It’s hard to quantify the impact of Jay-Z on modern hip hop. Do a little bit of digging, and it is easy to see how Hova can be regarded as the forefather of the game as we see it today. Through a run of impressive records and some supremely well-played media ventures, Jay has become not only one of the richest men in music but one of the most respected.
However, operating as such a high profile figure means being subjected to critique. While usually that is reserved for piercing the armour of such a juggernaut like Jay, today we’re going to do something a little bit different and pick out five of his best songs of all time. Below, we’ve got Jay-Z’s top five tracks.
Jay-Z has been rap royalty for a quarter of a century, and throughout that explosive time, he’s amassed an almost unrivalled back catalogue that is arguably unmatched. As well as releasing 13-studio albums, Hov has always enjoyed experimenting with collaboration and has worked strenuously with others during his career. He’s teamed up with the likes of Kanye West, and Beyonce for full albums, but, on top of that, Jay has also made himself the king of the feature.
But today, we’re looking at Jay-Z’s own songs, the tracks that define his legacy and make him one of the greatest rappers of all time. 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.
With a career that reaches back across three decades, it can be hard to know exactly where Jay’s career crescendoes; perhaps it hasn’t quite reached that point? But, below, we’re trying to lend a helping hand by providing you with a definitive reflection of his most precious asset—his music.
Below, we’ve got Jay-Z’s five best songs of all time.
Jay-Z’s five best songs of all time:
5. ‘Public Service Announcement’
If an artist halts the presses to ensure that his latest record has one more track on it then you’re pretty much guaranteed a banger. That’s exactly what happened for Jay and his inclusion of ‘Public Service Announcement’ on The Black Album. A classic Blaze production, the song is certified brilliance.
The song sees Jay answer to a journalist who had just sat through an album listening session, only to ask how he could pair a Che Guevara T-shirt with a chain. “Che’s failures were bloody and his contradictions frustrating,” Jay-Z writes in Decoded. “But to have contradictions – especially when you’re fighting for your life – is human, and to wear the Che shirt and the platinum and diamonds together is honest.”
4. ’99 Problems’
One of Jay’s most famous songs is one of his best too. ’99 Problems’ saw Jay reconnect with Rick Rubin as, he explains in Fade to Black, he attempted to “recapture that feeling I had when I was a kid.” Of course, with Rubin onboard, the song clatters with heavy rock instrumentals, but Jay’s lyrics hit hardest.
A modern-day critique of society, Jay, is on fire, blasting ahead of the 1980s riffs; he delivers the kind of scything commentary that can end campaigns and begin wars. The hook, taken from Ice-T and Brother Marquis of 2 Live Crew – “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” was offered up as bait. “[E]ven as I was recording it, I knew someone, somewhere would say ‘Aha, there he goes talking about them hoes and bitches again!’” Jay writes in Decoded.
3. ‘Dead Presidents II’
Jay-z rapping about fake gangsters is nothing new, and before he even released an album ‘Dead Presidents’ he took aim at phonies who were too scared to be the real deal. However, by the time his debut LP Reasonable Doubt arrived, the song was adapted to include two more searing verses.
Throughout the track, Jay offers up a sincere reflection of his life, he raps, “On the uptown high block he got his side sprayed up” speaking of his life with friend DeHaven Irby. The song tracks his life even more deeply, “I had near brushes, not to mention, three shots close range” before confidently declaring his new place at the top of the pile, “Roc-A-Fella, don’t get it corrected, this shit is perfected”. It’s a classic.
2. ‘Big Pimpin”
While, in general, we’ve tried to avoid some of Jay’s biggest-selling songs, largely because they hang on op hooks far away from where Jay leaves his hat, there’s a summer freshness about this song that is hard to avoid. Produced with Timbaland, ‘Big Pimpin” is pure party vibes, providing a wave that everyone can jump on to.
However, last year saw Jay publicly apologise for the song: “I couldn’t believe I wrote that. And continued to claim it. What sort of animal would utter such a thing? It’s very harsh to read,” apologising for the track. However, if you remove the misogyny at the centre of the lyrics, which is a hard thing to do with hip hop’s wider songs, then you find a pure pop anthem.
1. ‘Where I’m From’
Some songs define a rapper and Jay-Z’s ‘Where I’m From’ does that with aplomb. It’s an intimate and candid track that not only showcased the star standing behind the mic but gave us an idea of the man and mogul he would become. As he provides a socio-economic critique on the world, he also perfectly encapsulates the world he sees around him.
“I’m from where the hammers rung /News cameras never come” raps Jay expertly capturing the sentiment of Brooklyn in the 1990s. “Where how you get rid of guys who step out of line, your rep solidifies / So tell me when I rap, you think I give a fuck who criticise?” it’s another sentiment that demonstrates the power Jay-Z had all along.