“Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
– Tom Lehrer
This past Sunday saw a happier anniversary than the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. It also marked 10 years since the release of Jay-Z’s sixth album, The Blueprint. Given the tremendous cultural upheaval America’s been through since then, it’s hard to imagine anything born on the same day lasting. Who was lining up outside the record store for Jigga’s latest when fighter jets were buzzing Manhattan?
And yet The Blueprint not only did well, considering its unfortunate release date, it thrived. It is widely considered one of Jay-Z’s best albums, if not his best outright. And it was recognized as such at the time, receiving the coveted five mics from The Source. So while the rest of the world reflects on loss, we’re going to reflect on triumph, picking apart what could have been Jay-Z’s funeral dirge and realizing why it catapulted him to the success he enjoys today.
Cast your mind back to the late 90s. The deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur left a power vacuum in the world of hip hop. It was during this time that Southern hip hop, a/k/a Dirty South, rose to prominence. Behind such uber-producers as Timbaland and the Neptunes, the Dirty South was known for brassy, synthetic sounds and grungy beats.
Even rappers north of Hotlanta adopted this sound. Consider Jay-Z’s first big hit, “Big Pimpin’.”
While there’s nothing wrong with stomping rhythms and artificial horns, it does contribute toward all hip hop sounding alike. And (this is as much personal preference speaking as objective Overthought; have at it in the comments) it limits the range of emotional responses that hip hop can evoke. It’s tough to imagine the Dirty South producing something as bittersweet and optimistic as “Juicy” in the mid 90s, at least while adhering to the Dirty South sound.
The birth of hip hop, though, is sampling, not the studio. And while sampling didn’t die out in the late 90s, its fade from the East Coast sound was particularly notable. East Coast was all about proficient rhymes over memorable tracks, meant to call up one’s childhood while adding a new lyrical sentiment. And while “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It to Me)” was certainly catchy, you could only say it evoked childhood memories if you were a child while listening to it.
The shadow of Biggie’s absence was growing more and more notable. Someone needed to step up and become unofficial chairman of the East Coast once more. And by critical consensus, attention fell on the two most prominent MCs in New York: Jay-Z and Nas. Nas had the critical depth, having produced one of the most acclaimed hip hop albums of all time just a few months before Biggie’s own Ready to Die came out. But Jay-Z had the mainstream success, stepping up with several MTV-friendly hits and embracing the glamorous aspects of the gangsta lifestyle.
To put New York back on the map would take a classic album, one that revived the East Coast technique of funky samples with profound rhymes. The strength of the samples depends on the strength of your producer, though. For his sixth studio album, Jay-Z found that producer, a young man from Chicago named Kanye West.
West had already mixed a track on 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc la Familia. Dynasty was intended to be a showcase for Jay-Z’s indie label Roc-a-Fella Records, but Jay-Z had to step up when Beanie Siegel and Memphis Bleek proved unable to carry an album on their name alone. Liking what he heard, Jay-Z gave him more tracks to work with on The Blueprint. The results were powerful: catchy beats that evoked the soulful sentiments of prior generations, while still providing ample room for Jigga to work his lyrical magic.
Consider the smash single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”:
Sampling an R&B classic like the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” is a bold move for a producer. Any jackass with an 808 can just take a recognizable hook, get the crowd excited, then repurpose it for your own song. Puffy’s guilty of this on “Bad Boys,” working everyone up with the blaring horns of “Let Me Clear My Throat” and then treating them to his own song instead. But West staggers, slices and slows the hook, turning it into a unique backing track with those Motown strings.
West doesn’t merely coast on recognizable classics, however. He digs deep into the crate for Bobby Blue Bland’s “Ain’t No Love In The Heart of the City” on unacknowledged gem “Heart of the City.” Jay-Z engages in the lyrical irony for which he’s already known, taking a mournful tune and using it to call out rival MCs who he feels aren’t giving him enough respect. It’s a diss track masquerading as an urban lament – classic Shawn Carter.
Young fucks spitting at me, young rappers getting at me
My nigga Big predicted the shit exactly
“More money, more problems” – gotta move carefully
Cause f—-ts hate when you getting money like athletes
Young’uns ice-grilling me, oh – you’re not feeling me?
Fine; it cost you nothing – pay me no mind
Look, I’m on my grind cousin, ain’t got time for fronting
Sensitive thugs, you all need hugs
But perhaps West’s best contribution to The Blueprint comes off of Jay-Z’s legendary diss, “Takeover.” Folks who only discovered West as a solo artist will have noticed that he samples not just soul, funk and R&B but songs from all over the radio dial. He samples Steely Dan’s obscure 1976 tune “Kid Charlemagne” for “Champion” on his smash album Graduation. He famously sampled Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” for his pop anthem “Stronger.”
And if “Takeover” isn’t the first hip-hop track to sample The Doors, it probably puts the Lizard King to his best use.
Forget catchy, forget brassy: you start off with Jim Morrison’s cracking scream, “COME ON!” and then a low, scratching bass beat. It builds like the pounding of shells off the coast of Normandy until Ray Manzarek’s macabre pipe organ trips on in. And when you consider the song itself, the tone becomes much more ominous. This is the song that got Morrison arrested in 1969 for “inciting a riot,”, the song during which he called his audience “idiots” and “slaves.” This is Morrison at his grimmest and most incitatory:
The old get old
And the young get stronger
May take a week
And it may take longer
They got the guns
But we got the numbers
Gonna win, yeah,
We’re taking over!
And that was Jay-Z’s intention as well: to take over. To take over the throne left empty by Notorious B.I.G.’s death, to take over the East Coast. To do that required a killing shot at the next person in line: Nas.
Chronologically, the feud between Jay-Z and Nas may have started as words exchanged between Jay-Z and Nas’s associates Mobb Deep and Prodigy. Jay-Z may have stoked the fire with a preview of the first and second verses at the Hot 97 Summer Jam earlier that year, during which he flashed a picture of a young Prodigy in a flashy dance costume. But to say that “Takeover” was about Mobb Deep is like saying World War I was about the Austrian succession. It misconstrues pretext for cause. “Takeover” was a battle whose time had come.
And the barrels aimed at Nas are a devastating salvo.
Nigga, you ain’t live it, you witnessed it from your folks’ pad
You scribbled it in your notepad and created your life
I showed you your first Tec, on tour with Large Professor
Then I heard that album ‘bout the Tec on the dresser.
A classic tactic for an essential diss track: trash your opponent’s street credibility. Here Jay-Z claims that one of Nas’s most famous tracks (“Represent”) on one of his most acclaimed albums (Illmatic) contains fictional elements. He does this by referencing history that he and Nas have together and name-checking one of the legendary producers of hip hop, Large Professor.
And then Jay-Z deviates from the playbook for the first time.
Listen to enough diss tracks and you get acquainted with something of a formula. Disparage your rival’s talent. Disparage the authenticity of your rival’s experience. Impugn your rival’s sexuality. Build up your own rep with a few sharp lyrics. Finally, threaten to injure or kill your rival if he doesn’t end the feud now. There’s a standard routine.
Jay-Z deviates here in that he owns up to a prior claim made against him. On “Dead Presidents II,” off his debut album Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z samples the line “I’m out for presidents to represent me.” This line comes from Nas’s “The World is Yours” off of Illmatic. Though Nas hadn’t fired a shot at Jay-Z in the form of a rap yet, it was known throughout the New York scene that Nas thought less of Jay-Z for borrowing the track and then dissing him. Which is entirely reasonable!
Give a listen.
So Jay-Z has several options to respond. But the last thing anyone would expect would be for him to agree.
So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain’t gettin’ coin, nigga, you was getting fucked then
I know who I paid, god: Serchlite Publishing
Jay-Z acknowledges his use of Nas’s lyric, but then springboards off of that to suggest that he did more with the line than Nas did. He then goes one further and says that he doesn’t owe Nas a dime for the sample, since Nas’s deal with his producer at the time, MC Serch, didn’t entitle him to royalties from sampling. So Jay-Z not only owns up to Nas’s attack on him, but flips it into an attack on Nas’s lack of business acumen.
And then Jay-Z deviates from the playbook a second time.
Tradition requires that Jay-Z diminish his rival’s corpus entirely, calling Nas’s work shallow and fruitless. But in Nas’s case that wouldn’t work because of the overwhelming critical acclaim surrounding Illmatic. No one on the East Coast could plausibly call Illmatic a weak album. It lacks nothing except a longer runtime. As good as Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime Vol 1 were, they pale in comparison to Illmatic’s laurels.
So how could Jay-Z possibly address that?
You said you been in this ten, I been in this five
Smart enough, Nas
Four albums in ten years, nigga? I can divide
That’s one every, let’s say, two; two of them shits was due
One was … NAAAHHH … the other was Illmatic
That’s a one hot album every ten year average
And that’s so … LAAAAAAME.
Here Jay-Z displays that mastery of political manipulation that made him the power player he is today. He knows that the audience for this rap isn’t Nas, but is really the other producers and rappers on the East Coast scene. So he takes the spotlight and gives voice to a notion that had long been whispered but rarely expressed aloud: that Nas’s later albums didn’t hold a candle to his debut effort, that everything since Illmatic had been downhill. The unspoken conclusion (or enthymeme) that Nas was past his prime lands with devastating impact.
Nas responded to “Takeover” with “Ether” off of Stillmatic later that year. I know I’m deviating from the hip hop consensus here, but I think “Ether” comes off as the weaker of the two. The backing track isn’t as good and Nas spends the first half of the song playing a passive-aggressive martyr schtick, as if he couldn’t believe that a former protege wanted to hurt him. It’s only in the last verse that he displays nearly the viciousness that Jigga did.
What’s the big deal about “Takeover” and the feud with Nas? Or the stylistic shift of The Blueprint? Why then?
Jay-Z came on the scene in 1995 as a talented rapper in the mold of Notorious B.I.G.: clever lyrics about the mobster attitude required for life as a street hustler. His albums grew deeper, and thus truer, after Biggie’s death. He reached Biggie’s level of mainstream success with his first smash hit, “Hard Knock Life,” off of the 1998 album of the same name. But now his criminal past was more of a liability than a resource, causing trouble for him in the form of an assault at an album release party for Q-Tip. So he reinvented himself as a rap superstar, making pop hits like “Big Pimpin,” “Heartbreaker” with Mariah Carey, and “I Just Wanna Love You.”
If you look at that arc, you can see two three-year beats within it: up-and-coming gangsta rapper (1995-97) and pop superstar (1998-2000). And as Louis Menand has argued (and I’ve echoed on these pages), you can only be a star for about three years in this country. You can be famous forever – if Tiffany shot up a shopping mall in Duluth it would make headlines. But if Tiffany got pregnant it wouldn’t merit the evening news. If Selena Gomez got pregnant, on the other hand …
2001 was the beginning of the next phase of Jay-Z’s career, and The Blueprint was, well, the blueprint for that construction. There are a thousand ways down from pop superstar, but only one way up: king of the scene. Jay-Z had to make a move that put New York back on the map. He did it by releasing a spectacular album with a unique sound and by launching a feud that forced everyone on the East Coast to choose sides. Thus began the next phase of Jay-Z’s meteoric rise: king on a contested throne (2001-2003). It ended when he became President of Def Jam Records (2004-2007, which slightly fudges the three year rule).
It’s easy to look back on the arc of Jay-Z’s rise and say, “Of course.” Every move seems destined to succeed. But it was nowhere written that an album released on September 11, 2001 would go 5-mic double-platinum. History could have overlooked this effort in the face of other, more pressing concerns. But by willfully reinventing himself, giving birth to a distinctive style, engaging the right enemies and even helping out some rising young stars along the way, Jay-Z avoided what could have been the collapse of his career. He rebuilt and emerged stronger than ever: a global superpower.