Jay-Z’s sensationally important The Blueprint turned 10 yesterday, and it’s an LP that deserves to be celebrated for myriad reasons outside its own obvious musical strengths. But, let’s just talk about the record first. Though I entered into the Jay-Z mythology somewhat in media res — I was 15 at the time and this was the first Jay-Z album I bought, though I suppose that’s because my parents wouldn’t let me buy Hard Knock Life, Vol. 2 when it came out — The Blueprint put a stranglehold on me all the way from “The Ruler’s Back” through the Jay-Z mod of “Renegade,” which previously existed as an unbelievably sick Royce da 5’9” and Eminem collaboration. It had every kind of track, and not too much of one thing; the battle track “Takeover,” the Kanye West-produced radio jam “H To The Izzo,” the introspective “Song Cry” as well as top tier Jay-Z anthems “Heart Of The City” and “Never Change.” It’s a balance of commercial aims and artistic triumph that Jay would never strike again; subsequent lesser albums with The Blueprint didn’t exactly tarnish the brand, but exist as lesser musical mounds in the long shadow of the original.
Musically, The Blueprint is Jay-Z’s best record, but it’s teeming with many levels of thick cultural significance as well. Though Hov had worked with Just Blaze and Kanye West previously, it wasn’t until The Blueprint that Jay-Z became hitched that to a pair of sonic architects that would would define the following decade’s sound. The music’s soul-centric leaning became mimicked, copied, parodied, phoned-in, but never utterly perfected to the extent of The Blueprint. Also, rap’s greatest feud ever — a feud that has its own Wikipedia page — struck full gale force as Jay fired “Takeover” at Nas’s “Ether,” launching a full lyrical barrage in the song’s third verse (sample: “You went from Nasty Nas to Esco’s trash / Had a spark when you started, now you’re just garbage.”). Surely, not little has been made of The Blueprint‘s September 11, 2001 release date, and the symbolic notion of how the horror of that day didn’t seem to affect sales (The Blueprint sold 420,000 the first week). My experience of that day is certainly tied to The Blueprint; unsure of how to react, a few friends and I still made our regular Tuesday afternoon trip to Kansas City’s Streetside Records, and later that evening I sat in my room listening to it while doing my math homework and feeling weird, having reached a point with the onslaught of grim news television replays.
But, most of all, Jay-Z’s masterpiece started a movement; by smashing a couple of rap’s realms together for perhaps the first time (Jay-Z reached out to The Roots for his excellent Unplugged album), Jay-Z built the bridge from the “underground” to the mainstream with The Blueprint. Pitchfork awarded the album an 8.7, which I remember as being somewhat controversial, given that Pitchfork wasn’t reviewing rap really at all at this point in time. New audiences began to take mainstream rap seriously, and Jay-Z began his true ascent to the baron-like status he enjoys today. The game changed to reflect its most successful, critically-adored icon and it hasn’t been the same since.
The game needed him then more than it needs him now, but The Blueprint opened a door. Luckily, many others and I walked through into previously-unexplored music terrain and never looked back.