Jay-Z Albums From Worst To Best
Back in 1990, an extremely young Jay-Z showed up wiggita-wiggitaing all over “The Originator,” a single by his fast-rapping buddy the Jaz. And between that moment and 1996, when he released his stately and ridiculously assured debut album Reasonable Doubt, Jay more or less disappeared. He spent a little while on the road with Big Daddy Kane, putting in hypeman duty, and even showed up on a 1994 Kane posse cut. And he appeared on tracks with guys like Big L and Mic Geronimo. But he was busy with other things, too. As legend has it, Jay spent most of his time, in those years, amassing an honest-to-god fortune dealing drugs. And when the fully formed Jay showed up on Reasonable Doubt, he showed the sort of unearthly confidence that debuting rappers so rarely display. This Jay was not even remotely hungry or uncertain in his rap style, and his whole bespoke-kingpin character may not have been too different from his actual self. In the midst of a ridiculously fertile moment in New York rap, he still stood out. And even in his least inspired moments, he hasn’t stopped standing out.
Jay’s great topic, in recent years, is his own meteoric rise from the corner to the Barclays Center owners’ suite. But he was mythologizing his own story even as that story was beginning. And he’s always seemed like one of our greatest rappers mostly because he was so convinced of his own greatness. For a while there, he was steadily cranking out a watershed album every year, and evaluating his entire catalog is something of a messy task. Even with that prodigious output, many of his most important moments have been on other people’s songs, or on albums other than his own. He’s given great tracks like “Who You Wit,” “Hey Papi,” and “Excuse Me Miss Again (La La La)” to the soundtracks of deeply shitty movies. “Jigga My Nigga,” one of his most iconic singles, belongs to the Ruff Ryders Vol. 1 compilation — a crew album from a crew that he wasn’t even part of. And his donation of “Is That Yo Bitch?” to Memphis Bleek ranks as one of the great acts of charity in recent memory.
Writing this thing, I’ve had to puzzle out what constitutes a Jay-Z album. I’ve included all four of his collaborative long-players, even the inexplicable live-mashup thing he did with Linkin Park. And I’ve also counted 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, billed as a Jay-Z album even though it was more of a Roc-A-Fella crew effort. But I left off all the various compilations of his work. I left off the live Unplugged album, where the Roots so masterfully backed Jay up. And I even discounted the soundtrack to his near-unwatchable hood movie Streets Is Watching, since he only showed up on about half the tracks.
Listening back to all his albums, it’s striking how much musical ground he’s covered; from slick New York boom-bap to Timbaland future-funk meditations to Swizz Beatz Casio stomps. And it’s been fun to watch him evolve from bloodthirsty crime lord to wry and introspective elder statesman, even if he was making better records when he was a bloodthirsty crime lord. Even at his worst (Kingdom Come, obviously), he’s still a fascinating and magnetic figure. And you could easily make a case for any of those top five albums as Jay’s best.
This weekend, Jay completes yet another career milestone as he finishes his eight-show run at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, a building that’s got his fingerprints all over it even if he only owns a tiny piece of it. That makes it as good a time as any to dig through the man’s deep discography.
14. Collision Course (with Linkin Park) (2004): What the fuck was even happening here? Linkin Park co-leader Mike Shinoda somehow convinces a post-retirement Jay to come in and re-record the vocals of some of his classics so that Shinoda can forcibly mash them up with his own band's big hits on an out-of-nowhere EP that nobody was demanding? Seriously, what? God knows, there were probably vast piles of money involved, but still! I'll ride for Linkin Park as underappreciated crafters of middle-school catharsis, and there's even something vaguely nifty about the interlocking beats of "Jigga What" and "Faint." But there's just no reason this thing needs to exist, and Shinoda sounds like an even clumsier rapper when you put him next to the master. Also, there's some serious cognitive dissonance here: Jay's music, broadly speaking, is about confidence, while Linkin Park's, broadly speaking, is about self-doubt. Together, they just sound artless and awkward.
13. The Blueprint 3 (2009): At this point, "Empire State Of Mind" is firmly entrenched in the lexicon of great New York songs, so it really doesn't matter that I wasn't much of a fan when it came out. Whatever you think of that song, it's probably the most effective piece of schmaltz Jay ever recorded. And for the most part, The Blueprint 3 finds Jay returning to the toothless-rich-elder persona of Kingdom Come after briefly recapturing some of his outlaw mojo on American Gangster. This time, though, it comes a little more naturally to him; that'll happen when the world collectively decides that you're the single coolest man alive. On "Run This Town" and "On To The Next One," Jay translates his old snarl into a seen-it-all sigh, for instance. But too much of The Blueprint 3 is just unfocused and embarrassing, like the clumsy EDM appropriations that an over-the-hill Timbaland produced, or the grumpy-old-man teeth-gnashing of "D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)," a song that Future probably thinks is fucking hilarious today.
12. Unfinished Business (with R. Kelly) (2004): Another post-retirement collaborative curio. The original Best Of Both Worlds wasn't the huge success that its two makers wanted, so they tried it again a few years later. This time, though, the finished product made even less of a ripple, yielding no hits and leading to a co-headlining tour that ended when one of Jay's associates allegedly maced Kelly. Not that much of a surprise, since most of the second album was leftovers from the first. But the album itself is a bit of one-dimensional fun that's aged pretty well, all Knight Rider keyboard-blips and slithery Kelly choruses. Jay is in imperious-player mode throughout, and he seems to be having fun. But Kelly, who spends a lot of his time rapping in a pinched Slick Rick cadence, effectively walks away with this thing.
11. The Best Of Both Worlds (with R. Kelly) (2002): Considering that both Jay and Kelly were titans in their fields and arguably peaking around the time they released this one, it should've been a huge deal. It wasn't, mostly because its two makers evidently treated it as a partytime lark rather than a fully formed statement. The songs on Best Of Both Worlds mostly follow the formula of the mega-successful "Fiesta" remix that probably serves as the reason the album exists: slick and bumpy music, with lyrics about partying and being the flyest person in the room. But even though it's a decidedly minor effort for everyone involved, it works, entirely on the strength of Jay and Kelly's mega-watt charisma. Even the slightest throwaways here come loaded with slinky melodies and smart lyrics turns of phrase, and that's good enough.
10. American Gangster (2007): This time around, Jay found an interesting way to (mostly) escape the post-retirement doldrums that swallowed Kingdom Come and The Blueprint 3 whole. Inspired by the pretty-good Ridley Scott movie of the same name, Jay went deep into his past, making a loose concept album about his small-time drug-dealer youth, a period of time he was long past by the time he made Reasonable Doubt. And while the album never quite recaptures the urgency and bloodlust of his earlier records, it does give a humane look at the kids in Jay's old line of work, and Jay takes evident delight in going back to his old clinical drug-rap. The production is so lush and languid that it sometimes verges on schmaltz, and there's a brutally boring three-song stretch between "Roc Boys" and "Ignorant Shit," but the album's strongest moments find Jay at his late-career lordly best, and the post-beef Nas summit meeting "Success" does serious damage.
9. The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse (2002): A weird choice after the relative soulful sparsity of The Blueprint launched Jay into a zone of critical love he'd never before penetrated: an overstuffed, radio-directed double album, absolutely jammed with guest appearances and crossover attempts. Jay later attempted to winnow it down with the single-disc Blueprint 2.1, but he didn't delete the right tracks. The highs The Blueprint 2 are high: Jay sharing a track with Rakim, M.O.P. breathing fire all over the already-great "U Don't Know," the Southern-style fast-rap workout "Poppin Tags." An uncredited Kanye West delivers his first-ever Roc-A-Fella rap verse on the great Timbaland-produced "The Bounce," already showing great chemistry with Jay; I remember tearing through the liner notes and trying to figure out who that was. But there are tons of drippy love songs, lounge-rap serenades, and ineffectual club-rap thumps. It's all messy and unfocused, and Jay rarely seems to be operating at peak capacity. Also, Lenny Kravitz is on there, rhyming "guns and roses" with "friends and foeses."
8. The Dynasty (Roc La Familia) (2000): This one is really a Jay-Z album in name only; it's really a compilation, intended to spotlight the rest of the Roc-A-Fella crew. Rap crew albums have a spotty history; almost by definition, they're inconsistent. But then, the prime-era Roc-A-Fella crew was one of the greatest extended crews in rap history and The Dynasty finds them at their absolute peak. Memphis Bleek, somehow a punchline now, was actually a reservoir of rangy young-hyena intensity. Beanie Sigel is one of the all-time greats at threatening to fuck you up and making you believe it; he actually outshines Jay a couple of times here. Freeway, in his first Roc appearance, gets a chance to breathe fire all over "1-900-HUSTLER." Esteemed guest Scarface brings genuine anguish and deep gravitas to "This Can't Be Life." Just Blaze, Kanye West, and Bink! -- the future architects of Jay's sound -- get a dry run at injecting Jay's haughty thump with their organic soul. And Jay himself is all sneering hauteur, going full overlord for the last time before he'd turn introspective on The Blueprint the next year.
7. In My Lifetime: Vol. 1 (1997): On his sophomore album, Jay started the long process of, in his own parlance, dumbing down for his audience to double his dollars. He tried out Diddified (or, at the time, Puff Daddified) gloss-rap on tracks like the Blackstreet-abetted, Glenn Frey-interpolating "The City Is Mine." But those smoother songs have aged well; the expensively expansive sonics seem to mirror Jay's own nose-up lack of concern. And deeper into the album's tracklist, we still get to hear Jay tearing apart DJ Premier tracks -- both real ones and expertly executed fake ones. And on tracks like "Streets Is Watchin'," he's still rapping at a dizzily fast clip and dropping deadpan death-threats like they're nothing. He didn't sound like a massive pop star in the making here. Instead, he sounded like a very strong rapper who was just starting to figure out how to make enormous piles of money from rapping very well.
6. Watch The Throne (with Kanye West) (2011): Jay's greatest post-retirement record, by far, is the one where he let his little buddy Kanye push the music in all sorts of weird, unexpected directions while the two of them pushed each other to indulge in a thoughtful, hour-long discussion about what it's like to be rich and black in America. On "Otis," they're all supercharged exuberance, with Jay sounding younger than he had in years, but elsewhere, they're pensive, even forlorn about how far they've gotten beyond everyone they ever knew. And with "Niggas In Paris," two middle-aged guys got together to make the rap anthem of last year, which, when you think about it, is pretty staggering. They'd perform the song over and over on tour, repeating it 10 or 11 times, and it made sense; these guys should be beyond the years where they can make anthems like that.
5. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998): The album that made Jay a pop superstar is also the one where he megaton sneer came through at its most diluted. Musically, the album is fully in the hard-as-fuck synth-rap Tunnel Banger vein, and it never lets up, even when the Annie sample comes in. There's precious little heart or introspection to be heard here, but when Jay's in full bloodthirsty kingpin-monarch mode, who needs that? The highlights here are too many to list, but here are some anyway: "Nigga What, Nigga Who," maybe the most thrilling pure-rapping display in Jay's entire career. The terse and detailed storytelling of "A Week Ago." The gloriously unhinged DMX verse that cuts right through Swizz Beatz' blunt-force Casios on "Money, Cash, Hoes." All six minutes of "Reservoir Dogs," a blockbuster action-movie posse cut over a sample of Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft." Jay rapping over the Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime" on "It's Alright." The single greatest verse that Ja Rule will ever record. And on and on. If Jay had never said another word on tape after this album, his would've still been a wonderful career.
4. The Blueprint (2001): I'm sure I'll start some fights by ranking The Blueprint, Jay's first and greatest across-the-board mainstream critical success, this low. But the album, while undeniably classic, is not without its issues. Eminem really does eat Jay's lunch on "Renegade." "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" is a good-not-great first single. "That Nigga Jigga" and "Hola Hovito" are excellently glossy ride-out synth-rap bangers, but they don't really fit with the LP's grain. And late in the album, there are a few moments where Jay sounds slightly sleepy. But then again, maybe that's the point. The Blueprint turned out to be one of its decade's most influential rap albums because it pointed a way out for NY rap during the South's rise to dominance: Old-school soul samples, fleshed out to orchestral degrees, leavened with equal measures of snarl and regret. The album is the home of the greatest rap dis track of all time. "U Don't Know," as a friend recently pointed out, is arguably the most important arena-rock song of the young century; it explodes heads when Jay does it live. The Blueprint is the moment where Just Blaze and Kanye West arrived at the summit of the rap-producer game. Jay's decision to leave out guest rappers almost entirely was brave, and it paid off; the album feels deeper and more personal than even his best past efforts. And it crystallized the image of Jay as the sharp, egotistical, secretly emotional seen-it-all hustler king. It's coincidental release date -- September 11, 2001 -- somehow became mythic, adding enough weight to Jay's persona that he's come to, in the popular imagination, represent his hometown more than any other living celebrity. That's a lot for an hour of rap music to accomplish. And, at least in my mind, it's only Jay's fourth best album. That's something.
3. The Black Album (2003): Jay-Z is one of the all-time great self-mythologizers in American history, and The Black Album -- along with its attendant concert film Fade To Black, which opened with a mock-up Shawn Carter jersey ascending into the Madison Square Garden rafters -- was his single greatest monument to self. Jay's retirement didn't last long, but he sure made it seem like an event, like the end of an era. The original idea of the album was that it would have one song each from all of rap history's greatest and most important producers. That didn't quite work out, but it's still a brief and scintillating bit of mythmaking, totally free of guests, almost completely free of underwhelming tracks. Even the songs commonly remembered as filler -- "Moment Of Clarity," "Justify My Thug" -- bang hard, and if you deleted the two Neptunes tracks, you'd have something close to a perfect album. The "99 Problems"/"PSA"/"Lucifer" stretch is probably the greatest three-song sequence in Jay's catalog. And throughout the album -- from the blast of Chi-Lites horns that opens "December 4th" to the list of shootouts that closes "My First Song" -- Jay nails the air of regal reflectiveness that no other rapper has ever pulled off.
2. Reasonable Doubt (1996): Jay-Z's own favorite Jay-Z album was his first one, the deep and incisive boom-bap opus that worked as a hustler's inner monologue laid out in parry-thrust-parry delivery and glittering language. At a 2006 10th-anniversary show at Radio City Music Hall, I watched Jay, a ?uestlove-anchored orchestra behind him, rap this album in full, starting with closer "Regrets" and finally working his way toward the triumphant opener "Can't Knock The Hustle." I've been to a few of these album-in-full shows, and I can say that Reasonable Doubt is one of the rare examples where it completely works when done like this, partly because the album all exists as one cohesive piece. That orchestra made sense; the production here, while hard and funky throughout, has a big-money sheen; you can year every last horn tootle and xylophone twinkle in the mix. And Jay's just as expansive as he is vengeful here, talking about the tribulations of the big-money drug dealer with both pride and perspective. His duel with Biggie on "Brooklyn's Finest" is thrilling stuff, as is his numerological excursion "22 Two's." But the real heart of the album is in the hardened, eloquent lost-life reminisces like "Can I Live" and "D'Evils."
1. Vol 3… Life & Times Of S. Carter (1999): The absolute apex of Jay's bully era, which, for my money, is the greatest of Jay's eras. Here we have Jay displaying enough confidence to realign planetary orbits through sheer force of will, bragging about kicking women out of bed post-fuck and making it sound like the most charming thing on Earth. The Jay of Vol. 3 is self-aware enough to find humor in his own absurd largesse, but he's not going to get a little thing like ethics get in his way. And he's also more musically adventurous than he's ever been, before or since; it's a joy to hear him sneering over Timbaland's future-Egypt ripple-funk on "Big Pimpin'" or his gut-stomping seismic bass lines on "Snoopy Track" like these were regular rap beats, not brain-exploders. His taste in collaborators has never been sharper, from the icepick-sharp DJ Premier beat on "So Ghetto" to the career-defining guest-verses from UGK on "Big Pimpin'" to the ferocious hunger that Beanie Sigel displays on "Do It Again." And this was the Jay-Z that was most comfortable balancing his pop and knuckleheads; witness the way he turns a Mariah Carey duet into something gutter on "Things That U Do." The first time I moved to New York, this was Jay's newest album, and even six months after its release, it still thrummed through the city like electricity.