The summer of 2001 was Jay-Z’s make-it-or-break-it moment. His penchant for escalating tensions and engaging in endless lyrical boxing matches with the likes of Jadakiss, Prodigy, and Nas had eventually led him to become one of the most publicly-dissed rappers of the late 90’s, early 00’s hip-hop scene. In the midst of all the petty, schoolyard posturing, he also faced criminal charges concerning an assault that involved record producer Lance “Un” Rivera at an industry party promoting Q-Tip’s solo record Amplified. In the midst of hard times, it was undeniable that Jay had something to prove—both to himself and to those who would too-soon disregard him as just another proprietor of head-bopping, ghetto anthems and tongue-twisting lyrics destined to be played-out at juvenile house parties. It was really never his intention to be among the best. Much like Nas, he wanted the seat at the throne. He wanted to be the new king of New York.
“Takeover”, one of the most talked-about tracks off The Blueprint, ended up setting the stage for one of the most contentious and controversial moments in the history of hip-hop: the epic Jay-Z versus Nas poetic showdown. While headlining for Hot 97’s Summer Jam back in 2001, Jay had debuted an early cut of “Takeover”, just the first 32 bars. As soon as the second verse ends, he lets Nas have it: “I sold what your whole album sold in my first week / You guys don’t want it with Hov / Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov, no!”. Suddenly, as if overnight, the stakes had been raised. Fans and hip-hop nerds alike soon took notice, leaving Nas with no choice but to retaliate. Nas did get off a few good lyrical jabs at the Jigga-Man on his record Stillmatic, released shortly thereafter, though it was Jay who had the beats and smooth hooks that ended up being just enough to set him apart.
The Blueprint, arguably one of the most iconic and significant hip-hop albums of all time, uniquely offers a rich tapestry of sample beats—ranging from old school soul to The Doors’ “Five to One”—and drum loops indicative of the masters behind the Roc-A-Fella label: Bink!, Just Blaze, Timbaland and a freshly-minted Kanye West, among others. Kanye ended up producing four of the thirteen songs off the album: “Heart of The City (Ain’t No Love)”, “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”, “Never Change” and the provocative “Takeover”. Just Blaze took on the production elements of three songs, including “Song Cry”, “U Don’t Know” and “Girls, Girls, Girls”. After his work on the emotionally-vulnerable track “Song Cry”, Jay-Z became convinced that Just Blaze was, without question, the best producer around. The song stands out tonally in comparison to the male bravado found in tracks like “Girls, Girls, Girls”, and tells the tale of a young man who gets caught up in the trappings of success and lust.
“U Don’t Know”, part dialogue between Jay-Z and his naysayers/part history lesson, features some remixed vocals of Bobby Byrd singing—as if to Jay-Hova himself—“You don’t know…what you’re doing”. To which Jay responds bluntly, “Sure, I do”. Like a king floating among a mountainous sea of free-flowing cash, diamonds and platinum records, he uses up the entire three minutes to profess the scale of his accomplishments in the fields of money, fame and power. In the lyrics, he interweaves personal anecdotes relative to his time selling drugs on the streets of NY like a fat cat selling stocks and bonds.
“Heart of The City (Ain’t No Love)” itself has all the quintessential elements of a Kanye beat: larger-than-life vocal samples from the likes of Al Green and David Ruffin, laid-back kickdrums and enough space between the beats for Jay to spit some heavy hooks. Jay-Z really puffs his chest out on this track as he vents about the catty politics of the rap game, and goes on to further illustrate the narrative of his rags-to-riches climb to hip-hop stardom.
The Blueprint ended up selling 420,000 copies within the first week of its release, and would become Jay’s fourth consecutive album to reach number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Sure, his days as “Big Pimpin” made him a star, and his 2000 release The Dynasty: Roc La Familia would prove to be another turning point for not only himself but his Roc-a-fella crew. But it was The Blueprint that ended up redefining Jay-Z as not only one of the most successful hip-hop verse-masters of a generation, but an icon.