The GOAT, arguably of course. Transcending the idea that unpopularity equals moral superiority, super capitalist Jay-Z outrapped his underground peers with insight and nuance. He shed light. His rapping is like smart conversation. Never do you hear him reaching for just a rhyme. “So many different flows, this one’s for this song” – that was a great leap from written 16’s and singular cadences. Biggie was the spark, but Jay-Z challenged him like no one else. Without a pen he could write songs, and maintain his signature sound while absorbing trends and introducing new talent. All while framing his preoccupation with making money as a form of social justice. Revolutionary in more ways than one.
Reasonable Doubt (1996)
A classic debut. The tone is a crime mogul motivation speech – practical advice, financial and otherwise. The sound is NYC glitterati soul, culled from glossy 70s samples. It’s no wonder it went over some heads at the time. Jay-Z was something new – not rugged and raw like Pac and Wu, not blunted, not conscious, not quite smooth enough for radio. Reasonable Doubt is a psychological profile of a high level hustler. Which had been done before to some degree, but not like this. Jay-Z’s crime portraits move away from spectacle and violence, as he paints in boasts and threats and pure wordplay. And there’s a sense of inclusion, like we’re not watching a Scorsese film but participating in a new startup venture.
Vol 1 In My Lifetime (1997)
This first post-Biggie album is preoccupied with Jay’s position in the rap game. To its detriment at times, when it strays from the formula. “I Know What Girls Like” with Puffy and Lil’ Kim is so horrifically bad that it feels like an industry prank at Puffy’s expense, intended to sink his brand. But the core set of songs are classics, perfecting the Jay-Z formula – super lyrical casual boasts from an exceptional life, sleek disses meta-building the persona. The third verse of “Streets Is Watching” is a full narrative on the psychological pressures of crime. Inimitable.
Vo2 Hard Knock Life (1998)
“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” struck gold with its gimmicky Annie sample and his chatty flow for those dro’d out. The flow zooms out a bit here to match the arena-minded songs. And it’s not as polished – there’s a manic energy, a ‘let’s get this song done!’ vibe. Plus the sound is dated directly to ’98, with some thin keyboard beats and lots of guest appearances.
Vol 3 Life And Times Of S. Carter (1999)
Flashy millennium bounce album with a tap dance flow. “S. Carter” may be the worst Jay-Z song ever, while the beat on “Do It Again” sounds like children bashing at a toy keyboard. The filler tracks have some memorable schemes and bars but it’s mostly light work. “Big Pimpin'” is a great single – notice how Jay starts his verse at some crescendo like a lead guitarist starting with the big finish. Technically he’s still at the top of his game, just not particularly inspired.
Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
Pivotal. This crew compilation album is well regarded, much better overall than the last two solos. I’d argue Jay-Z was starting to lose focus before new producers Kanye West and Just Blaze smacked him back to reality. Their tracks are visionary and super inspired. Beanie Sigel steps up with his emo gangsta style, and this album resonates with some searching confessional songs.
The Blueprint (2001)
If Jay is the Beatles this is his Sgt Pepper’s. A great leap in presentation and zeitgeist riding performance. The gimmick leading up was the Nas beef, with the “Takeover” buzz. But The Blueprint is loaded with iconic Kanye and Just Blaze beats, and classic well crafted songs. The flow has changed again too, hookier and radio ready on its own terms. “Girls Girls Girls” reads like a stand up routine, “Heart Of The City(Ain’t No Love)” essays the pressures of fame, “Song Cry” takes cues from Scarface’s emotional rap style. “Renegade” with Eminem became a Nas punchline, and he’s right: it feels like an Eminem song featuring Jay-Z. Which means it just runs in circles whining about critics and bad parents and Eminem stuff.
The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse (2002)
This coolly received double-disc got rethought and repackaged a year later as The Blueprint 2.1. Which felt a bit like admission of defeat. On the heels of the “Ether” debacle – being on the receiving end of the most famous diss song in history, followed by his vulgar response that he took back with an apology to his mother – the invincible Jay-Z persona had taken some dents. On this sprawling double album he’s searching for new sounds while fortifying his spot. A tenuous position reflected in the music. Some of it is quite good but this is the first Jay-Z album not to expand his base.
The S. Carter Collection Mixtape (2003)
The next album was announced as his retirement from music, a final look back at the hustling years. Why did he “retire”? Maybe wounded ego, too proud not to go out on top. He told us himself his fear was running out of cool stories – what more can I say? In 2003 he proved to himself he doesn’t need the old stories. It’ll be another peak, and the S.Carter mixtape was a good sign. Released to promote a sneaker, this set of mostly new freestyles is an invaluable document of a great musician just jamming.
The Black Album (2003)
Aims for a blockbuster era-defining moment. Part of the joy of this album is the creative high – they knew this material was epic. It has that competitive energy of hip hop, even if it’s just Jay trying to top himself. Flow-as-hook peaks here, with rhymes just as catchy as choruses. Durable too, since the album acapellas set off a remix flood of just as listenable TBAs. Danger Mouse sparked his career with The Grey Album, mixing Jay with the Beatles. Some of those remixes have held up better than the high profile beats. But this album is as near to flawless as it gets.
Kingdom Come (2006)
The retirement lasted three years with a few guest verses, behind the scenes feuds, and a gig as president of Def Jam Records. I think this album was sunk by the transparency of its theme. Clearly the idea was a rebranding of Jay-Z as All Grown Up, a veteran aging comfortably. But maturity was always a key component of his lyrics. Plus the flow has gone a little cold. Even collabs with Just Blaze and Dr Dre don’t quite hit. “Lost Ones” does, and “The Prelude” is a canonical classic. Otherwise this is just a training exercise.
American Gangster (2007)
Top tier Jay-Z album. Very much a synthesis of his best work, merging the hustling imagery of the debut with peak era soulful production. This is like what he promised The Black Album would be – a summing up of his drug dealing era. American Gangster is the cinematic version, a stylized TV drama of high level gangster life. Ostensibly a soundtrack to the 2007 film, the material is so untethered that it disses its subject (“Like Frank Lucas is cool, but I ain’t trying to snitch.”) Jay-Z made his own movie with this album. Dope.
The Blueprint 3 (2009)
A bit of a misfire, right down to the desperation of the title. The buzz single “Death Of Autotune” felt reactive and got bested by a Lil Wayne freestyle version, underlining its impotence. Elsewhere there’s just a distance – maybe you can appreciate this superstar rap album, but I don’t know how you really connect to it. Like what’s with “Young Forever” jacking the posthumous Tupac ballad sound? Or one of the WOAT Kanye beats on “Hate”? Drake and J Cole get nods, but that about it.
Watch The Throne w/ Kanye West (2011)
Coasting on the prodigious talents of Ye and his big brother, this album is a bit of a mess. It’s good, sometimes great, but feels both overambitious and half-assed. Like some of these beats, you can hear genius diluting itself. Just because you can execute any musical idea, doesn’t mean they’re all good. Kanye and Jay are sort of at cross purposes. Like it’s Shakespearian comedy, the thoughtful king in luxury and his rapscallion brother. But we’re just spectators, and this album is just paparazzi snapshots. Maybe that’s just how you navigate this level of fame – protect what you can of yourself while still giving the world what it wants from your music.
Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)
The same year Kanye’s Yeezus album felt fresh and weird and straight from the Id, Jay’s just hangs like expensive drapery. Justin Timblerlake is here. This album is Bezos’s spaceship.
A thoughtful humble comeback, laced to near classic status by No ID’s production. In which Jay cancels himself (“Kill Jay-Z”) then comes right back for some vintage shit talking (“Family Feud”). Mature but a bit unsettled, with some drama under the surface. Like Jay has realized you can’t grow old on your own terms. You just survive, manifesting experiential wisdom. “Marcy Me” is an all-time Jay-Z song, up with his best work.
A Written Testimony w/ Jay Electronica (2020)
Basically Watch The Throne 2: Woke The Throne. No that’s actually a cheap joke and not fair to the keenly felt beliefs of Jay Electronica. This album is his vision, with all his heavy weighted themes of history and religion and uncompromising social justice. Jay-Z lends support like a late career dramatic role. The music is Jay Elec’s throwback lo-fi style, in which he freely incorporates surrealist elements. This is kind of an eerie album, which I believe it’s meant to be. The heavy crown of good kings, with all the bad ones still alive.