We re-visit Jay Z's classic album, The Blueprint, on the day it was released 14 years ago.
Jay Z’s sixth studio album is widely considered to be his best. The Blueprint is one of the great hip-hop albums of all time, complete with beefy drama, defiant production, and some of the best work from one of rap’s GOATs. The LP also helped propel cats like Kanye West and Just Blaze into superstardom, opening up endless amounts of doors after they produced the majority of the album’s tracks. The Blueprint came out at a time when Jay Z was still hungry to be considered the hip-hop king, and many will say that the LP acquired him that title.
By the time Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life came around in 1998, Jay Z was making the case to be Biggie’s successor as the East Coast king of rap by collaborating with fellow up-and-coming New Yorkers like DMX, Memphis Bleek, The Lox, Foxy Brown, and Ja Rule. Vol. 3 branched out a bit, and Hov invited Juvenile, UGK, and Dr. Dre along for feaures as he also began to assemble his dynasty. Roc La Familia further solidified the crew, with Beanie Siegel and Memphis Bleek appearing on most of the tracks. He also worked extensively with Just Blaze, and released his first work produced by Kanye West, Bink!, and The Neptunes on that record.
That brought us to The Blueprint, released on the tragic September 11, 2001. With a soulful sound engineered by Kanye West (keep in mind this is 2+ years before College Dropout would be released), the album moved 420k units in its first week. The production was a step away from the typical 2001 rap sound, and used more organic sounds, similar to what the Soulquarians were doing right around the same time. Just Blaze tapped into the sound too, and along with Bink!, the three producers made all but three of the album’s fifteen tracks. They basically dumped a healthy dose of musicality into rap culture with the release of The Blueprint. Don’t think so? Check out Jay Z’s unplugged, where he performed music mostly from this album backed by The Roots.
The album begins with a bold claim: “The Ruler’s Back.” After lyrical nods to Slick Rick and his B.I.G. brother, Jay reminds you to “hold on, because the driver of the mission is a pro.” Second verse kicks it up a notch with filthy wordplay in these lines, where he name-drops a number of Roc affiliates while essentially telling everyone to bow down:
“And you got a couple of beans (Beanie Sigel) and you don't have a clue? (DJ Clue) / You situation is bleek (Memphis Bleek), I'mma keep it real (Rell) cause / Fuckin' with me, you gotta drop a mill (Amil) / Cause if you gonna cop somethin' you gotta cop for real (Pharrell)”
“Takeover” turned things up a notch, with Jay Z calling out Nas and Mobb Deep by name with no punches held. He attacks Nas’ work ethic and output in some playful lines…
“You said you've been in this 10, I've been in it 5 - smarten up, Nas / 4 albums in 10 years, nigga? I could divide / That's one every...let's say 2 / 2 of them shits was due / 1 was "nah," the other was Illmatic / That's a one-hot-album-every-10-year average/And that's so (lame) / Nigga, switch up your flow/Your shit is garbage / What you trying to kick, knowledge?”
He then attacked Prodigy of Mobb Deep by saying, “You was a ballerina, I got the pictures, I seen ya.” He infamously displayed a child photo of Prodigy at the Summer Jam festival, setting Mobb Deep back a few years. “Takeover” goes down as one of the better diss songs of all time.
However, despite the sick burns that the first two tracks brought, The Blueprint had a lot more to it than cheeky jabs at fellow New Yorkers. “Song Cry” and “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)” are a couple of Jay Z’s more introspective tracks, where he ditches the pimp persona and digs into his past in a way we rarely see. “Renegade” proved that he could lyrically spar with the best of them, while “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Hola Hovito” and “All I Need” can still hold a party down.
“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” which sampled Bobby Blue Band’s classic “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” was a slightly more tasteful way to silence the haters than the one-two punch the album started with. Jay Z touches on how success brings your rivals out, and with the classic production from Kanye West, it’ll go down as one of the album’s great tracks, despite never becoming a single, against Hov’s wishes. Even the hidden tracks were fire. “Lyrical Exercise” was maybe too wordy for the body of the album, while “Girls Girls Girls Pt. II” revisit the themes of the first part.
The Blueprint was important for Jay Z’s legacy, because without it there’s a good chance he would be grouped among those artists who were never quite able to surpass (or even equal) the success of their debut album. While Reasonable Doubt may still hold the number one spot for many fans and critics, most will admit that The Blueprint (and even The Black Album) come close to eclipsing that early magic Hov pressed on his debut in 1996. The record pops up on just about any list that fits its criteria, having received accolades from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NME, Spin, and just about any media publication that chose to cover it. It got the 5-mic rating from The Source, and a XXL rating from XXL, prretty much solidifying the unanimous review of ‘perfecto’ from the industry critics.
The Blueprint qualifies as a demonstration of what a perfect hip-hop album should sound like. It was forward thinking, heartfelt, and a statement from a hungry thirty-two year old who was gunning for the crown. He introduced Kanye West and Just Blaze to much of the world, and then bodied their beats. It’s widely considered to be the best release from one the best rappers of all time, a classic that is surely worth spinning 14 years later.