Say the date and watch the reaction: Sept. 11, 2001. Faces scrunch up. Eyes wander. Tears may fall. Across multiple platforms, the terrorist attack on America is being revisited with the gift, and grief of 20 years of hindsight.
We all remember where we were. It had been a day of anticipation for me at Matoaca High School in Virginia during the second week of classes. I’d just started driving and the world was opening up. I planned to drive to Circuit City after school to purchase an album I’d been awaiting all summer, The Blueprint by Jay-Z. Originally planned for a November release, the release date was moved to Sept. 11 to counteract bootlegging.
As I look back after 20 years, the album represents a time capsule because it reveals two people, Jay-Z and myself, who, in some ways, just don’t exist anymore. The Blueprint, recognized by the Library of Congress for its artistic brilliance, represents the moment when my personal connection to Jay-Z was stamped. The album arrived at a time when my adolescence was barreling closer and closer toward young adulthood. The same world I’d have to survive in was the one where Jay-Z was encountering unparalleled success, which at the time, far outweighed the controversies around him.
It’s not that I wanted to be a rapper, but that autonomy to move in the world under my own power and discretion was deeply coveted. So much of what I thought Black masculinity was — the fearlessness, the bravado and the ambition — lived in that album. It’s a coming-of-age project that’ll always hold a special place in my life’s journey, even if I can readily identify its personal flaws as a man who’s now five years away from 40. But to understand the depth of Jay-Z’s classic opus, though, is to understand the world it was born into.
By the fall of 2001, Jay-Z was one the biggest stars in music with three consecutive No. 1 albums to his name. Yet, depending on who was asked, there was a sentiment that he was beginning to rest on his laurels. Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter was a solid body of work with records like “Big Pimpin’,” “Dope Man” and “Is That Yo B—-?” Likewise, The Dynasty, which dropped in 2000, had its share of classic songs, including its intro, “I Just Wanna Love U,” “This Can’t Be Life,” “1-900-Hustler” and “Where Have You Been.” And though it was billed as a Jay-Z album, in reality, it was a Roc-A-Fella Records compilation album.
However, despite the hit records that had come to define his reign, some believed his last few projects didn’t hold the creative weight of earlier works such as Reasonable Doubt or In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. By the turn of the millennium, backhanded compliments were being handed out for Jay-Z. “With last year’s disappointing Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter,” a 2000 review proclaimed, “Jay-Z seemed to be making a serious run at Nas’ title of biggest waste of talent in hip-hop.”
Then there was the legal drama that threatened to derail his career. In December 1999, Jay-Z stabbed music executive Lance “Un” Rivera for allegedly pirating copies of his album. Jay-Z had seemingly boxed himself into a corner, legally and creatively. And on top of that, the competition was stiff. The year 2001 was an incredibly strong year for rap albums leading up to Jay-Z’s September release with projects such as Beanie Sigel’s The Reason, Eve’s Scorpion, Project Pat’s Mista Don’t Play: Everythangs Workin’, Missy Elliott’s Miss E…So Addictive, Jadakiss’ Kiss Tha Game Goodbye and Trick Daddy’s Thugs Are Us.
Superstars such as OutKast, Nelly and Eminem didn’t drop that year, but were still very much part of the hip-hop ecosystem with catalog-defining albums such as Stankonia, Country Grammar and The Marshall Mathers LP, respectively, the year before. Not to mention Jay-Z was finding himself in a war of words with lyrical heavyweights such as Nas, Prodigy of Mobb Deep and The Lox.
With so much vibrancy around the game at the moment, tragedy held court, too. Less than three weeks before Jay-Z’s album dropped and the entire world watched in horror as the twin towers fell in New York City, a plane crash claimed the life of Aaliyah and seven others, sending the music industry into an immediate depression.
Sonically, Blueprint was a departure from his previous sounds thanks in part to a willingness to work with then largely unknown producers such as Bink, Just Blaze and Kanye West. Throughout The Blueprint, he sounded hungry. I had heard Jay-Z rap circles around the competition before. But this was different. That confidence was undeniable, even as he spoke about hurdles in his life.
There were always two sides of the coin for Jay-Z on The Blueprint. For every example of cockiness, there was an element of vulnerability. There’s a line that exists on the West-produced “Never Change” that hit me like a ton of bricks then. I didn’t completely understand it at the time, but the way Jay-Z said it made it sound profound and a life lesson on accountability.
Chains is cool to cop, Jay-Z waxed, but more important is lawyer fees.
Jay-Z wasn’t saying follow his lifestyle. He said on the album: Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that. Discussion about rap’s influence on the youth was as old as the genre itself. Right and, in some ways, wrong. Fairly and, in some ways, unfairly, The Blueprint became a soundtrack of what my perceived sense of Black masculinity sounded, looked and felt like. Black Lives Matter hadn’t yet become an international battle cry, but even as teenagers we understood how our appearances came with a long history of passion and pain.
None of us were old enough to remember what it was like when “F— Tha Police” dropped in 1988 — but by then we all had some sort of experience with law enforcement that hardened us even if we didn’t totally realize it.
To my 15-year-old self, Jay-Z was the exemplar of success and empowerment, and where one’s commitment to a passion could lead. At that time in our lives, all my friends and I knew was staying loyal to friendships we believed wouldn’t be impacted by high school graduation, going off to college or simply getting older. So when Jay-Z pledged on “All I Need” that, All I need is the love of my crew/ The whole industry can hate me/ I thugged my way through — that, too, was its own religious commandment. In “Lyrical Exercise,” he raps, I’m far from being God, but I work god damn hard. The way we saw it, Jay-Z didn’t cower to societal norms — he created his own.
Most importantly, Jay-Z was cool in the way he walked, talked and — from what we could see — carried himself. He might have gotten into some trouble, but all we could see was that he was this breathing example of success on his own terms. We knew we wanted to be just like that, or at the very least some combination of whatever Jay-Z had.
Two decades later, The Blueprint has aged well. But that version of Jay-Z, for the most part, is no more. Today’s Jay-Z would still perform “Heart of the City,” one of the finest records in his entire catalog. But it’s impossible to hear him, a 2019 GLAAD honoree with his wife Beyoncé and who praised his mother for coming out on “Smile,” ever rapping “Cause f—–s hate when you gettin’ money like athletes” or calling Nas the “f– model for Karl Kani and Esco ads” on “Takeover.” That Jay-Z no longer uses that word, which for years was excessively used in conversations as a derogatory term, is a product of maturation. It’s also a product of how conversations in society have forced all walks of life, like rap, to understand just how oppressive it is — as evidenced in recent discussions about anti-gay bias and artists such as DaBaby and Boosie about Lil Nas X, who is gay.
Records like “Girls, Girls, Girls” (the original and the remix) are more like time stamps. A now 51-year-old Jay-Z performing this seems unlikely, though in 2001 (and even in 2021) it remains one of his catalog’s best records. And it’s one that soundtracked many trips to football games or after-school parking lot battles pre-Verzuz. Jay-Z once said of his playboy lifestyle, “I loved the women I was with and I loved things about them. But I never been in love because they say love is forever and I never felt that forever type of thing. I never been away from anyone and be like I can’t wait to get back to them. I guard myself. I won’t allow myself. But I know that, so I’m on my way to recovery. Maybe soon.”
An old head at the barbershop once told me, “How you feel about love before you have it and how you feel about love after you lose it is different. All the money in the world can’t fix a broken heart, especially when you’re the one who f—ed up.”
That sentiment lives in “Song Cry,” a classic Jay-Z record, but one that sounds way more harrowing than it did in 2001. In the moment, it was Jay-Z lamenting a relationship, one he seemingly cared deeply about, that had gone awry mostly because of his selfishness. The money and fame had provided a false cloak of invincibility. I know the way a n—a was livin’ was wack/ But you don’t get a n—a back like that/ S—, I’m a man with pride, you don’t do s— like that, he pleaded. You don’t just pick up and leave and leave me sick like that/ You don’t throw away what we had just like that/ I was just f—ing them girls, I was gon’ get right back.
There is some truth in the description that journalist Dream Hampton once had of Jay-Z — whom she once dubbed an “unconvincing misogynist.” That perhaps songs and videos such as 2000’s “Big Pimpin’” were a subtle surrender to industry standards of half-naked women dancing around with copious amounts of champagne on yachts. And that records like “Song Cry” were instrumental in helping listeners “understand not just ‘the mind of a hustler,’ but his very heart.” Historically, Jay-Z has always been guarded. His most revealing introspection has always come through song because it’s there where he controls the story — not with a journalist holding a tape recorder and a pen.
With Jay-Z, like most people, his own selfish decisions have followed him. And he’s had to address them. Beyoncé’s Lemonade was globally the highest-selling album of 2016, a project that came together largely as a result of his reported infidelity. That logic of “getting right back” almost destroyed his marriage. Old habits die hard and the worst habits can kill a man. Jay-Z said on 2017’s “4:44” — 17 years after “Song Cry” was released — that it wasn’t until his kids were born that he understood how pervasive the true depths his womanizing ways actually were.
It took Jay-Z 48 years to learn one of life’s hardest lessons. Sometimes the most painful wounds are self-inflicted and living with them is an exercise in accountability and forgiveness. As a teenager, “Song Cry” was a great record. At 35, it still is, but it’s also way more of a cautionary tale of a man who flew close to the sun one too many times and nearly lost it all because of the burns that live below the surface.
With The Blueprint turning 20 this week, running in tandem with the landmark anniversary of the day that crippled America, it’s a reminder of how much the world has changed. I’m no longer a scrawny high school sophomore who considered trips to Washington as faraway vacations. Jay-Z became a billionaire capitalist, a staunch philanthropist and a supporter of human rights worldwide. He went from claiming if he wasn’t better than his close friend, Biggie Smalls, on the album that he was “the closest one” — to a man widely called “The GOAT” as Drake plastered on a billboard in the hours before his Certified Lover Boy dropped last week.
On The Blueprint, Jay-Z assumed the mantle of The King of New York, a title that had floated around the tri-state area in the years following the slaying of Biggie Smalls. This was an artist shifting so firmly into his place in the game with a confidence that was rare even for an uber-confident MC like Jay-Z. It moved me then because the transparency felt personal, despite our lives being intrinsically opposite.
It moves me now, despite the flaws I see now in both the album and the man himself. Despite the flaws I’ve had to overcome and still attempt to overcome. The world The Blueprint painted wasn’t exactly what it told me it would be. Most life lessons about love, careers and maturity are individual experiences. Ones we don’t meet at a certain age.
I suppose that happens when masterpieces fill you with such nostalgia because you realize that first time experiencing it as you were will never be the same again. That high only comes once. It was always supposed to be like that anyway. Blueprints change.