The Anniversary

The Blueprint Turns 20

Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

I know multiple people who woke up one Tuesday morning, watched from windows or Brooklyn rooftops as the second plane hit and the World Trade Center fell, and then went out and bought The Blueprint. Jay-Z’s opus wasn’t supposed to come out on September 11, but Jay was worried about bootleggers — he was always worried about bootleggers — and so he moved up the album release a week. On that calamitous morning, when people didn’t know if New York was under attack or the world was ending or what, people still found their ways to record stores or Best Buys, and they still bought The Blueprint. The world had changed, but some things remained unquestioned. If a new Jay-Z album was out, then you went and bought that shit immediately. You might’ve just witnessed a generational horror, but you could still throw Jay on your headphones and feel indestructible.

That accident of scheduling has always been a part of the myth of The Blueprint. After 20 years, the album’s whole story is still inextricable from the 9/11 attacks. Jay himself has something to do with that; he started using catastrophe to burnish his own myth right away. Less than two weeks after he released his album, Jay started a show at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom by announcing that he’d dropped on the same day as the Twin Towers. Eight months later, Jay rapped with magisterial pride on Cam’ron’s “Welcome To New York City,” a local-pride anthem built on post-9/11 defiance. Even without that coincidental resonance, though, The Blueprint would’ve gone straight into the pantheon. It had basically already happened before the album even arrived.

The world was ready for The Blueprint to be a classic. Jay had already been on an insane run, a one hot album every one year average. He’d rapped on pop hits and toured arenas, and he hadn’t lost any of the malevolent confidence that was already in full evidence on his 1996 debut. Three months earlier, at Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam, Jay had launched a hyped-up war against Mobb Deep, famously flashing a picture of young Prodigy in his Michael Jackson-style dance-class tights and accusing P of being “a ballerina.” During that same show, Jay also brought the actual Michael Jackson out onstage — an unprecedented show of rap-world domination.

Upon arrival, The Blueprint got a five-mic rating in The Source — the magazine’s first perfect-score review in the three years since OutKast’s Aquemini. (Honestly, The Blueprint may have been the last legit five-mic album before the magazine got really goofy.) The Source was not alone in its instant-classic assessment. A lot of people heard The Blueprint early, and everyone who heard it went crazy. I got a promo copy at my college radio station a couple of weeks early, and I wouldn’t shut up about it. Mostly, I wouldn’t shut up about “Takeover.”

The great Jay-Z/Nas feud of 2001 has already been discussed to death. I once wrote a whole book chapter about the rivalry (Rock And Roll Cage Match, Three Rivers Press, 2008). But it’s still hard to adequately describe the impact that “Takeover” had when it first arrived. For those of us who weren’t out at Summer Jam when Jay rapped the first “Takeover” verse, the idea of the song was insanely exciting. Here, we had the biggest star in New York rap going after two of his rivals, naming names and calmly explaining all the reasons why they weren’t shit. We’d heard plenty of diss tracks before “Takeover,” but we’d never heard anything on that level, delivered with that kind of imperious boredom. On “Takeover,” Jay wasn’t angry; he was simply weary of having to say stuff that, in his mind, should’ve been obvious.

Petty resentments and frustrations had been building for years before Jay finally decided to kill some motherfucking ants with a sledgehammer. Those issues had come out in sly and oblique little shots that most of us didn’t notice. With “Takeover,” though, Jay laid out his cards and held very little back. A couple of months later, Nas responded with more wild-eyed fury than anyone thought possible, and the whole sideshow became an enormously fun distraction for those of us who were already sick of stressing over the wars to come. Jay and Nas made that an exciting time.

“Izzo (HOVA),” the first proper single from The Blueprint, was, to that point, the biggest hit in Jay-Z’s career. A young Kanye West chopped up the Jackson 5’s immortal ebullience while Jay justified his conspicuous consumption in terms that were compelling if not convincing: “I do this for my culture, to let ’em know what a n***a look like when a n***a in a Roadster.” Other than his guest appearances, “Izzo” was Jay’s first top-10 pop-chart hit, but the song probably didn’t stoke excitement for The Blueprint as much as the promise of this new Jay/Nas feud did. A couple of decades later, it’s genuinely boring to hear Jay and Nas, now on good terms, rapping on a song together. (That shit on the DJ Khaled album this summer? Bluh.) Today, “Takeover” works as a fun time-capsule relic of a very different era, and The Blueprint would still sound glorious without it.

The Blueprint was a course-correction for Jay, a man who did not need to correct his course. Jay had built an empire by talking shit better than anyone else and by bending the sounds of the moment to flatter his own hauteur. Jay rapped over mid-’90s boom-bap, over shiny-suit-era gloss, over Ruff Ryders Casio thunder, and over prime Timbaland future-funk. Nothing this side of Mannie Fresh could knock Jay out of his element. His comfort zone was the whole of rap. Jay didn’t have a sound because he didn’t need one. But on The Blueprint, Jay figured out a sound anyway. Maybe he was just trying to keep himself interested.

Jay had been talking about retiring almost since the moment he first arrived. It was a constant threat. Jay had made enough money, and he didn’t need the headaches. In theory, rap was a means to an end, a way for Jay to establish himself as a businessman and a business, man. But on The Blueprint, Jay started thinking in grander terms. He began considering his own artistry as a gift to the world: “Can’t leave rap alone, the game needs me.” That was a ridiculous thing to say, and it was also true. The game needed Jay-Z.

Jay famously recorded The Blueprint in a two-week stretch, mostly at Baseline Studios in Manhattan. On his previous album, 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, Jay had begun working with a series of restlessly creative young producers — Bink!, Just Blaze, Kanye West — who chopped up soul samples and flipped old boom-bap sounds into dense, cinematic fanfares. In those Baseline sessions, Jay pitted those producers against each other, getting the best out of each of them by turning the creative process into a competition. Years later, Jay described the scene to XXL: “Just would peep his head in and hear what me and Kanye was doing and would just go back mad. Like, go back and just go [pounds fist on table], and just come in and be like, ‘Yo.’ And it was like this every day. It was like a heavyweight slugfest. For three days, they was just knocking each other out.”

That competition worked. Kanye West made “Takeover,” “Izzo,” “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love),” and “Never Change.” Bink! made “The Ruler’s Back,” “All I Need,” and “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me).” Just Blaze made “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “U Don’t Know,” and “Song Cry.” Between the three of them, those producers sampled Al Green, the Doors, David Ruffin, Natalie Cole, Bobby Byrd, Bobby “Blue” Bland. They came up with a lush, sumptuous bed for Jay to talk his talk. They let the trumpets blow. In the years that followed, every rapper in New York, and plenty outside the city, chased the richness of that sound. East Coast rap music went through a stylistic shift. Because of that shift, Kanye West found a way to transition from producer to rapper, and now he gets to subject all of us to his interminable album rollouts and nonsensical politics.

As textured and emotional as those beats were, a lot of them were hard, too. “Takeover” flipped its Doors sample into a world-obliterating martial stomp, which gave Jay’s shit-talk even more muscle. (Josey Scott, frontman for the nĂ¼-metal band Saliva, did his penance for “Tick Tick Boom” by yelling “laaaaaame” really, really well on that one.) “U Don’t Know,” meanwhile, sounded like a space station exploding in the sky. I can still remember hearing that one for the first time and feeling like I had a defibrillator stuck to my chest, just screaming at my car stereo.

When Jay got reflective, The Blueprint didn’t lose any of its power. By that point, Jay was in his thirties, long removed from the hand-to-hand transactions and the trunks full of weight. The more low-key tracks on The Blueprint put Jay in a ruminative and sometimes vulnerable place. He dug into his memory and considered the traumas and triumphs that had brought him to where he was. “Song Cry” isn’t the sad-bastard masterpiece that it sometimes gets made out to be, but Drake definitely learned a couple of things from its toxic-relationship rationalizations (“You don’t throw away what we had just like that/ I was just fuckin’ them girls, I was gon’ get right back”).

Jay could afford to reveal a couple of weaknesses because all his strengths were so vivid and memorable. Jay was clapping those flamers before he became famous. He sold ice in the winter, fire in hell. He could dump dough on the DA’s desk, and he could flee scot-free and pee-pee on the steps. His ability could make yours look like an exercise in futility. Jay famously kept The Blueprint all to himself, only sharing mic time with an on-fire Eminem — at the time, still enjoying his reign as the king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics. Eminem’s “Renegade” appearance went a long way toward solidifying his legend status. Em really did murder Jay on his own shit, but it didn’t matter, since Jay murdered everyone else, everywhere else. In any case, Jay didn’t need more guest-rappers. He could get golden-age legends Biz Markie, Q-Tip, and Slick Rick to come in and say a couple of words on a hook. He could even get Michael Jackson to sing backup vocals — uncredited backup vocals — on the bonus-track “Girls, Girls, Girls” remix.

The Blueprint is not a timeless album. It’s not even a fully cohesive album. Jay stayed with his luxuriant mogul-style soul-rap sound for most of the album, but he hedged, adding in possible hits like the the sleek and clubby “That N***a Jigga” and the Timbaland-produced strut “Hola Hovito.” I like those songs, and I like how they fuck with the album’s flow. They’re slick little reminders that Jay was still trying to grab as many potential album buyers as possible. But those songs are fully stuck in 2001. Really, that’s what I like about them.

2001 is all over The Blueprint. It’s there in the references: Miss Cleo, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, MTV Cribs. Jay mostly presented a more thoughtful version of his old persona on The Blueprint, but there’s plenty of ignorant shit on there, too: the casual homophobia, “men shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.” “Girls, Girls, Girls” is one long string of horny objectifications and ethnic stereotypes, and it only works as well as it does because of the ornate splendor of Just Blaze’s Tom Brock sample. The album’s depth only goes so far.

But the depth of The Blueprint was still an undeniable thing. It’s the album where my friends stopped deriding Jay as a sellout pop-rapper, where rock critics started describing Jay as a genius, and where Jay truly transitioned into the near-universally beloved rap Kennedy that his is today. The Blueprint isn’t Jay’s biggest album; Vol. 2 sold more than twice as much. I don’t think The Blueprint is Jay’s best album, either; I’ll take the cold and aristocratic snarl of Vol. 3. But The Blueprint is the album that firmly established the legend of Jay-Z. On “Hola Hovito,” Jay said, “If I ain’t better than Big, I’m the closest one.” Biggie Smalls, Jay’s late friend and collaborator, had died just four years earlier. Nas took issue with that line, but Jay clearly believed it when he said it. Thanks to The Blueprint, so did everyone else.

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