and Kanye gave The Blueprint a throwback feel. They still sounded of the time, yet still reminiscent of the early ’90s records that Jay Z, and many of his fans, had grown up listening to.
In terms of lyrical content, Jigga doesn’t necessarily cover a lot of new ground on The Blueprint. The tracks often cover themes that Jay Z often visited throughout his career: his iconic status, prowess, struggles, upbringing, etc. But his lyrical pen was just that much sharper this time around.
The album begins with “The Ruler’s Back,” a Bink-produced track that serves as the album’s mission statement as well as a tribute to one of Jay Z’s favorite rappers, Slick Rick. He uses the track to celebrate his own iconic status, mock the legal forces aligning against him (Jay was facing two criminal charges at the time and was the target of two lawsuits), and proclaim his own continued dominance. Still, not too many braggadocio raps can claim to feature powerfully evocative lines like “I’m representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat / Where Malcolm X was shot, where Martin Luther was popped.”
“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” is among the best “Fuck the haters” tracks ever recorded. Over a cinematic and soaring Kanye-produced track, Jay draws inspiration from Biggie’s “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” laying out his rise to the top of the hip-hop game and explaining how his fame has changed the way that everyone perceives him and has only complicated things with both his friends and enemies. He uses the track to dismiss any static that those who dis him may send his way, with lines such as “Look, scrapper, I got nephews to look after / I’m not looking at you dudes, I’m looking past ya.”
“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” is about as close to a commercial track as The Blueprint gets. It features the album’s catchiest hook, and a beat by Kanye that samples the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” While it serves as another track where Jay Z mocks his impending court cases (“Not guilty, y’all gots to feel me”), Jigga adds some of his most memorable one-liners to the song, including “Can’t leave rap alone, the game needs me” to “I’m over-charging @*&^%s for what they did to the Cold Crush” to “Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.”
“Takeover” remains one of Blueprint’s most discussed tracks, serving as one of the last interesting dis records, inspired by hip-hop’s last interesting beef. It also stands as probably the angriest Jay-Z song ever recorded, aided by the hyper-aggressive track provided by Kanye. “Takeover” is Jay Z’s counter-offensive to all of those who had taken shots at him over the past few years, most notably Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Nas. In the first verse, he delivers his opening salvo towards anyone who he saw as throwing rocks at his throne, rapping, “We bring a knife to a fist fight, kill you drama / We kill you motherfucking ants with a sledgehammer.”
Jay uses the second verse to delivers blistering haymakers at Prodigy, throwing scathing and hilarious punchlines like, “You little fuck, I got money stacks bigger than you.” With the third verse, he offers a brutally honest assessment of Nas’ career at that point in time: “Went from Nasty Nas to ‘Esco’s trash,’/ Had a spark when you started it, but now you’re just garbage / Went from top 10 of all time to not mentioned at all.” Jay wraps up that song with a verse reminding his peers to keep his name out their mouth, before ending with probably the best final lines of a hip-hop track of all time: “And all you other cats throwing shots at Jigga? / You only get half a bar – Fuck y’all @#$%^s.”
Jay Z also executes to perfection over Just Blaze’s production, whether it’s the rhyme gymnastics of “Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)” or his humorous takes on the women in his life with “Girls, Girls, Girls.” “U Don’t Know” remains another high point of the album, as Jigga brags about his, shall we say, versatile business acumen over a sped up Bobby Byrd loop. Between the proclamation of “I… Will… Not… Lose,” he explains his satisfaction in going from “grinding G-packs” to selling clothing through Roc-A-Wear.
Like many Jay Z albums, The Blueprint ends with Jay-Z at his most introspective on “Momma Loves Me.” At times a touching retrospective of his life and career to that point, the Bink-produced track is Jigga’s dedication to all the people in his life who helped him reach the level of success that allowed him to record and release albums, from his family members to his friends to his peers to even the police that harassed him. His lines “Unless you was me, how could you judge me? / I was brought up in pain, y’all can’t touch me,” remain strikingly poignant.
In the end, The Blueprint did not end up changing the way that commercially successful rappers recorded music and released albums. Such artists who had tons of lyrical upside did not begin to release albums without marketed and targeted singles. And the Jay-Z/Nas feud was the last interesting hip-hop beef. Nas responded to “Takeover” with “Ether,” an equally vicious track, which begat Jay-Z’s “Super Ugly.” The feud fizzled shortly after. Not long after The Blueprint was released, 50 Cent exploded onto the scene. 50 has spent the better part of his career nurturing and exploiting adversarial relationships with other rappers. But the 50 Cent/Ja Rule feud was about as compelling as a warm pile of cottage cheese. Other beefs have been even more boring.
The Blueprint’s most enduring influence on mainstream hip-hop was on the production side. After the album’s commercial and critical success, major record labels decided to start spending money on sample clearances again. And its success turned producers Just Blaze and Kanye West into superstars. Blaze went on to become an in-house producer of sorts for Roc-A-Fella, continuing to produce tracks for Beanie Sigel and the vast majority of Freeway’s debut album, Philadelphia Freeway. He also contributed production for NYC up-and-comers like Joe Budden and Fabulous, and became a go-to producer for R&B groups and rappers alike. Bink has kept plugging away, and is still active to this day, producing tracks for artists like Rick Ross and Dr. Dre. Kanye harnessed the accolades he earned for “Izzo,” and later Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” and rode the wave to his 2004 debut album The College Dropout. The rest is history.
Jay Z followed up The Blueprint a year later with The Blueprint 2, a bloated double album that had very little of the panache of the first installment. In 2003, he released The Black Album, his “retirement” album that served as another effective retrospective of his career. On the track “Moment of Clarity” he admitted to “dumbing down for the audience to double his dollars” and that “If skills sold, truthfully, I’d be Talib Kweli.” He then spent three years being the most unretired retired rapper ever (he released a pair of albums and made countless guest appearances) before making his “comeback” with Kingdom Come in 2006. In 2007, he released his unofficial soundtrack to American Gangster, his last album comparable in quality to Blueprint.
These days Jay Z is best known as CEO rather than an MC, working hard in the business world to become the next rap billionaire (Dr. Dre became the first with the success of Beats By Dre). For a brief time, he had an ownership share of the Brooklyn Nets. He started Roc Nation Sports to represent athletes. He famously purchased the streaming digital service Tidal in hopes of competing head-to-head with Spotify. He occasionally tours, but hasn’t released an album since 2013.
Jay Z made damn good albums before The Blueprint, as well as some afterwards. But The Blueprint remains the album where everything came together. He was able to satisfy his audience, the critics, and the skeptics, while making a timeless album. For this album, he was everything he was supposed to be.