September 11, 2001
Roc-a-Fella Records/ Def Jam Recordings/ UMG
1. The Ruler’s Back // 2. Takeover // 3. Izzo (H.O.V.A.) // 4. Girls, Girls, Girls (feat. Q-Tip, Slick Rick & Biz Markie) // 5. Jigga That Nigga // 6. U Don’t Know // 7. Hola’ Hovito (feat. Timbaland) // 8. Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love) // 9. Never Change (feat. Kanye West) // 10. Song Cry // 11. All I Need // 12. Renegade (feat. Eminem) // 13a. Blueprint (Momma Loves Me) / 13b. Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise) / 13c. Girls, Girls, Girls [Part 2] (feat. Michael Jackson)
Released on the same date as the WTC attacks, september 11, 2001, Jay-Z’s fifth solo album of original material (sixth if you count The Dynasty: Roc la Familia as a Jay-Z solo album, which you definitely shouldn’t) sold tonnes of copies and recieved the kind of critical acclaim the Jiggaman hadn’t seen since he dropped Reasonable Doubt. In the immortal words of the Notorious B.I.G., Jay “[blew] up like the world trade” simultaneously with the World Trade actually blowing up.
Where on Vol. 1, 2, 3 the man had gained mass success by employing the electronic club banger-creators Timbaland and Swizz Beatz and got jiggy with glossmasters the Trackmasters, Irv Gotti and Puff Diddy, and The Dynasty had seen him do something similar with West-coast stalwart Rick Rock and up-and-comers the Neptunes.
On the Blueprint however he elected to primairily work with Roc-a-Fella in-house producers Bink, Just Blaze and Kanye West, all three of whom were test-driven on albums by Jigga’s interns Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek (both of whom aren’t anywhere to be found on this album).
These men brought to the studio a somewhat RZA/Pete Rock/DJ Premier-inspired soul-sampling sound that was a lot sunnier and more radio friendly than any track any of those three seminal producers tend to lay down, but still was a far cry from P. Daddy or Irv Gotti’s squeaky clean disco beats, which helped the medicine go down with hip-hop heads and critics, while veteran Jay-Z producers Timbaland and the Trackmasters got one track each, and Eminem, the only guest vocalist who gets to touch on anything beyond a hook, gets to produce the song on which he appears.
Content-wise Jay talks about his own majesty (The Ruler’s Back), how much more succesful he is both commercially and artistically than NaS and Prodigy of Mobb Deep (Takeover), his prowess in courting the ladies (Girls, Girls, Girls), general boasting (Jigga That Nigga, Izzo (H.O.V.A.), Hova’ Hovito) and how despite all this success he is still deep down a street hustler (Never Change) and running the hip-hop game (U Don’t Know).
To balance out these rather emotionally vapid, yet entertaining-as-fuck gangsta’isms he throws in a song about how he regrets negatively impacting the lives of those he loves (Song Cry).
Jay-Z had the golden ratio of a commercially succesful gangsta rap album down to a tee pretty much when he dropped Vol. 1. Club bangers (for the ladies) plus just violence and drugs to appease the streets (men) equals platinum sales. And Vol. 2 and 3. as well as the Blueprint all abide to the #oldrules. But these new musical surroundings, as well as challenges to a battle for the throne by NaS and Mobb Deep, appear to have brought Shawn Cory Carter renewed lyrical vigor, as well as the need to mostly have the recording booth to himself while creating the Blueprint (sorry Bleek!).
The resulting album truly is the very best thing this guy has released since his classic debut, and depending on your tastes this one might even be better.
On Reasonable Doubt Jigga was so focused on his lyrical and flowing techniques and the mafioso image he was trying to convey that he came off as a bit statuesque, especially when paired with an playful Notorious B.I.G. who at that point was the undisputed king of New York and thus had little to prove. It never seemed that there was much self-expression on that album and Jigga came off as a cold-hearted technocrat/mafioso/rapping machine.
Over the course of his next string of albums Jay learnt to let loose and have fun a bit recording songs (something NaS has yet to learn after 20+ years in the game, and probably never will), but since none of them but the Blueprint could remotely fuck with Reasonable Doubt production-wise it was only here and now it truly showed.
Basically by 2001 Jay had already snatched up the crown that B.I.G. used to rock via his success (he had once literally attempted to do so on the 1997 Teddy Riley-produced song The City Is Mine, and I say attempted, because it had fallen flat on its face because of it’s cotton candy beat. But a year later Hard Knock Life pretty much actually accomplished Shawn’s coup d’état). And the Blueprint was the consolidation of Hova’s reign over New York,
if not the whole of hip-hop.
Izzo (H.O.V.A) had the final bit of the summer of 2001 on smash when it dropped in late august of that year. And for good reason. The celebratory Kanye beat samples the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back in a reasonably creative manner while the Jiggaman celebrates having made the American dream his reality.
Takeover takes apart NaS and Prodigy so ruthlessly efficiently over Kanye’s Fame interpolation (the David Bowie song, not the musical film) that I’m confident that despite this rap war being over ten years ago and having long since resolved, it pisses both artists today still when it comes up on hip-hop radio .
Girls, Girls, Girls marries a confident playa attitude with affection rather than misogyny and goes for broke lyrically over what is the most soulful, and some would say best, beat of the entire album, courtesy of Just Blaze, with light support of three old school legends on the hook (speaking of old school legends, Girls, Girls, Girls [Part 2] which appears as a hidden bonus track on the tail end of the album has an uncredited backing vocal by the late Michael Jackson, returning the favour after Jay appeared on the Trackmasters Remix of You Rock My World)
U Don’t Know has Hova refuting the claim (made by a sped-up vocal sample) that he doesn’t have a master plan in this rap game (as if anyone ever doubted it) and it’s a hustler anthem for the ages.
Song Cry manages to humanise this rap god by having him openly discuss his regrets and insecurities, which helps make it easier for people to root for the guy.
Unsurprisingly the album’s low points are those produced by Timbaland, Trackmasters and Eminem, unsurprising because, as expected, they don’t fit the sped-up ’60s/’70s soul theme and because they rely on gimmicks (though arguably Kanye’s chipmunk soul was a bit of a gimmick too) Jigga That Nigga incorporates bolywood sounds and Hola’ Hovito as Timbaland Having the balls to jump on the latin bandwagon that was a thing around the turn of the millenium. And the freedom-of-speech plea Renegade was better off as the Em-Royce collabo it originally was since Bad Meets Evil unlike Jigga actually racked up controversy with their lyrical content.
But even these songs are pretty entertaining by their own right. It’s not as though they are sucky or anything, it is just that they have the musfortune of sharing an album with a bunch of undisputed classics.
the Blueprint is spotless, and with a lot of derivative albums coming out following its release (not least its very own sequels created by Jay himself) it does its name justice. It is also the argument that convinced this reviewer that Jay-Z, not NaS was the best rapper on the East-Coast in 2001.
Girls, Girls, Girls
U Don’t Know
Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)
Girls, Girls, Girls [Part 2]
Pick this one up, a.s.a.p.