20 Years: The Blueprint and 9/11
9/11, twenty years ago, a tragedy that extended far beyond the 2,977 people who were killed that day here in the United States, to the 90 countries who lost citizens in those attacks, to Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. and its allies fought two wars in response, to the reported 1,400 rescue workers who were there at Ground Zero and now have cancer from the toxins they were exposed to. More than half a million lives lost when everything is accounted for, twenty years later, and millions more affected, we still remember, and we still mourn.
Inextricably tied to 9/11, in part because it was released on that fateful Tuesday and because it was Jay-Z, the proclaimed “King of New York,” The Blueprint was medicine for my soul during the most horrific of national moments. The tragedy of those terrorist attacks touched every American in 2001. In some ways, this album reflected the tangible paranoia that lingered during the days and weeks that followed. For Jay-Z at that time, he was waiting on two criminal trials, and he had legitimate feuds with other New York rappers, most notably Nas and Prodigy; for the rest of us, it was the fear that we could get hit with another attack without knowing because we sure as hell didn’t see that one coming.
In tandem with that, Jay-Z also felt unstoppable. He ascended to the top of the game within three years of dropping Reasonable Doubt, declaring as much in 1999’s Vol. 3 … Life and Times of S. Carter. On The Blueprint, he took the throne. “King of New York” wasn’t ambitious enough for Hova. He needed to rule hip-hop, and in 2001, the game, it’s kingdom, was his. When the bongo drums rattled their welcome on The Blueprint opener, “The Ruler’s Back,” and the bass line dropped, and Jay-Z announced his return, the proclamation felt like a promise fulfilled. Even with the smoldering ruins of the towers, and even though things would never be the same for us, we Americans would be back. Hova’s indomitable will was also ours in the darkest days after 9/11.
“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” had been on heavy rotation across radio airwaves. “U Don’t Know” was the kind of braggadocio track we’d come to expect from a Jay-Z album, only now he had planted his flag on hip-hop Everest, and he was looking down at the haters crawling up. “Hola’ Hovito” kept that train rolling. These tracks were nothing new for Hova; he’d been making them throughout his career. Where Jay-Z didn’t seem to get enough credit was for the moments on record when he bared his soul and discussed the things that kept him up at night. There was more to the celebratory moments Jay-Z created on The Blueprint.
He’d always done this balancing act on his albums where he gave us the street savvy, hardcore tracks, polished up with glitzy production and pop friendly hooks, while managing to sneak in a couple of tracks on which he showed us that there’s no level of success where regrets and stress can’t touch you, songs like “Regrets,” “You Must Love Me,” and “This Can’t Be Life”. On The Blueprint, he gave us “Song Cry” and (my all-time favorite Jay-Z song) “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)”. I believe 9/11 made these songs resonate more deeply. They obviously weren’t about the attacks, but they were about loss, regret, acknowledgement, and appreciation. On “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me), Bink laces the production with organs and vocals that evoke the holy ghost of Hova, standing among the bereaved at his own service, looking down on them and calling out each of the ways their love and support made him the man that he became. Yeah, this is only my interpretation of this track, but I think it marked the moment in Jay-Z’s career where he made amends with the end of his street hustler persona and buried it. He’d transcended that era of his life, he’d survived it when some of his peers hadn’t, and now he was moving into a new era as Shawn Corey, “CEO”.
I wasn’t directly affected by 9/11, but that day scarred me. I had nightmares of being trapped in a building as it collapsed, unable to say goodbye to the people I loved. I didn’t lose anyone in the attacks, but my friend, Mo, lost his auntie. She was only 44. He turns 44 in two months. I met him in college in the spring of 2002. We shared a lot of common interests, including our love of hip-hop. I remember smoking weed with him in my apartment one day after classes had wrapped. I had one of those three-disc stereo CD players on shuffle, and it rotated to The Blueprint one bong-load into our session. “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)” came on, and he sat there on my couch in tears. I couldn’t look at him. Had no idea what was going on with this dude. When the song ended, a few beats after Jay-Z declares “My momma loves me,” Mo told me about his auntie, Ruth, who was working in the North Tower that day. She had been a second mother to him. We cried together. To this day, especially on this 20th anniversary, he can’t escape the tragedy. There are constant reminders for him of her public execution. If you lived through that moment, how can you forget it?
The Blueprint is considered Jay-Z’s masterpiece, the best in a catalogue that features a handful of other classics — certified five mics from The Source. I don’t think it’s his best. I prefer Reasonable Doubt and The Black Album to this one, but I think it’s Jay-Z’s most culturally significant album because, with no intention to do so, The Blueprint helped bring us back from the depths of a national tragedy.
My favorite part about choosing three standout tracks, when there are obviously more than this, is that people vehemently disagree. Let the debate begin.
Make no mistake about it, Kanye West is one of the greatest hip-hop producers ever. Flipping The Doors “Five to One” into an all-time dis track could serve as exhibit A of his genius. All the attention people paid to this track went to how hard Jay-Z came at Mobb Deep and Nas, but he had beef with Jadakiss and Fat Joe at the time, too. The coldest line in the song is his dis on them begins with “all you other cats throwin’ shots at Jigga”. They only got half a bar.
Two rappers at their absolute peaks, murdering a sinister beat, killing critics with each line they were spitting. Jay-Z is par excellence here, but Nas was right, Eminem got him on this one. Slim Shady was always at his best when he was hyper-focused on separating someone’s soul from their body.
“Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)”
I already said what I had to say about this song. Bink’s production and Hova’s retrospective verses were in perfect synergy here. It’s haunting and beautiful. The best songs are made when the artists are true to themselves.