Classic Albums: 'The Blueprint' by Jay-Z

Classic Albums: 'The Blueprint' by Jay-Z

Published Sat, September 11, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT

Is THE BLUEPRINT the greatest album of the 2000s?

The masterful sixth album by Jay-Z, from a strictly historical perspective, recalibrated so much about 2000s Hip-Hop. After two decades, can we officially declare it the greatest album of the '00s in any popular music genre from that period? There's definitely a case to be made.

First, let's examine what "Greatest Album of the Decade" even means. Of course, everyone has their opinions and preferences, but when it's time to give a project that sort of lofty title, I believe the criteria has to go beyond what slaps most to me, personally, or not. That's not to say I don't think The Blueprint knocks; it features some of the most consistently stellar production of Jay-Z's career and he sounds focused throughout the project. But even beyond those particulars, "Greatest Album" distinctions also have to carry a certain amount of cultural and historical weight. And in the case of The Blueprint, you can't deny how much impact this project had on its given decade. 

When you look back at the seismic albums of previous decades, you can see how Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band transformed 1960s music; or how Thriller completely changed everything for the 1980s. Nevermind exploded like an atom bomb over the 1990s.

When it comes to the 2000s, the emergence of the internet (among other things) led to a lot of commentary about how an album can't do that anymore: our attention was now too fragmented, our culture was now too visibly diverse. That assessment isn't entirely untrue, but The Blueprint is the closest the 2000s has to the kind of watershed moment commentators said couldn't happen anymore.

First, it's the album that affirms Jay-Z's ascendence. Yes, Jay was already a a major star long before 2001, but his climb to "alpha male" status in Hip-Hop was gradual.

In 1996, people scoffed when Reasonable Doubt-era Jay bragged about his status on an album that struggled to go gold. In the wake of The Notorious B.I.G.'s murder in 1997, Jay audaciously declared "The City Is Mine" before damn-near anyone agreed with him. He didn't truly break through until 1998's Vol. 3: Hard Knock Life, but even after that home run, you could argue that Jay wasn't bigger than a DMX or an Eminem. That changed with The Blueprint. With this album, Jay didn't just acknowledge his own stature, the world seemed ready to agree with him. When "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" hit radio that summer, it sounded like Hip-Hop's "Hail To the Chief," a sentiment the song's music video echoed. 

Also, The Blueprint announced two of the 2000s most celebrated producers in Just Blaze and Kanye West. Blaze's work on the album made him one of the most in-demand producers in Hip-Hop: on the strength of tracks like "Song Cry" and "Girls Girls Girls," Blaze would go on to producer major hits for the Roc-A-Fella stable (including "Oh Boy!" for Juelz Santana and "Roc The Mic" for Beanie Sigel) en route to becoming one of the industry's most revered. And, of course, Kanye West became Kanye West. His work on The Blueprint cemented his sound and his reputation, Ye would parlay the album's success into his own solo career with Roc-A-Fella (initially) on the way to becoming one of Hip-Hop's most influential personalities. "I feel like that Kanye was probably heavily influenced by RZA and Q-Tip," says Andrew Barber. "Those dudes were chopping samples differently."

I feel like that Kanye was probably heavily influenced by RZA and Q-Tip. Those dudes were chopping samples differently."

- Andrew Barber

Jay-Z called West "a soulful dude." While today that manifests itself as a blend of religious and secular music, it's impossible to deny that the Chicago native is piloted by self-belief. Anything is possible in Kanye's universe. West contributed "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love), Never Change," "Girls, Girls Girls (Part 2), and  the lead single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," to The Blueprint.

"That's when his name started really bubbling after that," Barber says. "And then his career took off right after that. He had the accident a year later, or a few months later. The Blueprint's towards the end of 2001. By 2002, that's when he starts getting a lot bigger placements."

And Just Blaze wasn’t limited to triumphant street anthems. The producer showed he can slow things down a bit on Jay’s heartfelt ballad “Song Cry,” where Jay tells the story of ending a “Bonnie & Clyde” relationship. 

Big hit songs like "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "Girls, Girls, Girls" weren't new territory for Jay-Z. He humble-bragged on the Bobby Bland sampling "Heart Of The City (Ain't No Love)" that "Jigga's held you down six summers, damn..." referencing the fact that he'd produced a steady stream of radio hits since the mid-90s. No, what was different about The Blueprint campaign was the uniform quality of the album. And the fact that its sound reached deeper into classic soul and rock for its pulse. Kanye and Blaze reached back to The Doors, Bobby Glenn, The Jackson 5, Bunny Sigler and Al Green for the sonic foundations of these songs. 

And we'd be remiss not to mention the greatness of Bink, who produced no less than three of the album's tracks. The Virginia product is one of several production legends to emergence from his home state, and his most widely recognized work is on The Blueprint; standout tracks like "All I Need" and "Momma Loves Me," alongside Jay's Slick Rick pastiche "The Ruler's Back." 

Jay didn't only tap hungry, up-and-coming producers in the Roc-A-Fella stable, of course. Timbaland, Trackmasters and Eminem make appearances on the album, as well, and it's a testament to the overall vision that they blend effortlessly with Bink, Ye and Blaze. 

There's also the impact the album had outside of the principals involved in it's making. The most notorious track on The Blueprint is no doubt "Takeover," the song where Jay takes aims at rivals who'd been nipping at his heels in the years leading up to the album.

In addressing Mobb Deep and Nas directly, Jay threw down the gauntlet.

Jay's shots at Nas, in particular, became fodder for both artists to use the feuding to step their proverbial games up. It's no secret that Nas had been creatively languishing for years, with 1999s I Am... seen as the beginning of a steep dropoff in quality for the Queensbridge legend from his earlier work. But it was Jay's prodding on "Takeover," (as well as Nas going through personal issues, such as the death of his mother) that pushed Nasir Jones to reclaim the stature he'd had in the mid-1990s. Stillmatic, the fifth album from Nas, released three months after The Blueprint, was widely hailed as a return-to-form and it set Nas on a career path that would sustain him to this day. Even with his well-documented inconsistencies, it's hard to argue against The Blueprint as reinvigorating for his career.

Oh no, you're not on my level, get your brakes tweaked/I sold what your whole album sold in my first week/You guys don't want it with Hov/Ask Nas, he don't want it with Hov—no!"

Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt cover

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While the "sped up soul sample" trend seems like a million years ago, one can't overstate how much West's signature sound — some jokingly referring to it as the "Chipmunk sound" — impacted Hip-Hop. Producers like the Heatmakerz, Just Blaze, Alchemist, and 9th Wonder, all joined in on the craze and added their own spin on it.

“'Chipmunk Soul' was a common name for it," Just Blaze said. "I think a lot of European magazines, especially British writers and American journalists who were kind of music nerds, took it on."

While DJ Premier and the RZA had certainly dabbled in this style previously, West seemed to create melodies that seemed to embrace the power of the MPC, rather than try and make it feel like it was directly from the record. In that regard, his style sounded almost unachievable by most.

The Blueprint became the first album from the 21st century to be added National Recording Registry — joining previous selections from Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy. In Rolling Stone's original review, they wrote, "JAY-Z deepens his sound on The Blueprint. Here, JAY-Z and his producers (especially Kanye West) turn to vintage soul, fueling almost every song with a stirring vocal sample."

With the help of Just Blaze, Kanye West, and Bink crafting the polished sound of the album, fit for both the streets and radio, The Blueprint earned Hov his fourth consecutive number one album. The project beat out Mariah Carrey and Bob Dylan for the number one spot that week. 

By the 2000s, Hip-Hop had become the most influential genre of music, commercially and culturally. There are great albums from across the 2000s, from Radiohead's masterpiece Kid A, to Elephant by The White Stripes, Mariah's stellar semi-comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi, and Erykah Badu's soulful opus Mama's Gun. Even within Hip-Hop, you have OutKast's Stankonia, Kanye's College Dropout, and some other classics that have been mentioned already. But with Hip-Hop's preeminence over the decade, it feels wrongheaded to anoint a rock album "Greatest" when rock music was becoming more secondary; and as influential as some of the great R&B/soul records were of the '00s, it's hard to find one that sits atop popular culture the way The Blueprint does. 

And none of the other rap classics of the 2000s recalibrated so much that shaped the rest of the decade. The seminal figures that Jay, Nas and Kanye would be for 2000s music were all born from this album directly. 

The Nas feud is now old news. Kanye has been a megastar for so long now, it's hard to remember when he was just a hungry young gun. Prodigy of Mobb Deep is no longer with us. And Jay-Z is way more concerned with board meetings than rap beefs at this point. A lot has changed since 2001. But when we look back, when we revisit that sped-up soul sound, those throwback jerseys and durags; and when we examine Jay-Z at his peak, it's easy to see this album as a feather in his cap. This is the album where Jigga really became Hov. It set a new standard and kickstarted so much. So for this writer, that means, The Blueprint takes the blue chip for 2000s music. But hey, we've all got our opinion. 

Let's hear YOUR argument.

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