This is the third installment in a ten part series where I’ll be counting down my 10 favorite hip hop albums of all time in reverse order, from 10 to 1. I’ll be releasing one album per week, for 10 weeks. You can read Part I here and Part II here.
We’re cruising along in the countdown of my Top 10 Favorite Hip Hop Albums of All Time. Two kickass records are in the books, and I’m excited to move forward because guess what? They’re only gonna get better.
The first two albums we covered were released 13 years apart, and the major shift in hip hop’s sound from boom bap to 808s couldn’t have been clearer. Each of the artists we covered were pioneers in their respective niches of hip hop. The artist who holds down the number 8 spot hasn’t just been a pioneer in hip hop, he’s been a pioneer in some of the major musical movements over the last 20+ years. Some consider him to be the greatest rapper of all time. Personally, I wouldn’t say he’s the greatest, but I’d call him the most successful. He’s managed to parlay his high-level mic skills into sustained mainstream success, all while being THE model for the rapper-turned-businessman.
He’s released 16(!) albums since his debut in 1996. He’s worked with the greatest rappers, producers, singers, and all around musicians in his 20 years since then. He’s one of the richest men in music, and he’s one part of the royal family of hip hop.
Allow me to re-introduce this man…
HIS NAME IS HOV!
Number 8: Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001)
Believe it or not, this album was released on 9/11. Crazy. But that’s not when I discovered it. No, I was too busy dicking around with the most whiney, pussy emo bands that were popular at the time. I hadn’t yet realized what good hip hop was.
The Blueprint found me by mistake. Of course I had heard “H to the Izzo,” when it came out. Anyone who had a radio knew that song. But it took until my sophomore year of high school for me to stumble upon my friend’s burned copy of The Blueprint cd. I was looking for something to pop in the cd player before I went to basketball practice, and I noticed a blank cd with someone else’s handwriting on it saying, “The Blueprint.” I knew the title because I’d heard people talk about how good it was. So, I popped it in and went on my merry way.
Immediately, I was hooked. I’m a HUGE fan of albums that have great intro tracks (see the first two albums on this countdown, and most likely every one the rest of the way). “The Rulers Back” had this too-cool-for-school vibe to it that I loved. The little bongo intro, the funky wawa guitar, the strings, the chimes, the horns. It all just clicked perfectly for me. Then, Jay put his foot on the gas like a led brick for the next three tracks, giving us back to back to back classics. He went IN on many of the top rappers in the game on one of the best diss tracks of all time, “The Takeover.” This was the Lexington and Concord of the Jay-Z/Nas beef. The first shot that sparked it all. I’m more partial to “Ether” because I think Nas went at Jay specifically with some personal insults that “Takeover” lacked. But Jay did his thing and the ballerina line about Prodigy from Mobb Deep was laugh out loud funny. He then transitions into the lead single, “H to the Izzo,” which was a huge hit and a staple of my childhood. Jay rounds out the trio of classics with his ballad to beautiful women across the globe, “Girls Girls Girls.” This track is known for it’s catchy hook, but the verses are some of Jay’s most intelligent and well-structured rhymes in his catalog. I love how he spends four bars rapping about a specific girl (3 girls in total on each verse), then wraps all of their stereotypes into the final four bars. A hot 16 indeed.
Just when you thought “Girls Girls Girls” was peak Jay lyricism, he unloads an absolute bazooka on “U Don’t Know.” This is one of my favorite hip hop songs ever, period. Just Blaze produced one of the more epic cinematic beats in memory, with a simple two bar sample hook. And that’s one of the things that makes this track so great. There’s no catchy hook. There’s no chorus to sing along with. It’s just a badass beat and Jay spitting some of the greatest verses hip hop has to offer. The intro to the third verse? “I sell ice in the winter / I sell fire in hell / I am a hustler baby I sell water to a well.” FIRE. We then get another Kanye-produced single, “Heart of the City,” that gained a second life as the trailer track for American Gangster in 2007. The album hits another high point with the heartfelt, Just Blaze-produced track “Song Cry,” where you can really hear the emotions pouring out of Jay through the cracking in his voice as the track progresses. It’s a year0-2000 rap version of a slow, smooth, Motown love ballad. The piano is simply beautiful, and Jay shows a more vulnerable side of his personality that most rappers were hesitant to let people see at the time.
The album ends with a unique wrinkle. First, we are treated to the Feature of a Generation on the Eminem-produced “Renegade.” Not only did Em produce a great beat, he brings the THUNDER, nay, the LIGHTNING (per usual) with his intense delivery and fuck you attitude. Nas famously dissed Jay-Z by saying, “Eminem murdered you on your own shit,” which is something that is NOT debatable. It was actually kind of a bad look for Jay, because hearing them back to back made you realize how far superior Em can be than any other rapper when he’s at his best. The fact that he produced the beat himself may have lent to his destruction of it lyrically. Either way, it’s one of the best tracks on the album and a surefire HOF’er for great hip hop collaborations. The album then closes with three tracks in one. It tones down with the minimal mellow “Mama Loves Me,” followed by “Lyrical Exercise,” which is a clever way for Jay to compare his rapping talent to beasting weights in the gym. It finishes with a remix of “Girls Girls Girls,” that’s almost as good as the original. I’m not exactly sure who produced it, but I would guess Cool & Dre if I had a gun to my head. I could obviously research this but if I find out I’m wrong then it completely ruins the last two sentences of this paragraph.
Low points of the album? None. Every track is good. I’d say the weakest is “All I Need,” but even the three tracks I haven’t mentioned yet are great. Timbaland brings his signature production to “Hola Hovito,” (love the harp), and “Jigga That Ni**a” is energetic with some more of Jay’s best lines on the record (“Gnarly dude / I puff Bob Marley dude / All day like rastafaris do“). Finally, “Never Change” is another one of those Kanye productions that feels like Jay is the modern version of a Motown star. Berry Gordy would approve.
So what’s the legacy of The Blueprint? For me, it’s the pinnacle of Jay-Z’s lyrical abilities. While it’s not my favorite Jay album (hmmm…foreshadowing?), it’s undoubtedly where he was most hungry. It came at a time where the hip hop community was looking for the next superstar to step in and replace Biggie and Pac. I think that’s why Jay went after his rivals on “The Takeover.” To show that HE, not Nas, was the next King of not just New York, but Hip Hip in general. Each track is jam packed with quality bars that most rappers only dream of achieving in their best verses. Jay brought the heat for 15 different tracks and solidified himself as one of the GOATs in rap history.
The Blueprint also was the coming out party for another future superstar. I’m of course talking about the super talented, always polarizing, and sometimes controversial Kanye West. Kanye produced four tracks on the album, included two of the singles. His sped up soul samples were the sonic staple of this album and gave him the platform he needed to produce his own solo albums, and eventually become one of the greatest artists music has ever seen.
I love this album. Plain and simple. Always have, always will. We may see more from Jigga later in this countdown, but for now, if you haven’t listened to The Blueprint from front to back, do yourself a favor and go to a digital store where audio files are purchased and BUY IT. The lyrics alone are worth a full listen.
Never change, this is Jay every day.