In the early 2000s, I wasn’t exactly hip when it came to mainstream rap music. I knew the big names and I heard most of the popular singles, but it’s not like I was sitting there in 10th grade math class ranking the albums in 2Pac’s discography. My primary diet at the time was (mostly terrible) alternative music and your standard smorgasbord of midwest classic rock.
But then I started noticing that I liked a lot of Jay-Z songs—like, a lot of them—and in early 2002, I bought a copy of The Blueprint. A few months later, I was buying The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse.
I think about these purchases a lot, because they represent the very beginning of my obsession with Kanye West. I encountered Kanye’s name for the first time reading the liner notes to The Blueprint, and I immediately knew it was a name I wanted to remember.
I first encountered the name of another producer in those same liner notes: Just Blaze. He was responsible for the beat on “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “U Don’t Know,” and “Song Cry” on The Blueprint, and he was clearly a talented beatmaker.
I’ve obviously been following Kanye’s career ever since buying The Blueprint, but I’ve also been keeping track of Just Blaze. Since those early days as one of Jay’s go-to producers, he’s gone on to craft epic, larger-than-life tracks for the likes of Cam’ron, Kanye, Ghostface Killah, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, TI, Eminem, Drake, Saigon, and Jay’s lovely wife herself, Beyonce.
Here’s a list of my 10 favorite Just Blaze productions, from The Blueprint to Lemonade.
1. “U Don’t Know (Remix)” – Jay-Z featuring M.O.P. (2002)
A remix of a song that was less than a year old? Why not?! The story goes that Just had always wished he could redo the beat to the original “U Don’t Know” because he wasn’t happy with the drums. He got his chance in 2002, and the remix featured on The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse is probably my favorite Jay/Just Blaze collaboration of all time. M.O.P. absolutely annihilates Just’s beat, and if you can listen to this one without nodding your head, I honestly don’t trust you.
2. “Oh Boy” – Cam’ron featuring Juelz Santana (2002)
Just Blaze and Kanye perfected that “chipmunk soul” sound in the early 2000s, and “Oh Boy” is one of the best beats either one of them ever made. It’s fairly simple, sure, but man, is it awesome. The verses are pretty weak, but their flows sound juuuuuuust good enough that it still works. Fun fact: Just Blaze sampled “I’m Going Down” from the Car Wash soundtrack, one of the most commonly sampled albums in hip-hop history, for this beat.
3. “P.S.A”. 2003
Allow me to re-introduce myself! What did I say earlier about “U Don’t Know (Remix)” being my favorite Jay/Just Blaze collaboration? If that’s 1A, “P.S.A.” comes in at 1B.
4. “Touch the Sky” – Kanye West featuring Lupe Fiasco (2005)
Looking back, it’s pretty insane that we got a Kanye West song produced by his Blueprint partner in crime with Lupe Fiasco dropping a guest verse. Just chopped up a Curtis Mayfield track about 7 different ways for this one, taking the song completely apart and then piecing it back together.
5. “King Back” – T.I. (2006)
King was the closest I ever got to really loving a T.I. album, and it opened with “King Back.” The crowd noise and the speech is perfect, and Just’s beat goes flat-out bananas with that trumpet blast before the drums come in.
6. “The Champ” – Ghostface Killah (2006)
Ghostface was always the most consistent Wu-Tang member, and 2006’s Fishscale kicked off his late-career renaissance. The production on that whole album was incredible, featuring MF Doom, Dilla, and, yes, Just Blaze.
7. “Hostile Gospel Pt. 1 (Deliver Us)” – Talib Kweli (2007)
Great beat, great song, great verses from Talib, and a great video that anyone obsessed with Fela Kuti like me is sure to love. Any “best hip-hop songs of the 2000s” playlist need to find room for this one.
8. “Live Your Life” – T.I. featuring Rihanna (2008)
Remember when Just Blaze sampled that ridiculous “Numa Numa” song? Yep. Pure insanity. But it somehow worked!
9. “Lord Knows” – Drake featuring Rick Ross (2011)
Pure. Straight. Fire. “Lord Knows” is my favorite Drake song, and maybe my absolute favorite Just Blaze beat. I’ve literally driven around town with this song on repeat. Drake and Rick’s verses aren’t even anything all that special … the production is just that special.
10. “Freedom” – Beyoncé featuring Kendrick Lamar (2016)
I’ve made it very clear on this site how much I love Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and the best song on the whole thing just happens to be a Just Blaze production. This might be my favorite song of 2016 so far, with the only real competition coming from a few different songs from James Blake’s new record.