To celebrate his 44th birthday, rap legend Jay Z ranked twelve of his albums from best to worst, providing brief commentary on each one:
“1. Reasonable Doubt (Classic)
2. The Blueprint (Classic)
3. The Black Album (Classic)
4. Vol. 2 (Classic)
5. American Gangster (4 1/2, cohesive)
6. Magna Carta (Fuckwit, Tom Ford, Oceans, Beach, On the Run, Grail)
7. Vol. 1 (Sunshine kills this album…fuck… Streets, Where I’m from, You Must Love Me…)
8. BP3 (Sorry critics, it’s good. Empire (Gave Frank a run for his money))
9. Dynasty (Intro alone…)
10. Vol. 3 (Pimp C verse alone… oh, So Ghetto)
11. BP2 (Too many songs. Fucking Guru and Hip Hop, ha)
12. Kingdom Come (First game back, don’t shoot me)”
After seeing this, I began to wonder what my Jay Z ranking would look like. So I decided to compile a list of my own (although I excluded The Dynasty because, as great as it is, it’s more of a compilation of artists than a solo work). When you go back and listen to these albums chronologically, three things become clear. One: the man has some great albums. Two: HOVA’s flow and lyrical ability have really changed over the years. And three: the content of his albums are way too similar—and that is Jay’s biggest flaw. Each work addresses his ghetto upbringing, his wealthy lifestyle, money, drug dealing, and girls, always making to leave Jigga enough time to compare himself to Frank Sinatra. Compiling this list was a challenge, especially when it came to the top four. Regardless, here is my ranking of Jay Z’s eleven solo albums, from best to worst.
1. 2003’s The Black Album: This is a work of genius. Even its title, which was inspired by The Beatles’ White Album, is brilliant. Some people might rank it lower, simply because this was supposed to be Jay’s final album and wasn’t…at all. But to hell with that. From beginning to end, The Black Album couples top-notch lyricism with awesome beats from various producers—and it all comes together to form one cohesive and epic album.
Greats: All of them
2. 1998’s Hard Knock Life, Volume 2: This. Is. Hard. Clever, raw lyrics (“Impregnate the world when I come through your speakers/F*ck hot, my records got the fever”) and incredible production (i.e. using an Annie sample to describe ghetto life) make this a classic Jay Z album and one of hip-hop’s finest—and most overlooked.
Greats: Hardknock Life; If I Should Die; Ride or Die; N*gga What, N*gga Who; Money, Cash, Hoes; A Week Ago; Can I Get A; It’s Like That; Money Ain’t a Thang
3. 2001’s The Blueprint: This album has a very different sound than its predecessors. The lyrics aren’t as strong (though still great), and the beats are more mainstream (also still great). Still—The Blueprint stands as a landmark of the genre. From the verbal beat down of his rivals (Takeover), to the Snoop Dogg-inspired anthem (Izzo), to the legendary duet with Eminem (Renegade), most of this album’s songs have gone on to become hip-hop classics.
Greats: Takeover; Izzo; Girls, Girls, Girls; U Don’t Know; Hola Hovito; Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love); Song Cry; Renegade; Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)
4. 1996’s Reasonable Doubt: As Jay’s first album, this is widely considered to be his best. His smooth flow and raw lyricism are at its peak, enabling him to keep up with the legendary B.I.G. and create a kickass tune. Some of the production choices are amazing, taking great lines from classic songs and turning them into hot tracks. Others, though, just lack the punch of the aforementioned albums, thus bringing this down to the fourth slot.
Greats: Brooklyn’s Finest; Dead Presidents II; Feelin’ It; D’evils; 22 Two’s; Can I Live; Coming of Age; Bring It On
5. 2007’s American Gangster: This shows Jay-Z returning to lyrical form following his Black-Album-retirement. Inspired by the film of the same name, this album focuses on the gangster lifestyle and has some solid production. It’s also great to see HOVA and Nas on a track together, though I think Jay gets murdered on it. A few songs are definitely forgettable, but many are underrated and are sure to please your ears.
Greats: Pray; American Dreamin’; No Hook; Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…); I Know; Ignorant S*it; Say Hello; Fallin’
6. 2009’s Blueprint 3: This album gets so hated on. Sure, not all of the lyrics are stellar, and yeah, Jay Z ends multiple lines with the same annoying syllable. Still, every track here is an instant head bobber. But perhaps this album’s greatest quality is its unique subject matter. Here, Jay Z slaughters auto-tune, belts out a Sinatra-inspired love ballad to New York, puts a twist on Alphaville’s carpe diem anthem, and calls out every rap star in the game to give them props. To hell with the critics; this is an underrated album and lots of fun to listen to.
Greats: Thank You; D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune); Run this Town; Empire State of Mind; On To the Next One; A Star is Born; Venus VS Mars; Already Home; Reminder; Young Forever
7. 2002’s Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse: Unlike Jay Z (and apparently everyone else), I actually like this album, particularly The Curse. However, it does has its flaws. For one thing, it’s not very cohesive: one disc is more mainstream (The Gift), while the other is darker (The Curse). And from what I can gather, that is the only discernible difference between them. Secondly, Jigga’s Sinatra-inspired track, My Way, could be soooo much better than it is. And lastly, Jay gives us a crappy song on The Gift (What They Gonna Do), and then gives us a crappy sequel to that track on The Curse (What They Gonna Do II). If you cut out some songs, then you have a classic album worthy of the top four. But even with those “filler” tracks included, this is still an enjoyable listen.
First Disc Greats: A Dream; The Watcher 2; ‘03 Bonnie and Clyde; Excuse Me Miss; All Around the World; Poppin’ Tags
Second Disc Greats: Diamonds Is Forever; Guns ‘N Roses; U Don’t Know remix; Meet the Parents; Blueprint 2; As One; A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier
8. 1997’s In My Lifetime, Volume 1: As the second album in Jay’s catalogue, the raw lyricism and smooth flow of classic Jigga are both there. Unfortunately, the weak production renders many of the songs forgettable and lackluster. A rapper can have the hardest lyrics, but that still doesn’t make a great song; you need to have the right beat to go along with it.
Greats: A Million and One Questions; The City is Mine; I Know What Girls Like; Who You Wit II; Face Off; You Must Love Me
9. 2006’s Kingdom Come: This gets a lot of hate, simply because it wasn’t the comeback that people were expecting. If you perceive it as the follow-up to The Black Album, then yeah, it’s weak. But as a stand-alone work, it’s really not that bad. Kingdom Come marks a decade in Jay’s career, and evidently, a lot has changed during those ten years. The flow he wielded in ‘96, or even in 2003, has clearly rusted. Even the tribute to his mother (I Made It) comes off as weak. Overall, the lyrics are poor, but they’re fortunately masked by catchy beats that get your head bobbing. As long as you mindlessly listen to the music and tune out Jay’s words, you’ll be sure to enjoy this album. I did anyway.
Greats: Oh My God; Kingdom Come; Show Me What U Got; Do U Wanna Ride; Trouble; Minority Report; Beach Chair
10. 1999’s Life and Times of S. Carter, Vol. 3: “5, 10 years from now, they’re going to miss Jay-Z,” the intro tells us. Ironic, since Jay-Z is approaching a 20+ year career and showing no signs of second retirement. Regardless, Jay’s lyrics are weaker here than in the last two volumes, and some of the production choices are strange and jarring. At least, Kingdom Come had some great beats. Here, we have mediocre wordplay and subpar production. Still, the album does feature a hip-hop classic (Big Pimpin’) and a very underrated, awesome track (Dope Man), as well as this epic line about the then-unknown 50 Cent: “Go against Jigga, your ass is dense/I’m about a dollar, what the f*ck is 50 Cents?”
Greats: HOVA Intro; So Ghetto; Do It Again; Dope Man; Big Pimpin’; HOVA Song
11. 2013’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail: My opinion on this album still hasn’t changed—although my grade has (which probably means I should revisit Kanye’s Yeezus). Listening to Jay’s other albums and then coming back to this one is honestly appalling. The gap between them is so huge that I can’t understand why he’d rank it where he did. Even the one right above this is so much better. Between its heinous production/beats and atrocious flow/lyricism, this album should be in last place on everybody’s list.
Greats: Holy Grail; Nickels and Dimes; BBC; Jay Z Blue (I must’ve been braindead when I listed Crown and Heaven in my original review; those songs blows)
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