The story of Jay-Z’s career and era defining album The Blueprint begins with a power vacuum. On March 9th, 1997 the Notorious B.I.G was shot at a stop light in Los Angeles. Within the year, Shawn Carter, known exclusively by his rap moniker Jay-Z, released the certified platinum album In My Lifetime Vol. 1, launching him into rap superstar status - successfully ascending to the throne once occupied by his childhood friend. Carter and B.I.G. were not only close friends but each other's biggest advocates, both tremendously skilled to a comparable level and at one time peers in elementary school; one could say that it was only by happenstance that B.I.G. made waves in hip hop before Carter.
After the commercially viable success of Vol. 1 Jay Z, the business…maaann, emerged as a dominating force in the industry. Turning rhymes into wealth, Jay-Z used his next two albums, which went 5x and 3x platinum respectively, as the symbolic demolition of “sell-out” culture in hip-hop. Prior to these feats, many MCs were reluctant to make records that were too commercial – in fear of losing the essence in which hip-hop music was born out of. Yet, Carter’s undeniable skill and unique cadence over pop-friendly beats, turned rapping into a genuine business endeavor for artists and hustlers alike, that pushed for accessibility over exclusion. The Blueprint represents peak moment Jay-Z, recording the album in a breakneck two weeks and allegedly writing the lyrics in two days.
However, whether The Chairman of the Board would have acquired the level of success achieved to date if B.I.G. was alive, is still a hotly debated point. While both sides of this debate may hold merit, it is without question that, at the very minimum, the unequivocal influence of The Blueprint solidified Jay Z as the undisputed momentary King of Rap.
Naturally, the rise of Jay-Z’s commercial cache led to figurative claiming of the throne that B.I.G. had left vacant causing conflict within a very volatile New York rap scene. Hov saw himself embroiled in beefs with NY MCs Mobb Deep, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, and a legendary spout with Nas, whose Illmatic created a firestorm as the best recording on the market when he was just 17. After Nas apparently failed to show for a recording of Jay-Z posse cut “Bring It On” in 1996, the two fell off, recording corresponding diss tracks and fans positioning the victor as the new King of New York. Nas’ “We Will Survive,” a letter to Biggie, subliminally questioned rappers who claimed there was a throne to be taken, which Jay-Z took personally and responded with one line on “Takeover,” which he debuted at Summer Jam as a more Prodigy-aimed diss track. After Nas responded with “Ether” containing lines like “Fuck Jay-Z” and referring to him as “Gay Z and Cock-a-Fella records,” Jay-Z added a new verse immediately.
Summer Jam ‘01 also saw Jay-Z bring out the-then elusive King of Pop Michael Jackson, further increasing the mania surrounding Jay’s marquee album and inaugurating him into icon status. In reflecting 20 years after The Blueprint was released, it is imperative that we draw attention to the pivotal moments that set the landscape for Jay-Z’s domination in the rap game, while simultaneously recognizing the legacy that this album left behind. The Blueprint holds historical significance in its introduction of producers and a new lyrical flamboyance, but the album’s status as a classic of 2000s rap is justified in how it took two sides of New York, commercially viable radio and club rap via Bad Boy & Def Jam and street smart gangster rap and combined them for the new decade. The Blueprint does exactly what its title expresses. This record not only stands as a career defining body of work for Jay Z but also, ushered in a new sound, mentality, and orientation towards the business of making rap music. 20 years later, The Blueprint is still a contender for one of the greatest rap albums of all time, and rightfully so.
In the leadup to The Blueprint, Jay-Z had a reputation for hits, but was by no means regarded as an album artist. The Blueprint set out to change that with a new range of emotion and subject matter and a sound that was cohesive, and new boasting a murderer’s row of future stars and almost no features. His technique was simplifying, but it was evolving with a more conscious ear for memorable lines over technical prowess.
His music populated rap radio and club DJ rotations with a slew of increasingly splashy Def Jam singles post-Reasonable Doubt: “The City is Mine,” Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be,” “(Always Be My) Sunshine,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Money, Cash, Hoes,” “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” “Big Pimpin,” Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker,” & “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)” creating sky high anticipation for The Blueprint. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” signalled the first number one hit for the album, the first number one hit produced by Kanye West, and would kick off the 2000’s fascination with expensive and modulated soul samples. Jay’s tycoon persona was also in full swing here with a record label, a clothing company, and a production company under his belt.
Jay-Z’s street cred had also been raised with the culmination of two criminal proceedings.
One dropped after a loaded handgun was initially discovered in a car that he and several others used to convoy to a New York night club. The other, after stabbing Biggie affiliate record producer Lance Rivera at the release party for Q-Tip’s Amplified at the Kit Kat Club. Jay-Z was heated over the possibility that Rivera had bootlegged Vol 3...Life and Times of S. Carter, before its release. The incident had occurred on December 1, 1999 and after the release of The Blueprint, Jay-Z pled guilty to a third degree assault charge and sentenced to three years probation.
The Blueprint was largely produced by three widely unknown beatmakers at the time. While the album contained tracks by era-superstars, Timbaland and Eminem, the movements that came to define the album’s longevity were the product of a murderer’s row of fresh faces. The album’s opening and closing tracks were crafted by Bink!; a Virginia native who pulled from the likes of Jackie Moore, Natalie Cole, and Al Green to introduce the album’s iconic sampling soundscape, allowing Jay Z to deliver some of his most prolific and personal bars. The punchy drums on “The Ruler’s Back” provide the right amount of kick to compliment Carter’s bravado, while “All I Need” and “Blueprint [Momma Loves Me]” emanate enough warmth to allow Carter to give his thanks to all those who aided in his acquisition of the rap game. He also uses these opportunities to drop game that fans could only imagine receiving over an elaborate candlelit dinner.
Just Blaze, hailing from Paterson, New Jersey, was the mind behind the boisterous “U Don’t Know,” a beat which left just enough room for Carter’s ego to breathe. Almost counterintuitively, Just Blaze is also behind the rare ballad “Song Cry”, that concludes with a swift shift of accountability back onto the young women who purportedly fucked up. These tracks are reflective of the Jay Z who was promptly killed on the opening track off of 4:44, released sixteen years later.
The concept deserves to be percolated on. Particularly, how Jay-Z’s earlier career misogyny demonstrates his personal evolution and the chapter The Blueprint represents in context with his later discography. In this way, the album acts superficially, as a declaration of Carter's power and influence, while giving audiences a peak of the internal conflict that has been raised in his personal disposition; a theme that he would grapple with sixteen years later after Lemonade. Understanding the album in terms of a larger career, makes The Blueprint prophetic in more ways than one.
In typical fashion, The Blueprint simply should not be discussed without the introduction of the self-proclaiming but unarguable legend himself, Kanye West. At the time, Kanye was likely the only person who knew he was a legendary figure in the rap game and his blatant sampling of some of the most famous songs of all time throughout his entire career is a telling sign. However, he quickly garnered mass attention from artists and audiences with his pure chops and ear for re-creation looping the omnipresent Jackson 5 record, “I Want You Back,” into the new rap classic “Izzo [H.O.V.A],” and the chopped rips of “Heart of the City” and “Never Change,” methods and tropes which came to define West’s legacy as a producer and artist.
The contributions of Kanye West to The Blueprint set the stage for his eventual domination of rap music and furthermore, entrenched this record's impact on hip hop for at least the next two decades after its release. Additionally, the heavy use of sampling on rap records made a huge comeback after the commercial success of the album. Labels were more forthcoming with spending dollars on clearing samples if it meant getting access to a Kanye beat.
1964 Chevy Impala
Any Given Sunday
Bonnie and Clyde
Broad Street Bullies
brunch at the Four Seasons
Buddy Holly “Peggy Sue”
Charlotte Ronson tops
Cleo the Psychic
David Bowie – “Fame”
Deuce Zeros – 20 inch rims
Frankie B pants
Gucci flip flops
Hermes boat shoes
Izod Bucket Hats
Jamaican Sound Clashes
Luan Woo restaurant
Michael, Magic, and Bird
“Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”
Prodigy from Mobb Deep’s childhood ballet hobby
Range Rover 4.6L
Right Said Fred – “I’m 2 Sexy”
Taj, Jay’s cousin
The Godfather II
the vamoose bus
Aretha Franklin – “Respect”
The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King
Caine & O-Dog from Menace II Society
Eddie Murphy – Raw
For shizzle, my nizzle
Ike and Tina Turner
Notorious B.I.G. – “Kick in the Door”
Patti Labelle’s cooking
Slick Rick – “The Blueprint”
Soul II Soul
Stevie Wonder - “Ribbon in the Sky”
Stevie Wonder – “My Cherie Amour”
The Cold Crush Brothers
The Fat Boys
“I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By”
“Me & My Bitch”