As Jay Z’s timeless album turns 20, we look back at the album’s unprecedented inception, larger-than-life rollout, and unforgettable drop date.
In the spring of 2001, Jay-Z was at war with rappers, lawyers, and the summer.
Catching strays from Queensbridge and cases at the Kit Kat Club, Brooklyn’s finest was feeling the heat from all angles as the season he held down for six years straight quickly approached.
“Jay is an artist who was consistently working on music,” Roc Nation A&R Lenny Santiago, a.k.a. Lenny S, told Boardroom. “But there were times where he locked in for an album.”
For his sixth studio album, The Blueprint, it was time for the always-in-the-conversation MC to claim his city, his market, and his throne.
But to do so, the 31-year-old phenom needed a new sound.
Or perhaps he needed an old one.
The Beat Tape
As the story goes, Kanye West moved to Newark, New Jersey with nothing but an eviction and a bed from Ikea to his name.
Catching public transit from his new apartment, the Chicago transplant packed a tape full of tracks built off soul samples, hoping to catch Beanie Sigel’s ear as the Philly rapper worked on his upcoming album, The Reason.
Not only was he there to play Beanie some beats, but it happened to be March 6: He was there to wish him a happy birthday.
Already landing “Nothing Like It” as The Reason‘s opener, Beans left to celebrate turning 27 as the doors at Baseline Studio opened up with Kanye’s manager, Gee Roberson, arriving next to a Gucci bucket hat-clad Jay-Z.
The beat tape changed hands, with West playing Jay Z joint after joint to thizz face reactions. In two days, Jay laid down lyrics for seven songs including “Never Change,” “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love),” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” with the latter lending itself to a Jackson 5 sample set beneath a hook built on E-40’s bespoke ebonics.
In less than 48 hours, Jay-Z had the song of the summer and Mr. West had his first hit single.
“I went to the bathroom and I called my mom,” Kanye recalled to MTV News on the infamous “Izzo” session. “I said, ‘Mom, we about to make it! We really going to make it this time!’“
Jay’s two-day session spawned more than half of The Blueprint with four tracks coming off Kanye production. Kanye’s loaded beat tape also had instrumentals for “You Don’t Know My Name” that went to Alicia Keys and “Stand Up” for Ludacris, both singles that led Grammy-nominated albums.
Around the Roc-A-Fella team, it was clear the Kanye beat tape was taking Jay to another level.
“He had embarked on something that was equivalent to the feel and nostalgia of what Reasonable Doubt was,” said Lenny S on that time. “All the albums were special, but with him and throughout the team, we felt that it was something special that doesn’t happen often.”
Something special and nostalgic was exactly what Jay-Z was looking for.
Prior to “Izzo” catching Jay’s ear, a meeting with Michael Jackson set the stage for conversations with Quincy Jones, giving Hov the inspiration to make a classic album loaded with ‘all the hottest music on it.’
Kanye’s beat tape was the foundation for it all, with an eventual feature from Eminem and slew of beats Just Blaze had been sitting on “for years” filling out the track list.
“Two weeks later, the Blueprint was finished,” Kanye recalled to MTV News.
A Hot Summer
In the month of June, the imminent classics Jay cut over Kanye’s beat tape were ready for an audience.
First, it was “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” debuted at the first annual BET Awards in Las Vegas. Days later, Hov returned home for HOT 97’s annual Summer Jam concert, which he headlined over red-hot radio residents like Destiny’s Child, Ludacris, Eve, OutKast, and Nelly, who all joined him on the bill.
While the opening acts ran through smash hits and choreography, Jay-Z took a different approach.
For the first time ever, he played “Takeover,” a punchline-heavy diss track armed with a Kanye West beat built off a sample of The Doors’ “Five to One.” Less of a warning shot and more of a bloodbath, Jay ripped through rivals Mobb Deep in their own backyard, putting a picture of Prodigy up on the projector screen in bedazzled dance garb.
The crowd absolutely ate it up, with Hov closing “Takeover” early by taking Nas to task with a challenge, but saving the actual verse for the album’s retail arrival.
“Jay was always big on not dragging out a song no matter how hot it was,” Lenny S notes. “It was sort of like a tease.”
And if all the beef-driven anticipation around “Takeover” wasn’t enough, Hov closed out his 2001 Summer Jam headlining set by bringing out Michael Jackson.
“I remember it vividly,” smiled Lenny S. “In Roc-A-Fella fashion, we’re going to do it the biggest.”
Joining Jay on stage and greeting the Summer Jam fans, The King of Pop and newly undisputed King of New York dapped it up as the show came to a close with the “Izzo” instrumental from Kanye’s beat tape playing in the background.
“It was the biggest deal ever,” Lenny S recalls. “We felt like we’d won some sort of championship. You’d of thought we won ten Super Bowls.”
With Summer Jam supremacy, the red carpet rollout was all on time for The Blueprint.
The first single, “Izzo,” was sent to radio in August with an accompanying music video catching rotation on MTV and BET. In early September, Hov flew to California to shoot the second visual for the album, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” with cameos from Carmen Electra and Biz Markie adding to the allure.
Originally intended to release as summer segued to fall, The Blueprint release was rushed to combat bootleggers as leaks led to altercations and lawsuits on previous albums.
As a result, Jay-Z’s iconic album officially dropped on Sept. 11, 2001, just hours before the Twin Towers fell.
“Everything changed because of 9/11,” Lenny S admits. “It was almost a shorter version of what the pandemic was in terms of putting everything on a halt. The towers falling was so heartbreaking and traumatic. He wasn’t there but he still felt it.”
Despite hell on earth in the city he called home, The Blueprint still sold 427,000 copies in its opening week, a testament to its rollout and greatness. In a moment where time stood still, Jay-Z delivered something truly timeless.
Returning to New York, Jay-Z rerouted his rollout in extra innings to provide for the hit taken on home base. Concerts were scheduled with proceeds benefiting 9/11 relief efforts. The promotional push continued deep into the fall, with Jay performing at award shows abroad and hitting radio stations up and down the East Coast.
“Dame and Jay recognized how important it was to connect the dots,” Lenny S noted of The Blueprint‘s rollout. “We were being guided by Def Jam and they always expressed the importance of delivering. For an album that’s touring, interviews, radio runs, and award shows. We were going to in-store appearances and there were women with kids crushed up against a window. It was pretty fucking crazy, man”
When it was all said and done, The Blueprint became Hov’s fourth straight Billboard No. 1 album, selling four million copies worldwide and going double-platinum in less than a year.
Through The Blueprint, Jay-Z mastered the art of product and promotion. Adding energy to his rollout in the days of dial-up, Hov pulled out all the stops by taking a chance on Kanye’s beat tape, taking shots at New York’s most touted talent and effectively becoming the big dog in a city of 19 million consumers. He broke barriers by bringing out the King of Pop at Summer Jam, later leaning into the commercial angle by owning award shows.
In samples and in space, Jay was everywhere at once with The Blueprint, but still all the way himself.
“With Jay, everything he does there has to be realness there,” Lenny S concluded. “We’ve carried that model on all the way through. He does it as real as he can so that the best product comes out of it and I feel like we’ve done that from then until now. Even still to this day, Jay is still that guy, just enhanced.”
Enhanced indeed. The rapper two decades ago “trying to get his Ms” is now a billionaire — as is the producer who provided him the beat tape.
Even 20 years later, The Blueprint still holds up from a sonic and storytelling standpoint, with its impressive rollout serving as a marketing manual for music, sports, and entertainment. As Jay-Z enters the fall of 2021, the rap rivals have become friends and the lawsuits have settled.
He’s no longer at war with the summer and New York is still his.