Review Summary: Not the first hip-hop classic of the 21st century, nor his best album, but an excellent hip-hop album nonetheless.#464 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of All-Time List.
It’s hard to think of any albums with a worse release date than The Blueprint
. Released on September 11th, the date of probably the most famous terrorist attack in history, it seems almost unbelievable that Jay-Z’s fifth album still managed to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 and ultimately be certified double platinum. Not only that, but it became a large critical success as well, which is a pretty good thing. Most sane fans will quickly point to the near-classic Reasonable Doubt
as his best album, and most of the hip-hop community knew it, too. But Jay’s next three albums would garner relatively none of the same praise, while the commercial returns would gradually diminish.
changed all that. Without question his unintentional (or intentional?) “comeback” album, it reestablished Jay as a major player in the hip-hop world. It also helped establish Kanye West as one the most important producers in modern music, and revived West’s sample-heavy production style at a time when producers were worried about copyright laws.
The album takes little time to get going. After a brief drum buildup, the fade in-and-out beat of the album’s first track starts, and to a literal fanfare Jay-Z announces that “The Ruler’s Back”. The opener strongly exemplifies what to expect from here forward: wonderful and strong production, strong rapping, and Jay’s usual balance between swagger and intelligence. It helps in this case that “The Ruler’s Back” is his strongest opener, and when that includes tracks such as “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, “December 4th” and “Pray”, it really says something. Best of all, the man’s just getting started.
“Takeover” is likely the strongest lyrical performance on The Blueprint
, a standard-but-not-really-standard “diss track” where Jay verbally strikes out at his opponents (specifically, Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Nas) over samples of The Doors and David Bowie. Whether or not Nas strikes back harder with “Ether” is more or less out of the question – “Takeover” is still a contender for the best track on one of Jay’s best albums, and he rarely tops it in the 11 tracks that follow.
That doesn’t mean the rest is bad, because ultimately, The Blueprint
is/was his best album in five years, which is in no small part due to Kanye and the other producers. This is the one area where The Blueprint
actually has something on Reasonable Doubt
: after four efforts of “old school” beats, songs like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” feel extremely fresh. Jay carefully walks the line between boasting and intelligence, while his producers help maintain both pop appeal and “street cred” (or whatever similar term you’d prefer). And while Jay is hardly anywhere near the top of his game here, his performances on nearly all of the songs would make the album stand out anyways. The man follows each beat to a “t”, doing so well that there’s no visible need for more than one proper guest. (The small vocal contributions of Q-Tip, Slick Rick, Biz Markie and Kanye West don’t really count)
And oh, what a guest spot it is: on "Renagade", one of the album’s best songs, Eminem and Jay trade turns at the mike over the former's laid back string-based beat. Lines such as ”while I'm wavin the pistol at sixty Christians against me/Go to war with the Mormons, take a bath with the Catholics”
are unintentionally ironic (given the release date) but do nothing to ruin a pairing of two of our generation’s greatest rappers.
In the end, the only real problem with The Blueprint
(besides “Girls, Girls, Girls”, a stupid and cliché "ode to women" that wastes a strong sample) is that he’s done better. Reasonable Doubt
and The Black Album
both come a bit close to obliterating it lyrically, and the latter matches the production here blow for blow. Regardless, the critics lavished all their praise and attention here, and I’m not necessarily arguing with them – any semi-serious fan of hip-hop needs to own this (along with the aforementioned Jay-Z albums).
The Ruler’s Back
Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)