Sean (@ChicagoMadeSean) is a friend to TSB as he’s written some great posts (YMCMB & Michael Jordan Tribute) that have been featured over the previous months, and I’m honoured to continue bringing his pieces to the blog as they’re always filled with information and entertainment. Enjoy this one
A very special happy birthday to hip hop’s G.O.A.T., Shawn Michael Carter, aka Jay-Z. 43 years ago, Gloria Carter and Adnes Reeves got busy and 9 months later, on December 4th, 1969, hip hop’s Hova was welcomed into this world. In honor of S. Dot’s 43rd birthday, it’s only fitting we count down Jay-Z’s greatest albums. Note: this will NOT include the Unplugged album, “Collision Course” with Linkin Park, any compilation albums, or Streets is Watching, which was more of a soundtrack for the film and to help put the rest of his artists on Roc-A-Fella on. Anyway, let’s go!
14. “Unfinished Business” with R. Kelly (2004)
This one is more known for the conflict of these two giants in the game rather than the album itself; mostly comprised of unreleased tracks from the duo’s recording of Best of Both Worlds”. There are a few hits on the song, like “Big Chips”, which peaked at number 39 on the charts. However, besides that, there aren’t any other songs that stand out on the album. It’s just there. The lyrics were repetitive and nothing to awe at. The album did hit number 1 on the charts so that’s something to show for it. On the “Best of Both Worlds” tour for the album, tensions were high and they finally came to a head at Madison Square Garden in Hov’s hometown, New York City. R. Kelly complained about two men in the crowd showing their guns at him. He left the stage, but before returning, he was pepper sprayed by a member of Jay’s entourage. Kells would leave the tour and sue over the incident, but like the God said…
“Wastin ya time tryna sue S-Dot. Tell your lawyer take that civil case and drop it like it’s hot”
13. “Best of Both Worlds” with R. Kelly (2002)
The initial collaboration album between the two, “Best of Both Worlds” was equally as forgettable. Spurned by their collaborations on “Guilty Till Proven Innocent” and the remix to “Fiesta”, the two decided it would be a good idea to collab on an album. It charted at number 2, but wasn’t that great of an album. The only reason it ranks higher on my list is the fact that “Take You Home with Me” was a much better single than “Big Chips”. I wonder if Kells would have done things differently if he knew what would later happen? Hmm..
12. “Kingdom Come” (2006)
This was supposed to be Jay-Z’s comeback album. The return of Hova after a 3 year “retirement” when he just featured on a shit ton of songs but claimed he was retired, and became the president of Def Jam. He eventually decided to return, and we thought the God had returned to save hip hop from the crunk and trap daze it had been in since he left the game. “Kingdom Come” was not the album that was going to save us. Led by “Show Me What You Got”, a fun song that premiered at half-time of a Monday Night Football game, “Kingdom Come” had a couple of good songs. “Lost Ones” was possibly the gem of the album, in which Hov addressed his separation with former partner Damon Dash, a past relationship, and the death of his nephew, who crashed in the car he bought for him. Both “Lost Ones” and “30 Something” were produced by Dr. Dre, and what an amazing sight to see one of Big’s protégés teaming with one of Tupac’s biggest collaborators. Not to mention these are two of the biggest icons in rap. Other than that, and the Pharrell-produced Usher-featured “Anything”, “Kingdom Come” is regarded as Jay-Z worst solo project. Long gone was mafioso-Jay. Now he was rich, living lavishly, and fucking one of the baddest in the game. He would prove on later albums that he still had it, but it was evident after this album that Jay wasn’t the same Jay as he was before.
11. “The Blueprint 3” (2009)
This was anti-autotune. The third installment of “The Blueprint” series was given a ton of hype based off Jay’s recent verses on “Swagger Like Us” and “Jockin Jay-Z”. Its first single “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune) was a call to end the autotune craze in hip hop, saying that far too many people were using it as a crutch (Weezy?). No I.D. produced the first four tracks on the album, including “D.O.A.” by himself and the other three with Kanye West, including “Run This Town”, the song that was commercially one of Jay’s biggest tracks ever. However, the obvious standalone track when you mention BP3 is Hov’s ode to his hometown “Empire State of Mind”. Backed by a beautiful Al Shux beat and vocals from fellow New Yorker Alicia Keys, Jay laid one of his greatest songs ever, and FINALLY charting at number one for the first time as a lead artist on the song. I don’t know what took so long, but if “Empire State of Mind” was that first song to do it, I have no problem with it. “On To the Next One” was another favorite, due to the Justice-sampled Swizz Beatz beat. “Young Forever” was a radio hit, coupled with Mr. Hudson vocals and the sample of Alphaville’s “Forever Young”, the song quickly became one of reminiscence, and one that ironically I’d hear on the car ride to my high school graduation – nostalgic, right? Besides this, BP3 didn’t live up to the hype. Not a bad album, but when you’re Jay-Z, it’s definitely one of his more below-average albums.
10. “The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse” (2002)
Some may disagree, but that’s just the beauty of this being MY list. Don’t get me wrong. BP2 had its fair share of bangers. “The Bounce” featured a young and unknown producer-turning-emcee named Kanye West, a song which is still getting play today. “Excuse Me Miss” is still my mom’s favorite Jay-Z song (yeah she doesn’t know many more). I absolutely LOVED the collaboration with Lenny Kravitz on “Guns & Roses”, which I definitely put up there in Jay’s top 100 songs list (too lazy to make one, but it’s there). “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” was just the beginning of one of Hollywood’s biggest couples, and honestly a great song of ride or die love by Jay and Bey. “Nigga Please” was a forgotten yet awesome track on the album. However, it just barely crashes my top ten. The impact of two of the songs on this list pushes it ahead of BP3 for me. The problem with BP2 is it was sandwiched in between two of Hov’s greatest albums, BP1 and “The Black Album”. When “The Blueprint” has the legend of John Henry’s hammer, it’s hard to follow up. BP2 was given the tough task of doing so, and it couldn’t.
9. “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1” (1997)
“I ain’t a rapper. I’m a hustler. Just so happens I know how to rap.”
Jay-Z followed up his classic debut album “Reasonable Doubt” with “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1”, his debut album with Def Jam. I never really listened to Vol. 1 until a couple of years ago, and might I say I definitely missed out. The intro is amazing, and the album is backed by one of Hov’s legendary tracks “Where I’m From”, where he takes you on a tour of the gritty Marcy Projects, and asks you the question of “Who’s the best emcee? Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas?” There were a few other great tracks on the album, like “Imaginary Player”, “Friend or Foe” and “Who You Wit 2”. The problem with Vol. 1 was the switch from Jay’s mafioso-style in “Reasonable Doubt” to the jiggy-style perfected by Bad Boy Records, his late friend The Notorious B.I.G., Mase, and Puffy, who produced and featured on “I Know What Girls Like” with then-labelmate Lil Kim. Depending on who you ask, “(Always Be My) Sunshine” was an album hit, pretty much the follow up to Reasonable Doubt’s “Ain’t No Nigga” in which Foxy Brown appears again. Vol. 1 is a damn good album, despite the change to jiggy rap. Hova was still growing with his music at the time. You can’t fault him for that. The album peaked at number three on the charts, but it was definitely proof that Jay was no one-hit wonder.
8. “Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life” (1998)
I remember being 6 years old and my sister coming home on her birthday with this brand new album from Jay-Z. I was young and only heard the dude on “Can I Get A…”, featuring a young Ja Rule, and Amil, who I was crushing on. That’s another story. Years later, I found a great appreciation for the album I learned of at a young age. “Hard Knock Life” is one of Jay’s top 10 songs of all time, in which he channeled his inner-Annie and let us know how much we didn’t appreciate him until his second album came out, and yes, that he was here to stay. So many fantastic Jay songs were on this album to name. “Nigga What Nigga Who” was Jay at his best when it came to flow and wordplay, putting his amazing talent on display. He was able to collaborate with another one of NYC’s top dogs (no pun) at the time in DMX on “Money Cash Hoes”. 14 years later, he has another wife and she’s not a life of crime. “Reservoir Dogs” is another favorite of many, and “It’s Alright” and “Money Ain’t a Thang” featuring Jermaine Dupri were also album hits. Vol. 2 is very underrated to me. It was filled with so many quotables and great songs that today I feel are overlooked when you mention Jay-Z. I mean, c’mon…
“Say she love my necklace, started relaxing. Now that’s what the fuck I call a chain reaction.”
7. “The Dynasty: Roc La Familia” (2000)
What was supposed to be a Roc-a-Fella collaboration album (pretty much was one when you look at the roster all over the album), just became another Jay-Z album. No problems. Hov delivered once again. Backed by his Roc-a-Fella familia, Jay put forth some of his best work. Let’s not focus on the fire he spit on the Intro (something he usually does), Jay came through on “Change The Game” and let it be known that he wouldn’t lose – Nas disagreed. That’s another story. Jay and Beanie Sigel had one of their best tracks on the Just Blaze-produced “Streets is Talking”, and “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” was only the first of Jay and Pharrell’s many great collabs. We were also introduced to the Roc’s newest producer, Kanye West, on “This Can’t Be Life”, a sped-up version of Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” featuring vocals from Jay, Beans, and the legend Scarface. The album also featured the aforementioned “Guilty Till Proven Innocent” with R. Kelly. All in all, this is one of Jay’s best albums, even if it was supposed to be the label’s project…
6. “Watch The Throne” with Kanye West (2011)
Now some of you may think I’m crazy. “Sean, WTT was SO OVERRATED!” Yes, it was. The hype we all built up for this album was ridiculous. We all believed two of the greatest, Jay-Z and Kanye West, would make an album so legendary it would tear through the space-time continuum and create a vortex in which we would all be sucked into a heavenly place filled with big tittied bitches giving blowjobs everywhere. Once I realized this, I quickly lowered my expectations for it. Thank the fucking lord it worked. WTT, albeit overrated, was still a great project from two of the best. Lyrically, both have had better. Production wise, you would be hard pressed to find better from these two. The first single, “Otis”, was a beautiful Otis Redding sample featuring back-and-forth banter by the braggadocios duo. However, who would I be if I didn’t mention the album’s diamond, “Niggas in Paris”? Remember you were supposed to get sucked into that heavenly place with bitches and blowjobs? This was it, added with a bottle of ace, big bootied bitches, a bag of weed, and a copy of 2K. “Niggas in Paris” was simply the two bragging like they usually do, but the hard hitting Hit-Boy produced beat is what sets this apart from a lot of other songs in their catalogs. Specifically for Jay, to say that his team, the Nets, could go 0-82 and he’d look at you like it’s gravy just goes to show he’s made it a long way, to the point where money isn’t an option. Jay took a backseat to Kanye on most of the album, but was given the time to shine on “Why I Love You”, aimed mainly at his former Roc-brothers Dame Dash and Beanie Sigel. Honestly, this track was one of Hov’s most lyrical since he “returned” in 2006. He took lots of shots at the two for the conflict he’s had with them, but made note that no matter what, he still had love for them. I couldn’t name all the good songs on the album because it’d take up too much time. Despite the over-hype that we gave it, WTT is still a fantastic album.
5. “Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter” (1999)
This was Jay’s return to the mafioso rap he perfected on “Reasonable Doubt” after abandoning it on his previous two projects. Vol 3. is also one of his most underrated, in that people only focus on one track on the album instead of it as a whole. Yes, “Big Pimpin” and its accompanying video full of scantily-clad bitches and bottles of Cris was fantastic, and Jay and his UGK brothers, Bun B and the late Pimp C (RIP), all put forth memorable verses. However, the album had other gems to make note of. “Come and Get Me” might be Hov’s most lyrical track ever, and addresses that although he did a few top-40 like tracks on his previous albums, “I ain’t crossed over; I brought the suburbs to the hood.” DJ Premier produced ANOTHER banger with “So Ghetto”, another track Jay bragged about his come up and yet sounded so hood in doing it at the same time.
“We tote guns to the Grammys, pop bottles on the White House lawn. Guess I’m just the same old Shawn.”
“It’s Hot” featured Jay taking a shot at a then-relatively unknown emcee named 50 Cent with the line “I’m about a dollar, what the fuck is 50 Cents?” Vol. 3 was just a great album, and with quotables abound, it had to crack my top 5.
4. American Gangster (2007)
Just when we thought Hov was out, he pulled us back in. Some were ready to give up on the G.O.A.T. after the disappointment of “Kingdom Come”. Jay-Z gave us a Damon Wayans-like “AHHHH…..NAH!” and gave us “American Gangster”, his album that coincided with the film of the same name starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas. It was Jay’s first and only concept album, and it was his final solo album with Def Jam and Roc-a-Fella before leaving to start Roc Nation. Led by “Roc Boys”, which was one of the many tracks produced by Diddy and the Hitmen, “American Gangster” quickly became hailed as one of, if not Jay-Z’s best album. “Hello Brooklyn” was Jay once again revisiting his lovely borough, being accompanied by “Featuring” Lil Wayne, around the time he was just ripping through every-and-anybody’s track, as he did here once again. There was so much soul throughout the album, as spotlighted in The Neptunes-produced “I Know”, and the Marvin Gaye-sampled “American Dreamin”, in which Jay recounted his days as a drug dealer. Hov and Nas once again collaborated on “Success”, doing what they didn’t do on “Black Republicans”: making the fantastic track we all knew they could make. A.G. easily is a fan favorite of Jay’s and his best album since he returned in 2006.
3. “Reasonable Doubt” (1996)
Any of these top 3 albums could be Jay’s number one. You can virtually call them 1a, 1b, and 1c. “Reasonable Doubt”, for me, is 1c. The world was introduced to the 26-year-old former dealer with the ever-so-smooth “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, complete with a gorgeous hook from Mary J. Blige. “Reasonable Doubt” was REAL. It was gritty. It was smooth and hit you hard. Mafioso Jay was heard throughout the album as he took us through a walk in his shoes throughout his time on this earth. Every track on this album is playable, and very well could be listed in his top 100. We were blessed with one of Jay and Big’s few collabs with “Brooklyn’s Finest”. Due to this being a Jay post, I won’t delve into Frank White’s ridiculous quotable in the song; still one of my favorites. “Dead Presidents” was the track where Hov took a hot Nas line and made it a hot Jay-Z song. So much that “Dead Presidents” is still one of the most-used instrumentals in hip hop. Very few times does an artist get outshone on his one track by the female feature, but it happened on “Ain’t No Nigga”. It’s not to say Jay didn’t come with his A-game. He did. Only problem was he forced a young Foxy Brown to come with hers as well, and in the day where that type of content from a female rapper was big, he capitalized on the opportunity in a big way. The Preemo-produced “D’Evils” is frequently noted as one of Jay’s best, and “Can I Live”, another one of the beautifully smooth productions on the album, features one of the greats’ biggest quotables…
“It gets tedious, so I keep one eye open like CBS.”
As I said, “Reasonable Doubt” rightfully has a claim for the best Jay-Z album. It can hold its own with some of the greatest albums in hip hop history. But on this list, it just falls short at number three. That doesn’t take away from how amazing of a debut album this was.
2. The Black Album (2003)
This was supposed to be Jay-Z’s swan song. I’m pretty sure we all knew it wouldn’t be. The Black Album, a play on The Beatles “White Album”, was driven by its singles “Change Clothes”, “Encore” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, which are great songs in their own right. However, what makes “The Black Album” such a classic is the rest of the album. “December 4th” was a beautifully-told recap of Jay’s upbringing in the Marcy Project homes, his love for his mother, his father walking away, his troubles early on, and the discovery of his love for music. “99 Problems”, with the production of the legendary Rick Rubin, is, in my opinion, the greatest Jay-Z song of all time. The lyricism from Jay was on its highest level as Jay let it be known that he had 99 problems, but the K-9s and the 5-0 definitely weren’t one of them. Rick Rubin gave us the guitar riffs and unbelievable production he’s known for, and one of music’s classics was produced. “Public Service Announcement” could go down as his second best, where he exclaimed that he had the hottest chick in the game wearing his chain. Once again, Just Blaze dropped one of his finest beats, and when the G.O.A.T. gets the chance to lay down a verse over a Just Blaze beat, greatness ensues. “Justify My Thug” was the DJ Quik-produced Madonna name-inspired track with the catchy, bouncy beat followed by the signature Jay flow, and “Lucifer” let Jay shine once again over a Kanye-produced beat. “My 1st Song” was Jay-Z’s supposed’ send-off into retirement, and at the time, it was the perfect song to leave off on. Even though it was supposed to be his last song, he treated it as it’s his first, something that The Notorious B.I.G. mentioned he does with every project in the sample interview in the beginning. It’s an ode to stay hungry, and even though he was “leaving”, he was still hungry. 3 years later, he proved that. Overall, The Black Album was a classic. His best? That distinction would be given to another album…
1. The Blueprint (2001)
The one thing forgotten about the tragic day of September 11th, 2001 is that one of rap’s greatest albums was released. Only Jay can come away from a tragedy as devastating as 9/11 and STILL sell over 400,000 in the first week. That just proves how in demand he is as an artist. Despite coinciding with the nation’s darkest day, “The Blueprint” was hip hop’s beacon of light. In track one, he exclaimed that “The Ruler’s Back”, and he proved he was a track later with “Takeover”, the first diss track on wax between Jay-Z and Nas, publicly regarded by many as the greatest beef in hip hop history (in contrast to the East Coast-West Coast beef. I mean, nobody died in this one, so that’s a plus). He would also take shots at Mobb Deep, mainly Prodigy, but that was secondary to the shots he took at Nasir, in which he took aim at his discography (“Four albums in ten years nigga I can divide. That’s one every, let’s say two…two of them shits was due. One was naaaah, the other was Illmatic. That’s a one hot album every ten year average”), his street cred, style, flow, failures in recent projects, and claiming he slept with Nas’ baby moms. Yikes. It triggered one of hip hop’s greatest feuds, and was a damn good track.
The Blueprint was the first album Kanye West was allowed to showcase his amazing production, as he did on “Takeover”, the Jackson-5 sampled “Izzo”, which remains one of Jay’s most popular tracks, “Heart of the City”, and “Never Change”, both also one of Jay’s best. He left his emotions out on record in “Song Cry”, a ballad referencing how Jay left infidelity and neglect get in the way of a relationship. He took us on a ride through his endless amounts of women in “Girls Girls Girls”, once again produced by Just Blaze. Just Blaze also produced “U Don’t Know”, another one of Jay’s most popular and best known tracks in the same vein as “Where I’m From”. You had the Timbaland-produced “Hola Hovito” in which he stated what we all knew: that he was rap’s Michael Jordan, and the rest were just Sam Bowie’s.
One of the later tracks, “Renegade” is one of the highly debated songs of all time, all due to the question of just who killed who? “Renegade” was originally a track by Eminem and fellow Detroit native Royce da 5’9″, but conflict between the two (and Jay wanting to get on the track) led to Jay-Z replacing Royce and putting the song on his album. Despite the song being Em’s first, Jay laid his verse down, which by all means was a damn good verse (“Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”) He focused on growing up without a father, how financial struggles in his family led him to drug dealing, how such decisions led him to growing up so early, how his music is a reflection of his upbringing, and how his critics don’t see that. However, Em’s verse was already flawless. Dealing with the public perception of his music, Em gave a big fuck you to all of his critics that see him as a homophobe, a racist, misogynist, and how his critics were hypocrites. There wasn’t much Jay could do to match the greatness Em already laid down on the track. Yes, I do believe at the end of the day Jay is a greater artist than Eminem. However, there are some songs where those facts are clouded and all you can answer is who killed the song more than the other. This instance, it was Em. No matter what, these are both two of my top five, and both are worthy of the GOAT moniker.
The Blueprint was a 5 mic album. 5 stars. 10/10. Flawless. There was no question that this was Jay-Z’s greatest album. From top to bottom Jay gave his heart and soul, showcased his amazing flow, his unbelievable wordplay, and captured your attention and emotion. The Blueprint is just that – it’s the blueprint every artist should have on how to make the perfect album. Jay could have retired after this album and he’d still have a respectable claim at GOAT. But for our music-loving sake, thank God he didn’t. Or thank Hova.
Happy Birthday to the GOAT.
Dictated. Not read.