Credentials: 2000's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, The Blueprint, Jay-Z: Unplugged, guest spots on "Do My" and "Fiesta (Remix)," epic beef with Nas.
Where's the love? Until The Blueprint, it didn't seem like hip-hop realized what it had in Jay-Z. On Vol. 1, he claimed the city was his, a place where "Niggas pull your card and argue all day about/Who's the best MC, Biggie Jay-Z or Nas." On Vol. 2, he hit the pop charts, becoming one of the most commercially successful artists in hip-hop and helping to make Def Jam one of 1998's biggest success stories.
But what remained evasive was critical respect. The previous year, Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label compilation Dynasty stood apart, thanks to its heavy use of soul samples. In 2001, the era of Swizz Beats' triton soundclash and Mannie Fresh's technoid textures, Just Blaze, Bink! and Kayne West helped Jay-Z push a new sonic agenda that changed the game.
At the same time that The Blueprint changed hip-hop's musical blueprint, Jay achieved the critical adulation he'd been previously denied. He made that stride explicit throughout: "Reasonable Doubt, classic, should have went triple," he argued on "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)," and "Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?" on "Renegade."
The record received 5 mics from The Source, an XXL rating from XXL, and went double platinum, with the lead single "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" reaching the top ten. It was no longer "Politics as Usual;" instead, he mastered the politics of the game, appearing with The Roots on an episode of MTV Unplugged, a chain banging against the Che Guevara t-shirt on his chest, and claimed the New York throne, vacated since the passing of the Notorious B.I.G. With Nas and Mobb Deep dispatched in a few quick verses on "The Takeover," hip-hop was his.
Honorable Mentions: Eminem, Ludacris, Jadakiss
The closest competition for Jigga came from Eminem, who (very arguably) bested him on "Renegade." The Marshall Mathers LP, released the previous year, was still a sales juggernaut, well on its way to a rare diamond sales plaque. Em spent much of 2001 doing live shows, including his much-reported embrace with Elton John at the 2001 Grammys. He also headlined the Anger Management tour, and participated in both the Up In Smoke and Family Values tours as well, solidifying his fanbase in both hip-hop and hard rock circles.
Ludacris hit his stride in 2001, following his three-times platinum debut LP with the three-times platinum Word of Mouf. The LP included hit singles "Area Codes" and "Rollout (My Business)," his highest-charting single to that point. He also killed it as a featured rapper ("One Minute Man" for Missy Elliott and "Bia Bia" for Lil Jon). Jadakiss, for his part, was able to parlay a series of incredible singles ("We Gonna Make It," "Knock Yourself Out" and "Put Your Hands Up") into a celebrated solo debut, Kiss tha Game Goodbye. — David Drake (@somanyshrimp)