Fifteen years ago this week, JAY-Z had the world in the palm of his hand. Only 13 months earlier, his album The Blueprint helped give him dominance over the rap game and gain a growing influence on all of popular music. He took this opportunity to try and distance himself from every other rapper out there. The result was The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse, a sprawling 24-track double album designed to be ultimate statement of hip hop supremacy and versatility.
The producer list was impressive, as Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Just Blaze, Timbaland, and The Neptunes contributed the majority of the beats. Jigga also enlisted an eclectic roster of collaborators, from Southern rap mainstay Big Boi and then-rising dancehall star Sean Paul, to future wife Beyoncé and mainstream rock & roll darling Lenny Kravitz, plus the God MC Rakim. It was fitting that the opening track, “A Dream,” featured the late Notorious B.I.G., who was not only a fellow Brooklyn rap superstar and Hov’s friend, but an MC who dared to attempt a double album five years earlier.
Double albums are rare in music business in general, and in hip hop, they’re even more elusive. Particularly good ones. Still artists are drawn to them, because not only do they serve as a bold statement, but each one counts as two units sold.
Life After Death and The Blueprint 2 are perfect examples of the two ways a rap double album can go. The former work is a representation of an artist who had an abundance of artistic inspiration, maintained a lofty-yet-achievable concept that threads each song together, and featured production that remains consistently at a high level. The latter is the definition of artistic overindulgence; a collection of tracks built on pretension and premeditated hit-making aspirations. Biggie’s Life After Death is a manifesto about the dangers a hustler-turned-rapper faces once he finds musical success. It was dramatic, dark and had hits for days. JAY-Z’s Blueprint 2 tried too hard to cover every base and felt uncomfortable and bland because of it.
Over the past three decades, many hip hop acts have dropped double LPs, with varying results. So MASS APPEAL ranked the 20 best rap double albums of all time, while also gauging each one’s ratio of inspiration to indulgence, though the ratio doesn’t always result in a high or low rating. At the end of the day, the songs themselves are what really matter.