Five Hiphop Masterpieces From The Past Decade #1: The Blueprint

Yeah, of course Blueprint is my number one hiphop album of the last ten years. It’s not like it was a very hard choice (and it’s not like a few of you didn’t guess it). I already wrote about why I love the album so much here.

I don’t like to repeat myself, so I’m going to refer to the above article for my rationale. Beyond the autobiographical angle I focus on there, I’d also like to point to the sly humor of “Takeover”, probably the most definitive beef track of all time, and mention the unusual fact that Jay seemed not peeved but proud when Nas, his target and one-time hero, took Jay’s insults as a kick in the ass and came back hard with “Ether”. Jay’s positive reaction to Nas’s subsequent career revival showed a lot of character (and I consider myself very lucky to have been at the concert where Jay and Nas surprised the hiphop world by ending their bitter battle onstage in 2005).

Blueprint is the album I think I’ll always remember when I think about the past decade, not only because I listened to it so damn much but also because it’s a “message record” that inspired me and gave me strength during some of the tough years at the beginning of this decade that I describe in my memoir. If he wasn’t a rapper, Jay could have written self-help books. He probably could have even called them Blueprint, Blueprint 2, etc.

Some of the personal crises explored on this CD appear to have even taken the rapper himself to the edge of uncertainty. The album builds up to a high point (following the just awesome “Never Change” and “Heart of the City”) with “Song Cry”, a confessional about a broken-up love affair that cuts deep enough to require a few layers of misdirection and sarcastic dismissal (“Sounds like a love song”, the track begins). I have no idea what the personal circumstances behind the song are. It’s not the words but the tone of the voice that lets us know it’s real.

Some bemoan the fact that Jay’s more recent work seems to slip into self-imitation (though, let’s be honest, even Kingdom Come and Blueprint 3 sound great). I say he’s given us enough. If the next decade of hiphop is anywhere near as good as the past decade, it’s not hard to guess where the blueprint will have come from.

Hell, even Barack Obama cites Jay-Z as an inspiration. That says a lot. Blueprint, indeed.

* * * * *

So, the Literary Kicks Top Five Hiphop Masterpieces of the Past Decade list is complete. But I know what you’re saying: what about D-Block? What about Lil’ Jon, and Mike Jones, and Fat Joe, and Eminem, and Luda, and Weezy? And why is my list so insular — why did I pick three albums that came out of the Roc-A-Fella factory and two from Death Row? And why are my choices so commercial — where’s the underground and the indie scenes? I can’t answer these questions. Blame my ears.

Other readers of this series may not care why Houston and Atlanta don’t show up on my list, but instead want to know why a literary site should afford any respect for the messy traditions of hiphop in the first place. All I can say there is that I deeply wish the popular novelists of the past decade had managed to be anywhere near as original as Jay-Z and Dr. Dre and Kanye West and 50 Cent and Cam’ron (or, for that matter, Jadakiss and Nas and Slim Thug and Akon and … okay, I’ll stop).

I don’t know which books from the 2000s will be appreciated a hundred years from now. But I just told you about five albums that definitely will be.

Hiphop isn’t the smoothest fit for the LitKicks readership, but I enjoyed writing this series, and I hope some of you enjoyed it too. I may follow up with the Five Hiphop Masterpieces of the 1980s and the 1990s, if anyone’s interested in hearing about it.

Five Hiphop Masterpieces from the 2000s

#5: Cam’ron: Come Home With Me

#4: 50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin’

#3: Kanye West: Graduation

#2: Dr. Dre: 2001

#1: Jay-Z: The Blueprint

10 Responses

  1. Whoa wait wait wait, you were
    Whoa wait wait wait, you were at the I Declare War show? Duuuuude…

    “The Blueprint” is not my favorite hip-hop record, nor is it my favorite 2000s hip-hop record, nor is it my favorite Jay-Z record. But it’s one of my main musical dealbreaker records, in that I know that people who like this record are people with whom I can have productive musical arguments, and people who don’t like this record will probably never see eye to eye with me anyway. There’s something to be said for that type of universality.

    Thanks for writing these, Levi — while I can understand why mainstream hip-hop might not be some peoples’ respective bags, I’d be hard pressed to find any poets in the past decade who used the English language as inventively and joyously as my favorite MCs did. There’s a literary value here that perhaps doesn’t stand up to the same exegetical scrutiny as DeLillo, McCarthy, Updike, etc., but it’s nonetheless just as worthy of dissection and discussion. I’d love to see you do more of these.

    But seriously, just five hip-hop masterpieces from the ’90s? I wouldn’t even know where to begin…

  2. Oh, and just because I can’t
    Oh, and just because I can’t resist adding my random, narcissistic two cents, here’s my two hip-hop lyrical masterpieces from the last decade:

    Ghostface Killah, “Shakey Dog”:

    DOOM, “Gazillion Ear”:

    I’ve probably listened to “Shakey Dog” over a hundred times, but it still makes me hold my breath during certain particularly intense passages. I mean, seriously.

  3. [i]I don’t know which books
    [i]I don’t know which books from the 2000s will be appreciated a hundred years from now. But I just told you about five albums that definitely will be.[/i]

    I respect anyone’s choices of music just as I trust them to respect my own choice. But this passage, Levi, seems a bit over the edge. Why would I say such a thing?

    I don’t doubt that there will be a little culture of hip-hop enthusiasts 100 years from now that will ‘blow the dust’ off some of your choices and do a futuristic interpretation of the artists 2110-stylings, but those folks will be small as the audience for Dixieland Jazz is today, if not smaller, I’d be willing to bet.

    Appreciation is a difficult thing to define when speaking of choices other than your own. How do you define what others will like 100 years from now? I’m sure there is at least one of your kids that does not like hip hop today, like my own boys who could care less about the ‘masterpieces of the psychedelic era’ who everyone has to dig or else they are friggin’ nutz.

    But seriously, Levi, you’ve done an admirable job expressing your obvious love for the genre and nobody can deny anyone love. There is nobody around here today that will be able to confirm or deny your 100 year prediction of a very popular early 21st Century American music genre that went by the simple name ‘hip hop’, (which hopefully will not be associated with anything in the animal kingdom with soft hair, long ears, a pink nose and goes ‘hippity hop’ down the bunny trail), but that should not deter anyone’s current admiration for the music, (which I find intolerable even in small doses, but that’s gotta be age speaking, you reckon?)


  4. I love “The Blueprint”
    I love “The Blueprint” because it’s ALL Jay-Z, with only one other MC (Eminem) guesting on a track. And that track (“Renegade”) is incredible.

  5. And playing off Milton —
    And playing off Milton — five hip-hop masterpieces from the ’80s? I wouldn’t even know where to begin…or if I could only list five albums.

  6. Enjoying this discussion …
    Enjoying this discussion … thanks for responding, guys.

    Mtmynd, that’s hilarious about the cute furry animal, but, well, yeah, my whole purpose in doing this is to call attention to a creative form that I think is widely misunderstood. Sure, I’m taking a guess when I say that people will listen to this stuff in 100 years. Sure, I don’t know if I’m right or not. But my point is, this is a genre and a field that is incredibly original. Original like Beethoven, like Chuck Berry, like John Coltrane, like Pink Floyd, like the Sex Pistols, like Radiohead. It deserves a whole lot more respect than it gets. So that’s why I’m going out on a limb here.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with age. I’m not exactly a youngster either. Neither are Jay or Dre. I guess another point I’ve been trying to make is that the past decade represents a mature phase of hiphop. Yes, absolutely, the classic period of hiphop was the 90s. Picking five from the 90s would be near impossible (though I may try). But just like the great musical talents of the 1960s like Bob Dylan and John Lennon actually did their best work in the early 1970s (“Blood on the Tracks”/”Plastic Ono Band”) — the best hiphop artists of the 90s (Jay-Z, Dre) actually reached their highest levels of achievements in their “mature phase” around the turn of the millennium. This is a point worth making, I think.

    Yeah, Milton, I was at that show. I’ve been to a lot of hiphop shows but this was the only time I ever saw Jay — I had a feeling something special would happen and I was so glad I was there.

    Kevin and Milton, good to know there are some hiphop listeners out there — let me know if either of you ever wants to write an article about your own literary hiphop picks yourself.

  7. Oh yeah, and I semi-witnessed
    Oh yeah, and I semi-witnessed a tragic rap event: I was in Vegas when Pac got shot.

    Also, got to see Run DMC in a small club here in Peoria a year or two before Jay was killed. I was literally 15 feet away from Kings of Rock.

  8. I’ve been reading and greatly
    I’ve been reading and greatly enjoying the collected essays of James Baldwin. Baldwin constructed exquisite sentences, express ground-breaking ideas, and I find that a number of his themes are reflected in hiphop.

  9. Levi,
    This is my first


    This is my first comment, so forgive me if I become too wordy! I stumbled onto this site whilst doing a search for Kerouac haiku performances and after seeing posts discussing postmodern art alongside posts praising the genius of one Shawn Carter, I was smitten. So, thank you for creating this site. Lord knows I haven’t laughed and gained much-needed insight from any one website in a long time.

    Anyways, I know lists are always subjective to some degree, but I was honestly surprised at the exclusion of Lupe Fiasco’s “The Cool” from this list. Lupe has proved himself to be one of the most clever and intellectual emcees in the game and “Hip Hop Saved My Life” is nothing short of a Hip-Hop classic. Why no love for Lupe?

  10. Hi Jayne — thanks! Glad you
    Hi Jayne — thanks! Glad you like. Well, I’ll take the Lupe recommendation under advisement. I like the stuff I’ve heard from him, I guess I better get that CD …

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!