[Photo Courtesy of Parade]
By: Adrian Woods, Contributor
What can be said about JAY-Z that hasn’t already been said? With 125 million records sold, he’s one of the best selling artists ever and has the most Grammys for a rapper at a total of 23 The rapper also has the most number one albums by a solo artist of all time with 200. With an impressive repertoire, JAY-Z has solidified himself as not only one of the greatest rappers of all time, but one of the greatest musical artists of all time. With that, his discography is one of the strongest of any rapper out there, so it would be blasphemy to not look over it and rank his studio albums. The only album that will not be included on this RANKED is Watch The Throne since it is a collaboration album with Kanye West, so it would be difficult to rank. With that being said, let’s begin.
13. Kingdom Come (2006)
After JAY-Z’s wildly successful The Black Album, which was rumored to be his last album, Kingdom Come came out and stopped those rumors. Unfortunately, the album was such a drop in quality for listeners. It just seems like there was little to no effort or energy put into this album, not to say it’s horrible, but it’s just forgettable. Even with the interesting theme of spirituality, it can’t save this record from being the worst JAY-Z album.
12. The Dynasty: Roc La Famillia (2000)
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia is a bit of a tough one to discuss. Every record in JAY-Z’s catalog up to that point was fresh and inventive, stuff people had never heard a rapper do, yet this album didn’t really bring anything new to the table. Nothing seemed to stick out like those records at the time. It sometimes sounds like it’s a collaboration with 10 out of the 16 songs on the album featuring Memphis Bleek or Beanie Seagal, and only three songs with just JAY-Z rapping. This is a good compilation album, but not a great JAY-Z album.
11. The Blueprint 2: The Gift & A Curse (2002)
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & A Curse is a bit of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, there are many great songs on this album. “03 Bonnie & Clyde”, “I Did It My Way” and “Guns & Roses” are all songs that give this album a kick, but there is one glaring problem with the album: how long it is. Clocking in at 112 minutes long, there’s a great album in here, but it’s blocked out by songs that should not be on it or put on another album. There’s even a Blueprint 2.1 which is the shorter version of the album, so why even make the album with the songs not on 2.1?
10. The Blueprint 3 (2009)
For an album with two massive singles like “Run This Town” and “Empire State Of Mind”, The Blueprint 3 was met with mixed reviews upon its release, and many consider it to be JAY-Z’s worst album. However, I believe that to be far from the truth. Like the two songs previously mentioned, this album is packed with energy, with songs like the intro “What We Talkin About” which kickstarts the album and “On To The Next One” is something someone would play after their favorite basketball team wins a game. This album has very creative sampling on those tracks, including the album closer “Young Forever” sampling Alphaville‘s “Forever Young”. This album deserves more credit than it gets and is a massive step above JAY-Z’s weakest records.
9. Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)
Magna Carta Holy Grail is another JAY-Z album that received mixed reviews yet is not deserving of that reputation. “Holy Grail” featuring Justin Timberlake is one of the best openers in JAY-Z’s catalog, and though it is the best song on the record, that doesn’t mean it goes downhill completely. “Nickels and Dimes” has a sort of epic presence with its production, making it intriguing to listen to. “Tom Ford” has this very electronic beat to it, standing out among the other songs on the album. Many songs have this grand aura to them due to the theme of the album which is the orchestra. Frank Ocean’s feature on the song “Ocean” is a prime example of that. This isn’t an ordinary JAY-Z album, but that doesn’t mean JAY-Z can’t make something out of the ordinary.
8. American Gangster (2007)
After JAY-Z saw the movie American Gangster, it inspired him to make an album under the same name and themes. The gangster theme of this album is very well done lyrically and production wise, and brought JAY-Z back after the underwhelming Kingdom Come. Every song on the album sounds like it would be in a gangster movie. Having Idris Elba give a monologue in the intro goes perfect for this theme. Songs like “Hello Brooklyn 2.0”, which has a prominent Beastie Boys sample and Lil Wayne feature, “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…)” and “Success,” which actually features longtime rival Nas. American Gangster was JAY-Z’s true comeback after The Black Album.
7. Vol.3…Life And Times of S. Carter (1999)
Maybe the most underrated album in his discography, Vol.3…Life And Times of S.Carter has some real hidden gems. “S.Carter” may have a simple beat to it, but the way JAY-Z and Amil work off each other lyrically make the song so much better. The heavy and fuzzy guitar riff at the beginning of and throughout “Do It Again” gives the song a real presence on the album. A similar beat is on “So Ghetto”. Production wise, it’s as clean and smooth as records like In My Lifetime, Vol.1 and Vol.2…Hard Knock Life, along with the rapping on it.
6. In My Lifetime, Vol.1 (1997)
In My Lifetime, Vol.1 did something that JAY-Z would do throughout his entire career and that is give his albums a completely different sound than the last. This album does not sound like Reasonable Doubt. This album is more lively and playful, lyric and production wise. “Who Wit It II”, “Friend Or Foe 98” and “Streets Is Watching” all fall under that category. All these tracks have smooth yet head banging grooves to them that gives it its own distinct sound. Even though these beats and sounds would be improved upon in the future, that doesn’t mean they weren’t already genius to begin with.
5. Vol.2…Hard Knock Life (1998)
This album has some of JAY-Z’s best and most recognizable songs on them, including what some consider his best song, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” and tells the story of him being poor to becoming rich, which uses the iconic Annie song “Hard Knock Life” sample. Some features return from other JAY-Z albums like Memphis Bleek on “It’s Alright” and Foxy Brown on “Paper Chase,” but new features include rap legend DMX on “Money, Cash, Hoes”. JAY-Z and DMX work off each other’s vocals so well with what sounds like a repeating keyboard riff in the background. “Reservoir Dogs” is like a story and each feature is sharing their part of the story. Vol.2…Hard Knock Life kept JAY-Z soaring among the best rappers in the game at the time.
4. Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Reasonable Doubt is one of the best debut albums in rap history and put JAY-Z on the map. The flows of the rapping are something the world had not heard before and something the world wanted more of after listening to this. Features from Memphis Bleek, Foxy Brown and The Notorious B.I.G were other contributions to making this album feel like a big deal. The heartbeat in the beginning of the song “Can’t Knock The Hustle” is like the beginning of JAY-Z’s career coming to life. JAY-Z even includes a sample from Nas on “Dead Presidents II,” who he was rivals with at the time after not showing up for the track “Bring it On”. This album was just the beginning for what would be a legendary career in front of JAY-Z.
3. 4:44 (2017)
One of the most mature rap albums ever made, 4:44 is an album that you’re probably not gonna hear any songs played at bars or clubs, because it’s not that kind of album. No album by JAY-Z has had sounds like 4:44. JAY-Z spills his life story on the page and doesn’t hold back whether it’s about the life of African Americans and their culture on the song “The Story of O.J”, a love letter and apology to his wife Beyonce on “4:44”, the separation from the culture on “Family Feud” or JAY-Z talking to his daughter on “Legacy”. Even with this being JAY-Z’s shortest album by far, so much raw storytelling is packed in it that it didn’t need to be an hour long for it to have the greatness it has. As of writing this, 4:44 is JAY-Z’s latest release, and if it were to be his last, it would be a great way to go out with it being one of the best rap albums of the 2010s and in his discography.
2. The Black Album (2003)
There was much speculation that this would have been JAY-Z’s final album with the rumors of him possibly retiring. If this were his final album, The Black Album would have been one of the best swan song albums of all time, but even though it wasn’t, that doesn’t mean that this album did not have a lasting impact on the hip hop scene. This album gives off the impression that this was his last album with the amount of effort and creativity put into it. A lot of the tracks have this orchestral production with strings on songs like “December 4th”, “Moment Of Clarity” and “Allure”. “My First Song” is maybe JAY-Z’s best album closer and fits in so well with the album as it was meant to be possibly his last. The Black Album made it clear that even if he wanted to retire, he could easily come back and not miss a beat.
1. The Blueprint (2001)
It was really hard to put this album in any other placing than number one, it’s just that spectacular. This album was an absolute game changer for rap at the time. This Kayne West and Just Blaze produced album has some of the most simple yet rich samples in JAY-Z’s discography. Samples from rock legends like The Doors and David Bowie, funk like Eddie Murphy and the Jackson Five, and even sampling rappers of that time like Royce Da 5’9” and KRS-One, this record has it all. This record has hit after hit including “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”, “Girls, Girls, Girls”, “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)”, “Renegade” and so much more. It also features one of the greatest diss tracks “Takeover” on Nas and “Prodigy”, which changed both their careers. There are many milestone albums in hip hop, and The Blueprint is for sure one of them.