The world today runs on hyperbole. It makes our humble lives seem more eventful. Every post on social media is “epic” or “the greatest thing you’ll ever see.” When it comes to The Blueprint however hyperbole is very much warranted, even after these 14 years.
I remember distinctly when I first heard about The Blueprint. It was in my formative days of discovering hip-hop, at the start of the 2000s. The likes of The Marshall Mathers LP and The Chronic were dominating my listening habits — and then I heard ‘Izzo (HOVA)’ on the radio. Who is this Jay Z (or Jay Zed as I called him)? The rather sugary single didn’t resonate with me all that much, until I started seeing all the glowing album reviews in every music publication around. It wasn’t until after The Source gave it the then-coveted ‘five mic’ rating that I was sold.
So I went to my local JB Hi-Fi, found the shiny blue cover and proceeded to rip off the shrink wrap. Much like hearing Nas for the first time (more on him later), the album hit me almost immediately. The beats were more soulful than what I was accustomed to at that point and his flow was so laidback and conversational. It was like a whole new world opening up.
First track ‘The Ruler’s Back’ drew me in and ‘Izzo (HOVA)’ slowly grew on me, but it was ‘The Takeover’ that really grabbed my young ears and really convinced me this was a musical journey I needed to take. Even before knowing the full back story of his feud with God’s Son and Mobb Deep, it sounded so personal and vicious. The entire song, Memphis Bleek reference included, is a hip-hop quotable to this day.
The way he veered from violent threats (“we kill you motherfucking ants with a sledgehammer”) to material boasting (“You little fuck, I’ve got money stacks bigger than you”) just sounded effortless. Even though you could argue Nasir got in better shots, Jay’s playful confidence had him scored as the winner by a large chunk of fans. Again, the uniqueness of the production, with its hard-hitting sample of The Doors, was unlike anything I’d ever heard from hip-hop.
While the lasting impact and replay value of ‘The Takeover’ almost seems to loom over the album these days, along with its ominous post-9/11 release date, The Blueprint is sonically and lyrically outstanding throughout.
‘Girls, Girls, Girls’, hit me out of nowhere almost as much and really demonstrated his relaxed storytelling prowess, even if some of the references were lost on my uneducated teen mind. It was like a four-a-half minute movie.
The double-whammy of ‘Never Change’ and ‘Song Cry’ also displayed a level of emotion I was unaccustomed to hearing from my rap heroes, and still give me goosebumps. They helped further cement Jay’s status as the hustler with a heart. These anthems also helped me discover my love of classic soul and R&B, from Bobby Byrd to David Ruffin. This was before the soul sample became the early 2000s equivalent of today’s generic trap beats.
As much as you can credit Jay for what the album is and what it means to so many people, his all-star production team deserves equal credit. Looking at the tracklist in hindsight, the talent he assembled is awe inspiring.
The ever-divisive Kanye West and Just Blaze, who deserves more credit in the grand scheme, are at their very best. It’s Kanye in his perfect form, not talking. Bink also makes a career defining turn and even Eminem is stellar, bringing a different sensibility without taking the album in a completely different direction.
‘Renegade’ is better than any piss-poor Dr. Dre retread Em has churned out since, and as noted by Nas on ‘Ether’, Eminem lyrically outdid Jigga in almost every way. If anything should be singled out, other than ‘The Takeover’, it should be that.
While I didn’t need much convincing at the time that Em was god’s gift to hip-hop, he made me look at rhyme structure and delivery in a whole new way. I have the torn notebooks of unfulfilled adolescent rhymes to prove it. As titanic as that may be, it doesn’t take away from Jay’s clever yet subdued verses, which I appreciate a lot more now that the dust has settled.
Like with almost any hip-hop album though they can’t all be winners. ‘Hola’ Hovito’ still bangs and brings a different flavour to the mostly soul-centric soundscape, but is ultimately one of Timbo’s lesser orchestrations. With the exception of ‘Big Pimpin’’, none of their collaborations really did anything for me. ‘Jigga That Ni**a’ is a forgettable cut from a production crew with a spotty track record at best, who were very much ‘of their time’ (Trackmasters). For the only time on the album, you can kind of hear Jay going through the motions.
Listening back to The Blueprint it’s not hard to remember why the album impacted the young me so much. Despite all the J. Cole’s, A$AP Rocky’s and Lupe Fiasco’s who have brought something new to the table and captured my eardrums, it’s an album that is still hard to beat. It’s one of those rare times that people from across all aisles of the music divide can agree on a hip-hop album.
Now, is ‘The Blueprint’ the most lyrically and musically advanced hip-hop album of all time? No, there have been a fair share of albums, before and after, with similar if not higher production values and storytelling. The power of The Blueprint is in its consistency and fluidity. Many great rap albums have suffered from too many skits or filler tracks, which makes its streamlined tracklisting all the more powerful. There aren’t too many albums that can lay claim to that.
Regardless of what I think of Jay Z’s output beyond this and ‘The Black Album’, and his emergence as Mr. Beyonce, nothing can take away from the lasting perfection that is The Blueprint.