For the past few days, we have all been bombarded with words and images and hour-long news retrospectives related to the terrorist attacks that happened on September 11, 2001 due to the fact that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of what happened on that day. I could easily throw my hat into that particular ring and talk about my experiences on that Tuesday morning, on how I sat at a bus stop in Staten Island (or as I respectfully call it, Urinetown) on my way home from campus after watching news footage of the attacks, and listened to a couple of white men at that same bus stop talking to each other about how America needed to go after all of the Middle Eastern countries and kill them all for doing this, and how I silently hoped with every fiber of my being that it was other white people responsible for these attacks, and not Black and brown people who would have to deal with even more bigotry and hatred and harassment than we already do on a regular basis. Or how that very same week, I had to hear one of my white co-workers at McDonald’s talk about how he wanted to join the military so that he could get a gun and a uniform, and go after the same countries who attacked us in order to get some payback. But I won’t.
Though I will say that when I took my mother out to lunch for her birthday this past weekend, I recently discovered that one of her neighbors in Staten Island has a “Trump, I Love You” sign displayed right next to a “9/11: Never Forget” sign on the front window of their house. Because I can always count on being reminded as to why I carry weapons with me wherever I’m out in public, and especially whenever I pay a visit to Staten Island. (I’ve honestly lost count of how many folding knives and pepper sprays I’ve purchased, but to quote Clarence Worley: It’s better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it)
Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the very, very, very few silver linings to be found in the dark cloud that was September 11, 2001. And that was the release of
Beyonce’s husband’s Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint. (If you’re reading this and you don’t think that this album was anything resembling a silver lining and not worth writing about, just count your blessings that I’m writing about this, and not about something really controversial like John Mulaney’s relationship with Olivia Munn, or last week’s episode of Ted Lasso)
“Can I tell you the harsh reality of life? It’s that events happen - really, really sad things happen, tragedies happen every day and we all pretend to be mad. We all pretend to be mad. You know why we pretend to be mad? Because we don’t want to appear like monsters in front of our friends, but these things don’t affect us. A lot of times, things don’t affect us. You know? Like, here’s the thing.
Take, for instance, September 11th. Horrible thing, sure, of course. I don’t think about September 11th just for the terrorist attack. I think of September 11th half of the terrorist attack and half, and more importantly to me, as the day Jay-Z released The Blueprint. Which is a great album if you haven’t heard it. It’s a great album. You should pick it up. It’s in stores. What’s sad about that is that my father was in New York at the time, and I remember he called me and he was like: “Oh my God. Oh my God, have you heard? Like, have you heard?” And I was like: “Are you talking about track 12? Yes, I’ve heard. It’s f-cking amazing.” He was like: “No, son, we’re under attack.” And I was like: “Yeah, by dope beats by Timbaland. This album is changing my life.”
- Jerrod Carmichael: Love At The Store
Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter had a lot on his plate to deal with around the time that he was working on this album, as he was awaiting two criminal trials for assault and gun possession, and wrote and recorded nearly every song on this album over a two-day period. From a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone:
“The songs just started happenin’, comin’ out of nowhere,” he says. “I was in a zone.” Jay’s recording process itself is a bit miraculous. He picks a track, turns it up loud in the studio, then sits off to the side mumbling to himself. In minutes he’s got rhymes and hooks with astounding economy and filled with his trademark double entendres. Instantly memorized. No pen, no paper. Sometimes, he says, there are four or five songs in his head at one time. Rapper Beanie Sigel has learned to do this from being around Jay, and says it’s made him a better MC. “It make your flow so wicked,” Sigel says. “Without the pen and paper, your flow be so ridiculous.” Adds Jay, “What I have is a gift from God. It can’t be explained.” This is what he means when he calls himself the God MC and Jay-Hovah.
If you see this process as an inspiration for you to try and do the same thing creatively with your own work, you should pump the brakes immediately and remind yourself that whatever you attempt to create in a very short period of time will not be the flawless victory you think it will be, and that you really should give yourself a lot longer than two days to improve and perfect your work.
Jay-Z went a different route with this album after introducing himself to the rap game and making his presence felt with Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (Much like Jay-Z himself, let’s just keep pretending that “Hawaiian Sophie” never really happened), and then gaining mainstream appeal with radio-friendly hits off of Vol. 2: Hard-Knock Life, Vol. 3: Life And Times Of S. Carter, and The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. The Blueprint, on the other hand, was much more soulful with its lyrics, its beats, and even its choice of samples, ranging from R&B from the Sixties and the Seventies, to classic rock from The Doors and David Bowie.
Starting with “The Ruler’s Back,” in which he pays tribute to Slick Rick while also letting listeners know that he is still the king in this rap game, and no one else had better be foolish to come after him or his crown.
“Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” which sampled The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and was produced by Kanye West, had Jigga talking about how he was able to avoid doing any jail time for his most recent charges, and his refusal to take any bullsh-t from record labels looking to do business and possibly exploit him like they have done (and continue to do) to far too many other artists in the music industry.
“Hola Hovito” featured Jay (with the beat from Timbaland that impressed Jerrod Carmichael so very much when he heard it) boasting about his lyrical prowess, how he uses it to represent his people as well as his fans, and how he is the only rapper that comes close to being equal, if not better, to his late friend/frenemy The Notorious B.I.G.
Just a few months after Ludacris used his track “Area Codes” to let us all know that he’s been slinging dick all over the country, Jay (with some uncredited help on the hook by Q-Tip and the late, great Biz Markie) dropped “Girls, Girls, Girls,” in which he also let everybody know about his need to, in the words of King Jaffe Joffer, go out and see the world and fulfill every erotic desire. Even though fulfilling said desires with each woman tends to come with its own share of headaches.
“I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in Hell/I am a hustler, baby, I can sell water to a well.” That’s how confident Jay is when it comes to achieving success and making sh-tloads of money like he’s Liz Phair while doing so, whether through his music or his own clothing line, as he describes in “U Don’t Know.” (It also sounds like Jay is saying “I can sell water to a whale,” and the lyric works either way)
“Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love),” another track produced by Kim Kardashian’s soon-to-be-ex-husband and samples “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” by Bobby “Blue” Bland, touches upon the constant envy and disrespect he gets from other rappers due to his successful career, and wondering why any of this is even necessary. (FYI: This was featured in the trailer for the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe crime drama American Gangster, and Jay would go on to do the entire soundtrack, which became a concept album inspired by the events in the film)
“Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.”
Really, Jay? (glances over at the copy of Othello on my increasingly overcrowded bookshelf) Really?!?!
“Song Cry” is Jay looking back on a relationship that ended badly as a result of his partner not getting everything she needed and wanted (such as him not working so much, and not f-cking other women behind her back), and him using these lyrics to express his feelings since crying isn’t an option for him.
“Renegade” is the only track on The Blueprint that features another artist collaborating with Jay, and that artist was none other than Eminem, who also produced the track. Like Biggie, they bite their tongues for no one, and both Jay and Em lash out at critics who judge them for their lyrical content, and who clearly don’t know either man as well as they think they do.
And of course, there’s “Takeover,” the track that had everyone talking, and for so many reasons.
Right around the time that Jay-Z was making The Blueprint, he apparently had beefs with several other rappers who were getting a little too slick at the mouth when it came to how they talked about Jay. Two of those rappers were the late, great Prodigy from Mobb Deep and Nas. When Prodigy first began talking sh-t about him, the two of them met up at a party and conversed, which left Jay thinking that it was over and done with. But Prodigy continued to run his mouth, resulting in him ending up right in Jay’s sights and putting him, his lack of record sales with Mobb Deep, and even his childhood as a ballet dancer on blast. (He even had pictures of Prodigy as a child striking a whole bunch of dancing poses that were shown on the screen at SummerJam for the entire audience to see, embarrassing him even further)
As for Nas, Jay was just as merciless. He called him out for dropping weak sh-t after weak sh-t with Illmatic being the only classic album he ever made, for embellishing and making sh-t up about his life in his lyrics, for having a flow that is so weak on “The World Is Yours” that Jay borrowed his lyrics for “Dead Presidents II” and made them even better, and even for having the weakest verse out of all the rappers on “Oochie Wally.”
In short, “Takeover” had Jay-Z looking like this when it first dropped and we all heard those career-ending shots being fired at Prodigy and Nas.
But Nas wasn’t about to stay quiet, because he had something to say, and he was about to remind people that his skills on the mic were still just as razor-sharp as they were on Illmatic. And so, a couple of months after The Blueprint dropped, Nas dropped “Ether,” which was one of the tracks from his upcoming album, Stillmatic.
Nas went after Jay for constantly recycling Notorious B.I.G.’s lyrics in his tracks, for claiming that he’s a better rapper than B.I.G. on “Hola Hovito” even though the two were friends before B.I.G. died, for having no style or originality in his rhymes or his persona, for being ugly as hell with his “no mustache, with having whiskers like a rat” face, for almost getting sent to jail for a stabbing that (from Nas’ perspective) one of his friends actually did, and for getting embarrassed on his own track by Eminem when they collaborated on “Renegade.” (“Eminem murdered you on your own sh-t.”)
There were several other homophobic remarks that Nas aimed in Jay’s direction, and it’s mostly those remarks that led to Jay going after Nas again with “Supa Ugly.”
So when Jay said to Nas, “Don’t be the next contestant on the SummerJam screen/Because You-Know-Who did You-Know-What with You-Know-Who, but let’s keep that between me and you,” on “Takeover,” he was referring to when he had hooked up with Carmen Bryan, mother of Nas’ daughter, Destiny. (Which is supposedly why this beef between the two of them started in the first place). After hearing what Nas had to say on “Ether,” Jay took the gloves off (so to speak) and went into very explicit detail as to how well he and Carmen knew each other. When Jay’s mother, Gloria, heard this track, even she was taken aback by what her son was saying about Nas and Carmen and their daughter, and went “That’s too far, nigga!” This resulted in her telling Jay that he needed to call Nas immediately and apologize for what he said.
Both Jay-Z and Nas have long since settled their differences, but the debate is still ongoing as to who actually won and who had the better disses. (Writer-director Ava DuVernay even included a scene in her debut film, I Will Follow, in which two characters discuss the beef and share their thoughts as to who won and who lost) No matter which side you land on, Jay-Z vs. Nas was one of the most memorable rap beefs ever, and some have said that it was the shot of adrenaline to the heart that Nas needed so that he could go back to spitting hot fire like his name was Dylan.
Other tracks on The Blueprint include “Jigga That Nigga,” in which Jay describes how much swagger he has when dealing with the opposite sex, “Never Change,” with Jay looking back on who he was before the fame and fortune, and how those experiences and lessons are still a part of who he is today, “All I Need” is him boasting about what he needs in order to get through his day, and “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)” is another look back at his childhood touching upon that his mother was there to love him and raise him, whereas his father was not.
The Blueprint went on to become another hit for Jay-Z and for Roc-A-Fella Records, with the album selling 427,000 copies in its first week, and going on to double-platinum status. In 2019, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being a recording that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
As for Jay-Z himself, he released several other albums (including The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse, which most fans felt was more of a curse than anything, and The Blueprint 3, which was at least much better in comparison), announced a very short-lived retirement, watched his longtime friendship and partnership with Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash slowly dissolve due to their clash of personalities and differing approaches to business (and possibly because it was known that Jay was attracted to the late, great Aaliyah, but Damon went after her anyway and started a relationship with her before she died), became the president of Def Jam Records from 2004 to 2008, pissed off a lot of younger rappers when he released “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” and wasn’t all that complimentary about rappers who relied on Auto-Tune a lot more than they probably should, married Beyoncé Knowles and started a family with her, got his ass molly-whopped in an elevator by Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, after she (allegedly) found out that he was cheating on Beyonce, dealt with rumors that he and Kanye West were beefing with each other (which Jay denied, both in the studio and on Twitter), inspired Beyoncé to express her own anger and frustration about Jay’s infidelities (and make us all wonder just who “Becky With The Good Hair” actually was) with the album Lemonade (which then inspired Adele, known member of the Beyhive and fellow Boss-Ass Bitch, to express her own frustration at the Grammys when her album 25 won Album Of The Year instead of Lemonade) and recorded the album Everything Is Love with Beyoncé when he got back on her good side and their marriage became stronger than ever before, dealt with some recent backlash alongside Beyoncé due to the two of them appearing in an ad campaign for Tiffany & Co., and is the subject of Black Twitter arguing/cracking jokes as only they can on whether it’s smarter to take $500,000 in cash or to sit down with Jay-Z over dinner for advice on how to make $500,000. (Yes, you read that last part correctly)
No matter what Jay-Z chooses to do next or when he’ll do it in terms of dropping another album (much like his wife, he rarely speaks to the press and has become a real G who moves in silence, like lasagna), The Blueprint will forever remain one of the highlights of his legendary career, and will always be one of the few good things to bring some semblance of joy to people during the painful, miserable, and heartbreaking catastrof-ck that was the year 2001.
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