Picking out the ‘Top 5’ of your favourite artist is a tradition as old as hip-hop itself. Few supreme lyricists have escaped such a ruling and below we’re taking on the enigmatic career of Jay-Z as we select his five greatest albums of all time.
Hova established himself as one of the legends of hip-hop and while he certainly made his name away from the mic, being Beyonce’s husband can have that effect on your life and career, it is in the studio that Jay really put his own spin on the rap game. Unlike any other hip-hop artists before him, the rapper made sure that his albums weren’t hit singles with a few fillers, they were bodies of work, pieces of art set to be discussed for decades.
Announcing himself in 1996 with Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z has become the foreword in class. His rhymes are silky, visually engaging and underpinned by Hova’s natural flow, they are as happy to discuss the usual tropes of hip-hop (making money, getting girls and being a gangster on your block) but he’s also, especially in his later years, used his position to try and open the minds of his audience. Never afraid to take a creative leap, there’s no doubt that Jay-Z will be a legendary name in the rap game forevermore.
Born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969, the writing was on the wall for Jay at an early stage in his career. The rapper founded his label Roc-A-Fella in 1995 before he later released his debut LP a year later. It showed that while easily considered one of the greatest rappers of his generation, above all else, Jay was a businessman as well as an artist.
In his albums, he gets to showcase both with a rare simplicity that few can match. Below, we’ve picked out his five best full-length releases and it is a reminder of his powerful impact n the genre and the music business as a whole.
Jay-Z’s 5 best albums:
5. American Gangster (2007)
There’s no doubt that American Gangster is an underrated gem. Not often breaking the top five of Jay’s best, the reason this record flourishes, especially when looking back, is the simplest, soulful and oh-so-sultry beats courtesy of Diddy and the Hitmen. It’s the exact album Jay would have made had he been active in the seventies.
There are loose notions of a concept album floating around the LP but to focus on that would be to miss some of the rapper’s finest work. Supposed to storyboard the career of a don there are stonking moments across the LP including ‘American Dreamin”, ‘Roc Boys’ and ‘Fallin’ which all deserve revisiting at your earliest convenience.
4. Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life (1998)
There’s never much doubt about the top four of Jay’s canon but, nevertheless, it’s worth reminding yourself of four of the greatest albums in hip-hop history, starting with this gem from 1998. Hard Knock Life sees Jay reign supreme as one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation.
It was this record that launched Jay into a whole new realm and made him a bonafide household name. Considering he had planned to have retired by this point, we’re very glad he had a change of heart. ‘Ride or Die’ and ‘It’s Like That’ aren’t just Mase clapbacks but perfect reasons as to how Jay became the greatest.
3. The Black Album (2003)
One of the greatest albums in hip-hop history only just makes it into the top three of Jay’s work, for that reason alone the New Yorker should be considered one of the best there is. On The Black Album, Jay laid down a marker that, even to this day, few have ever matched. Featuring some of the biggest names in the game, including Timbaland, the Neptunes, Eminem and Kanye there is only one fault on the entire album and the less said about ‘Justify My Thug’ the better.
Billed originally as Jay’s swansong, it’s fitting that the final track on the album ‘Allure’ should see him reminisce about street living. Equally, there is ‘My 1st Song’ which is genuinely blessed with his classic double-time stutter style. It’s a peach of a record and deserves to be heard right now.
2. Reasonable Doubt (1996)
The old adage is that when an artist releases a debut album it should be considered their life’s work. Everything prior to that first record that the artists experienced is encapsulated in its black plastic grooves. For Jay, it’s one of the most visceral, slick and effortless pieces of art one could hope to stumble upon.
Flourished with Jay’s undoubted charisma, he exudes a sense of calm and collected menace that other rappers have never matched. He also did all of this while providing some of the most searing rhymes ever seen, effortlessly merging syllables, curating vivid imagery and, all in all, delivering one hell of an album.
1. Blueprint (2001)
He had been working on his rap game for five years within the public eye and, on Blueprint, everything came together to assert Jay-Z as the best rapper around. Everything that makes Hova a true king can be heard on this LP. From the soulful seventies beats, the introduction of Kanye as his producer, to the way he tells stories with consummate ease, on Blueprint, Jay laid it all out.
Songs like the title track, ‘Never Change’ and ‘Song Cry’ are all moments that will live in his legacy for a long time to come. Of course, we can’t forget about ‘Takeover’ either, which is right up there as one of the greatest diss tracks of all time. As well as that murder, there’s an argument that Eminem, the only feature, also dealt out his fair share of bloodshed. But nothing can take away from this being easily Jay-Z’s greatest album of all time.