Hip-hop, as we’re told, isn’t just a musical style – it’s a way of life. It’s the rare figure, though, that can fight their way to the top of the pile and stay there. Jay Z is one of those rare figures who’s stayed put. Since his breakout album ‘Reasonable Doubt’ hit the streets in 1996, Shawn Carter has cast an increasingly long shadow over hip-hop. He’s run clothing lines and record companies. He’s started, and settled beef. He’s retired from music, and returned to find his throne unclaimed. Well, maybe that Kanye fella had a perch while his back was turned.
As Jigga finishes his UK tour at the O2 tonight, it's time to survey his back catalogue and try to place them in order. Sequencing the lower end was a bit of a headache – I don’t think he’s actually made a properly bad record, save perhaps for that rather ill-advised Linkin Park collaboration back in 2004. But a trawl through his discography has been quite eye-opening – I definitely underrated 2007’s ‘American Gangster’ on its release, while some of the flashier releases that impressed so much at the time don’t really stand up now. Here’s my selection, anyway. Agree? Disagree? Have your say in the comments.
13. The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse
Following up a career classic with a double-album sequel is asking for trouble, and so it is with ‘The Gift And The Curse’. The cockiness is plain from the opening track, ‘The Dream’, where Jay Z communes with the ghost of his late friend The Notorious B.I.G before sampling a verse of Biggie’s ‘Juicy’ – it’s meant, doubtless, as tribute, but comes off a little crass, to be honest. There are some bangers here – the Kanye-produced ‘Some People Hate’, a slamming remix of ‘The Blueprint’’s ‘U Don’t Know’ featuring shouty Brooklyn mob MOP. But what does it mean, if you have to sit through a Lenny Kravitz guest spot (‘Guns N Roses’) to get there?
12. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Originally conceived as a collaborative album showcasing the cream of Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, ‘The Dynasty’ was released as a solo album, which probably assured another million-odd sales. While lacking any real coherence, it’s most notable for its producers, a cadre of future stars including Just Blaze, The Neptunes, and a young up-and-comer named Kanye West, who turns in the twinkling, soul-inflected ‘This Can’t Be Life’.
11. In My Lifetime Vol 1
Jay Z’s second long-player tones down the crime themes, gets jiggy with it, with a selection of productions courtesy of Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy stable. That ‘In My Lifetime’ is seldom remembered isn’t down to a lack of quality, exactly - his skills are plain, even on poppier numbers like ‘The City Is Mine’, featuring ‘90s R&B crooners Blackstreet – but that it feels like a slightly formative record, the ambitious Carter still feeling out his style.
10. Magna Carta Holy Grail
They called it “dad rap”, and it’s true that it didn’t hit with the shock of the new displayed on Kanye’s ‘Yeezus’. Some slightly cringeworthy moments, too – rapping Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on ‘Holy Grail’ probably isn’t one for the ages. But it’s a rare rap album that pulls off tracks about adoring one’s wife (‘Part Two (On The Run)’ and caring for one’s daughter (‘Jay Z Blue’) without ladling on too much schmaltz, and the Pharrell-produced ‘Oceans’, a noble meditation on slavery crooned by Frank Ocean, is a career highlight for both.
9. Kingdom Come
The back-from-retirement album, as Jay Z trades in his gold watch for a number of high profile guest spots (John Legend, Dr Dre, Usher, wife-to-be Beyoncé on price-of-fame number ‘Hollywood’). Slight evidence of crown-slippage, but some stirring moments: ‘Minority Report’ is the record’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment, a raw retelling of the impact of Hurricane Katrina that sees Jay Z place blame “in the hands of the people that left my people stranded”; and Chris Martin – yes, father of Apple, husband of Gwyneth – produces and sings on the not-bad closer ‘Beach Chair’.
8. Vol 2 Hard Knock Life
A risky business, sampling the squawking orphans of Broadway musical Annie, but ‘Hard Knock Life’ proved Jay-Z could pull off a bold mainstream move without the whole thing blowing up in his face. It’s the record that made Jay Z huge, hitting the top of the Billboard Charts. For all this, though, it’s a slightly uneven listen, leaning on its many guest stars (Memphis Bleek, DMX, Ja Rule, Foxy Brown). Some impressive verbal dexterity on show, though: see the funk snap of ‘Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)’.
7. American Gangster
A slightly leaner album than the crossover-tinged ‘Kingdom Come’, this solid 2007 release has a touch of back-to-the-roots to it. Drawing inspiration from Ridley Scott’s film of the same name, the likes of ‘American Dreamin’’ and ‘Pray’ (“Mindstate of a gangster from the ’40s/Meets the business mind of Motown’s Berry Gordy”) dissect the psychology of a career criminal to tracks assembled from ‘70s soul and funk. Jay Z and Nas bury the hatchet on the fine ‘Success’.
6. The Blueprint 3
AKA the one with ‘Empire State Of Mind’ on it. Jay-Z’s chart-topping Alicia Keys collaboration, a hat-tip to Bobby DeNiro and Frank Sinatra, Biggy Smalls and Afrika Bambaata, and the city that he loves is probably his finest pop crossover moment. The album itself reaches for a similarly gigantic scale, with an A-list line-up of guests – Kanye, Rihanna, Drake, Pharrell, and, um, Mr Hudson. Moments are more triumphalist than triumphant, the sound of Jay Z giving himself a big pat on the back, but it’s hard to deny he deserves a victory lap, and the Justice-sampling ‘On To The Next One’ hits with a satisfying swagger.
5. Vol 3 Life And Times Of S Carter
Landing right at the end of the last millennium, Jay Z’s fourth is the record on which his sound solidifies. He’s got swagger to take on the world, rapping “I ain't crossover/I brought the suburbs to the hood” (‘Come And Get Me’) and flexing a messiah complex on ‘Things That U Do’: “I dodged prison, came out unscathed from car collisions/I know I must be part of some mission.” The rhyming throughout is spectacular, packed with innovative cadence and rhyme patterns, and it’s put in the service of unstoppable club tracks like ‘Jigga My Nigga’ and the Timbaland-produced ‘Big Pimpin’.
4. Reasonable Doubt
In 1996, Jay Z was no rap mogul – just a hungry young MC who made his bucks dealing on the streets of Brooklyn – but there’s already signs here of the megastar-in-waiting. Shawn Carter’s flow is a thing of relaxed confidence, peeling off tales of gritty street life and Mafioso intrigue like dollar bills from a roll. On tracks like ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’, featuring Notorious BIG, Jay Z makes the hustle life sound romantic. But he’s also talked about using this record “like a psychiatrist’s couch”, and ‘D'Evils’ and ‘Regrets’ offer a glimpse of the stresses and strain of a gangsta lifestyle that his peers would struggle to articulate.
3. Watch The Throne
We haven’t included Jay Z’s collaborative albums with the likes of The Roots, R Kelly and Linkin Park in this list, but it feels like it would be remiss to do a 'Jay Z Rank The Albums' and leave out ‘Watch The Throne’. The Jigga’s head-to-head with Kanye is all killer: ‘Niggas In Paris’ still goes off, while for all their braggadocio, ‘Who on Stop Me’ and the Frank Ocean-assisted ‘No Church In The Wild’ muse with articulation on religion, materialism and the American Dream.
2. The Black Album
Jay Z’s retirement album (yeah, right) was his ninth in seven years, but there were no signs of flagging here. Bolstered by a dream team of producers – Just Blaze, The Neptunes, Timbaland – ‘The Black Album’ is the sound of Jigga acclimatising to global fame, his path “from bricks to billboards, from grams to Grammys” (‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’). The Rick Rubin-produced ‘99 Problems’ was the tale of a stop-and-search so lyrically detailed that law professor Caleb Mason used it as a case study in a 20-page essay on criminal procedure. Jay Z would also release his rhymes as a capellas, spawning a wealth of excellent mash-ups (notably Danger Mouse’s Beatles-sampling ‘The Grey Album’).
1. The Blueprint
As good as it gets, basically. Jay Z’s 2001 album is a rap masterclass, peak of a glittering career and one of the pinnacles of east coast hip-hop history. Written in two days and cut in just two weeks, the album featured four killer productions from Kanye West, the soul-tinged beats of ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A)’ and ‘Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)’ spurring Jay Z onto new lyrical heights. One of rap’s all-time great beef tracks, ‘Takeover’ finds Jigga serving Nas his ass to the jamming organ riff pilfered from The Doors’ ‘Five To One’. And with but one guest spot – a bravura Eminem cameo on the penultimate ‘Renegade’ – it’s an album totally free of shoddy crossover and guest-spot grandstanding: just Jay Z pure and unleavened, doing what he does best.