It’s been said that Superman is a particularly hard comic book to write. It makes sense, if you think about it. The protagonist is invincible. How much drama can you weave into a story about a man who fundamentally cannot be beaten; who does not lose? Yet, his tale has been rendered to extremely moving and thoughtful ends by the most sophisticated authors in the genre (see: Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, among others.) The trick is in exploring the relationship between the conflicts on both sides of our hero's impenetrable skin.
Rap’s best analogy for Superman, Jay Z was faced with a similar narrative dilemma in 2001, and responded in kind on his sixth album, The Blueprint. The drug dealer-turned rap phenom-turned reluctant pop star was enjoying unprecedented success in the spring of ’01. Five successful albums (some more critically so, others more commercially) in five years. No one had done it before. His unstoppable force had obliterated every obstacle in its way, leaving a string of former problems and a pile of rap history in its wake. And he’d done it with cold-blooded nonchalance and emotional efficiency, sharing a very limited amount of himself along the way.
He knew, as well as anybody, that this album would be a tipping point.
But success is a breeding ground for many things, happiness not always among them. Instead, difficulties: change, scrutiny, and, unfortunately and inevitably, envy. Jay Z was quietly beset by all of the above. His life was indeed changing—in a couple years he’d gone from 560 State Street to a condo (presumably, now, with more than just condoms in it) in New Jersey; A hundred-and-nine-thousand in dirty cash to taxable millions. He was experiencing a new level of accountability, too. His actions—be it his alleged gun-toting, his admitted stabbing of Lance “Un” Rivera, or his rumored romances with women like Blu Cantrell—became the subject of gossip and repercussion. Most troubling, his wins had begun to sour not only his competitors—Prodigy and Nas, principally—but also the fickle fans who had once celebrated his ascension. The weight of his own growth, of his own grandeur, threatened to collapse on itself.
With all of this on his mind, that spring, Jay Z absconded from New York to a recording studio in Miami to meditate on what he believed had to be his magnum opus. He knew, as well as anybody, that this album would be a tipping point. Jay could be the King of The Post-Biggie “Jiggy” Era, or simply, the King. Jay Z had to make The Great American Rap Album.
In retrospect, bread crumbs to The Blueprint’s topical and musical themes can be found first on Vol. 3 where he lashed out at oncomers—daring them, inviting violence, reminding listeners of his proximity to the street. And then, more acutely, on The Dynasty, his crew album from the year before, where he ventured into more personal exposition and more soulful, sample-based production. But these crude forays only hinted at what was to come.
Said to have been written in two days and recorded in a fortnight, The Blueprint was just what it claimed to be. From its pointed choice of roots-hip-hop soul samples (courtesy of Kanye West, Bink, and Just Blaze), to its chest-beating self-congratulation, to its candid autobiography, all the way to its spartan, linear sequencing, the album is everything a great rap album should be, and, perhaps as importantly, nothing that it should not be.
In the very first song, “The Ruler’s Back,” Jay draws connection between himself and the greats by invoking the language of Slick Rick and the Notorious B.I.G. to address, in short order, each and every one of his woes. And then it’s on to his foes. The greatest diss record of all time, “The Takeover” absolutely dismantles the competitive peers who made attempts to capitalize on Jay’s waning affection from the public. Unlike most battle rap, it skirts the jokes and jabs and simply called attention to his rivals’ career missteps. Nothing but cold facts. Even the biggest Nas and Prodigy fans were hard pressed to disagree with his assessment.
Having addressed the tabloid issues at the outset, it’s in the album’s middle portion, on tracks like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “U Don’t Know,” where Jay Z lays out the heart of his argument. It’s here that he first constructs the narrative mythology of “Jay Z,” the same one that he exalts in his work to this day: “I do this for my culture/To let ‘em know what a nigga look like when a nigga in a roaster/Show ’em how to move in a room full of vultures/Industry shady, it need to be taken over/Label owners hate me, I’m raisin’ the status quo up/I’m over-charging niggas for what they did to the Cold Crush...” Jay Z’s success is all of our success. And his cut-throat greed? In the service of a debt owed to all, recouped by him on our behalf. Thank him later. Root for him now.
At that point, with listeners tightly in pocket, seeing the world as he does, Jay opens himself up for the rest of the album in a way that he never had before. “Heart of the City” revisits the same slings-and-arrows addressed on “Takeover,” but this time from beneath Superman’s bulletproof exterior. Though far from compromised, and still brimming with bravado, Jay uses Kanye’s incredible manipulation of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” to allow listeners a glimpse of his disappointment and estrangement. Similarly, on “Never Change” he deals with his rapidly changed professional circumstances—from crack to compact discs—but with sentimentality and celebration where Vol. 3 got stuck in bitterness. And on “Song Cry,” the requisite love song, Jay shows even more rare in rap than vulnerability: a three-dimensional female character.
However, sequenced to perfection, the album comes to its dramatic and emotional zenith in its final two tracks, “Renegade” and “The Blueprint (My Momma Loves Me).” On the former, an incredible duet with Eminem (originally intended for Royce Da 5’9”), Jay takes listeners to task—those who wrote him off for hyperbolic materialism thanks to song titles like “Money, Cash, Hoes”—aggressively explaining the desperate circumstances which inspire his musicianship, the subtext of his catalog, and the layered meaning of his success. Paired with exquisitely articulate verses from Eminem, a master of Me-Watching-You-Watching-Me raps, it’s an instant classic: The duo’s contribution to modern art is left beyond reasonable doubt.
And the album’s closer? It may be the single best song of Jay Z’s entire career. Warm organ swells from Al Green’s “Free At Last” are met by muted kicks and open snares, creating a spacious, ambient bounce perfectly suited to Jay Z staccato cadance. And for the first time—after five well-observed but markedly reserved, almost cagey albums—we really see what motivates our protagonist. “Momma loved me, pop left me/Mickey fed me, and he dressed me/Eric fought me, made me tougher/Love you for that my nigga, no matter what, brah/Marcy raised me; and whether right or wrong/Streets gave me all I write in the song.” By the end of this truly sublime recording, having been introduced to all the familial players in Jay’s childhood, adolescence, and young professional life, a listener cannot help but feel, for the first time, like they have a real understanding of who Superman is, and how he came to be that way. The blueprint.
This originally appeared in Complex's feature ranking Jay Z's albums from worst to best.