“Welcome to the Jay-Z extravaganza.”….

“Extravaganza” is one of the more apt words one could use to describe The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse, Jay-Z’s sprawling, intermittently great, occasionally clunky, always fascinating 2002 double album. After conquering the Billboard charts and garnering major acclaim for The Blueprint just a year earlier, Jay was practically peerless, and this album served both as a testament to the scattered state of mainstream rap in the early 2000s as to the listlessness that would go on to plague Jay intermittently throughout his career.

First thing’s first: this record was fucking massive. It wasn’t an outright concept album, but the split was pretty stark between the celebratory first half (The Gift) and the grimmer, more caustic second (The Curse) – each a full LP’s worth of material. As far as guests, producers, style, and substance, BP2 was not just one blockbuster film, it became an entire franchise. Jay-Z mainstays (Kanye West, Just Blaze, No I.D.) were all accounted for on the boards, while A-listers like The Neptunes, Dr. Dre and Timbaland handled production elsewhere. Scarface, Rakim, Big Boi, Twista, and even the late Notorious B.I.G. dropped bars, with crossover collaborations abound with Beyoncé, Sean Paul, and Lenny Kravitz. Rap rock coexists next to vintage Roc-A-Fella chipmunk soul, with a healthy pinch of West Coast menace and luxury yacht rap thrown in for good measure. The fact that Jay-Z navigates this entire project without being swallowed up in the morass is an accomplishment on its own and proof that he was truly at the height of his powers. The Blueprint 3 was similarly star-studded, but a diminished (or perhaps disinterested) Jay let the record get away from him, which wasn’t the case here.

The album spawned two of the then-biggest singles of Shawn Carter’s career with Excuse Me Miss and 03 Bonnie & Clyde, the first collaboration between Hov and his then-girlfriend Beyoncé. At the time rap was in something of a flux period, where many of the genre’s biggest singles were either rap/R&B tracks from artists like Ja Rule and Nelly or more eccentric records from the likes of Eminem and Missy Elliott. Earlier that year Jay dropped the excruciating The Best of Both Worlds with R. Kelly, an album geared shamelessly for radio success that lacked a single track with staying power. However, the success of the Just Blaze and Kanye-crafted Roc-A-Fella sound brought some additional stability to the scene, and in addition to Jay, Cam’Ron and N.O.R.E. both scored top 10 crossover hits that year. Bonnie & Clyde was a fascinating, carefree snapshot of the budding stages of pop culture’s most visible relationship that would spawn far more indispensable art through the turmoil it would later create. It’s also much harder than anything on Best of Both Worlds, West flipped 2Pac’s Me and My Girlfriend, and there’s a real desperado quality to the thumping percussion and blips of guitar. Hearing Jay rap, “But today I got my thoroughest girl with me / I’m mashin’ the gas, she’s grabbin’ the wheel, it’s trippy / How hard she rides with me, the new Bobby and Whitney / Only time we don’t speak was during Sex and the City,” was both endearing and foreshadowing; they’ve never reached Bobby and Whitney levels of drama but things have been far from smooth.

In many ways, The Blueprint 2 was the opposite of a record like 4:44. It was far-reaching, commercially-minded, and full of bravado (or whatever attribute prompted Jay to rap “Even a garbage can gets a steak” on Guns & Roses), versus his latest record which sees him in a kind of unhurried, statesman-like cruise control. But despite obvious differences in how they were put together, they are equally revealing of the rapper’s pathos. On tracks like Diamond Is Forever, he was grappling with his status as a veteran (“Young was eternal, my young’uns’ll burn you / The Blueprint birthed you, n*gga I earthed you, you can’t be serious / Young cause I’m thirty-two, dressed like I’m twenty-two”), while on Meet the Parents he told a gripping, semi-autobiographical story that took aim at absentee fathers and the damage that they do to their sons. He later said of the track in his book, Decoded, “I never intended “Meet The Parents” to be subtle” and like the rest of The Blueprint 2 it was anything but.

Jay’s beef with Nas was also still in full effect, and after near fatal headshots on both sides in the form of Takeover and Ether, Jay returned with one of the more overlooked entries in the diss track canon, The Blueprint 2. He raps, “Cause you don’t understand him, it don’t mean that he nice / It just means you don’t understand all the bullshit that he write / was it ‘Oochie Wally Wally’ or was it ‘One Mic’? / was it ‘Black Girl Lost’ or shorty owe you for ice?” taking aim at Nas’ shifting identity on record with damning specificity.

While he addressed 9/11 on a freestyle recorded that same week as the attacks, The Blueprint’s September 11 release date meant this was Jay’s first chance to address it on a solo record. The way in which he responds to the attack was emblematic of the whole album as it showcases so many different stages of his thought process and reaction. There’s the unshakeable confidence in himself shown on The Bounce (“Rumor has it The Blueprint classic / Couldn’t even be stopped by Bin Laden”), the subtler sensitivity on A Dream (the “blow up like the World Trade” line from Biggie’s original Juicy verse was edited out), and an earnest attempt to do good mixed in with fear of critique (“When the Twin Towers dropped, I was the first in line / Donatin’ proceeds off every ticket sold / When I was out on the road, that’s how you judge Hov, no?”).

As SPIN’s Chris Ryan noted, even back then Jay was mulling over retirement, and you can feel him looking around on the mountaintop and wondering what’s left for him to conquer. Opener A Dream flips The Notorious B.I.G.’s Juicy somewhat clumsily (the “He said” and “I said” device on every line makes for easy rhyming but a confusing narrative), but the be-careful-what-you-wish-for, success-has-a-cost message was clear. I Did It My Way, which heavily samples Paul Anka’s ‘60s classic, feels like a rather conscious attempt at a victory lap. “Black entrepreneur, nobody did us no favors / Nobody gave us shit, we made us / The Rap Pack, I’m Sinatra, Dame’s Sam Davis”, he spits. Legacy has always been foremost on Jay’s mind basically since he entered hip-hop, but over such remarkably unsubtle production cues it perhaps never felt more apparent that he was more focused on reflecting than looking ahead.

Putting the entirety of Biggie’s most famous verse on A Dream was a definite flex, and while we still see artists like Pimp C and even 2pac popping up on tracks in 2017, the spectre of B.I.G.’s and 2pac’s deaths a few years earlier still hung heavily over hip-hop in 2002. On The Blueprint 2, Jay stood at the nexus of the sounds competing to define the genre, the quirkier, more radio-friendly production of Timbaland and the Neptunes and the grittier, East Coast sneer that came to define Roc-a-Fella. Though the genre had plenty of emerging stars, Jay was still its brightest, and this ambling double LP, while messy at times, was a fascinating snapshot of Hov adjusting to that perch and what it was like to truly be in a league of his own.

Words by Grant Rindner. You can follow Grant on Twitter, here.