September 11, 2001. This date coincides with the most devastating act of international terrorism the United States has ever faced. In terms of national security, there is the United States before 9/11 and after 9/11. However, on this same day the release of Jay-Z’s classic The Blueprint was a landmark moment for hip-hop. The Brooklyn rapper shifted its sonic landscape and broadened its scope. Undoubtedly, rap, also, was much different before and after The Blueprint.
The previous fall featured the release of Jay’s fifth studio album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia —which yielded mixed results among both critics and the streets. The record, which was changed from a Roc A Fella collaboration to a solo album to increase sales, spawned massive hits like “Give it 2 Me” and lyrical marvels such as “The Intro.” However, the album didn’t establish Roc La Familia as rap’s most formidable group or make Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel household names as expected. Back to focusing on his own legacy, Jay Z took a risk. Rappers often garner commercial success by commissioning a host of big-name feature artists and expensive producers. He relied on his own star power to sell this record. As he raps on the triumphant intro track “The Ruler’s Back,” this time around Jay Z delivered “just [his] thoughts, right or wrong.” He shared the mic for a single guest feature and employed the talents of then-newcomers Kanye West and Just Blaze for the majority of the production.
The Blueprint is Jay Z unfiltered in the midst of many obstacles in his personal life and within the rap world. He was facing criminal charges and brewing beef with Queensbdrige rappers Prodigy and Nas, with the latter emcee being more than up for the challenge. Jay Z also moved up the release date to the worst possible day to prevent bootlegging. Against all odds, The Blueprint debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and quickly garnered momentum. Even before the album was released, the lead single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” was the anthem for the last few weeks of summer. The soul that drove this song is woven throughout the album, and still influences hip-hop artists today.
2001 was a much different time. Kanye West was a decade away from constructing one of the most impressive catalogues in hip-hop. He had yet to meet Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian. At this time, Kanye was a hungry new producer who made dope soul samples in his basement. The smooth vocals of Bobby Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” make “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” one of the album’s most well-rounded cuts. Thanks to West and Just Blaze, sampled vocals from artists such as Jackson 5, David Ruffin, and Q-Tip made the production revolutionary. Jay continued the trend started by fellow Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G., who he is often measured against, of rapping over soul samples in place of more rugged beats. The sound crafted by Kanye (and Pharrell) on this album paved the way for his own career, as well as popular artists like Dipset, Lupe Fiasco, and more. This move toward a sound based more in the R&B and soul vocal tradition broadened the scope of what hip-hop could be.
Jay Z’s lyrical content, rhymes about hustling and escapades with women, has not changed much. What is noticeably different are his flow and delivery. Jay uses more relaxed flows than in past works — which reflects his self-assurance. He believes he is the King of New York and is ready to prove it. Also notable is that despite having many memorable bars and clever one liners, this album was less lyrically potent than some of Jay Z’s past works. As he would reflect on in The Black Album’s “Moment of Clarity,” “dumbing down” his lyrics and slowing down his flow made his music more mainstream and consumable. The songs all seem to have been created with this in mind, challenging the previous notion that releasing an album full of commercial hits was unattainable. Rappers such as Drake, Young Thug, Future, and Gucci Mane have benefited. What Jay’s never compromised, he’d argue, is the realness behind his bars. An emcee fueled by his underground support, Nas openly questioned how real he truly was.
After Nas dissed him on a mixtape track, Jay Z responded to him as well as Prodigy from Mobb Deep with the thunderous “Takeover.” This song was boastful and venomous like most diss tracks, but also commanded the radio. Just last summer, Drake’s “Back to Back” track displayed a similar approach and received considerable radio and club play. After Nas responded with “Ether,” it became evident that this would be a grueling battle between rap’s elite. Debates will rage on about who won. “Takeover” ignited one of hip-hop’s most legendary beefs, but there are many defining moments on The Blueprint.
“Girls, Girls, Girls” was the album’s second single and one of its more creative tracks. In “Hola Hovito,” Jay confidently raps “If I ain’t better than BIG, I’m the closest one.” He almost implies that he’s competing with the late Brooklyn emcee’s ghost more than any living rapper. The sole feature verse by Eminem on the dark “Renegade” is both layered and entertaining. The choice of Eminem for this guest verse was likely strategic, especially considering the Detroit rapper had released the best selling hip-hop album of all time the previous year. Jay has always been an executive before an artist, and he fully embodies that persona on this album.
After this release, Jay Z had about three great albums left in him, which was impressive considering he’d already given us four. Fifteen years later, both Jay and this masterpiece are still relevant in hip-hop. Although Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole now lay claim to the throne, none of their empires would exist without The Blueprint.