When individuals are asked who their top five rappers of all time are, it usually, if not always, includes the legendary Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z. The musician (real name Shawn Carter) is one of the greatest ever to do it; his talent is undeniable. Jay-Z possesses specific qualities that have set him above the rest of hip-hop. Although other rappers, such as Kanye West, have had similar stories, Jay-Z is incomparable to any artist, dead or alive.
Since his arrival on the scene in the mid-1990s, Carter has always viewed himself and his peers as a business. This lens and self-perception are an integral part of his success. While many young rappers enter the industry under the impression that they are creatives who make a product for a business to sell, Carter came into the music game with the mind of a businessman. He wore two hats. From the beginning, he was an executive and a creative and set out not to be an individual of value but the owner of a business with high demand.
From the moment Carter started making music, he cornered major labels who had to invest in his company to access him, thereby growing his business. As the largest stakeholder in Roc-A-Fella, he continued to sign acts and pocketed most of the money despite the other parties involved, such as Def Jam. This was Carter’s business-minded approach which resulted in continued growth in his net worth. Other people who have done this include Russell Simmons, who produced Run-DMC and Diddy, who founded Bad Boy entertainment. These individuals are also among the most wealthy people in hip-hop. However, Jay-Z is one of the only figures, aside from Russell Simmons, who has managed to sustain his business.
Beyond his slick industry tactics, Jay-Z is also a fantastic lyricist and has released some of the most extraordinary hip-hop music ever. As well as his own material, such as his legendary 2003 project, The Black Album, as the co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Carter has overseen works such as Kanye’s 2004 ground-breaking debut, College Dropout. As a result, Carter has become one of the most respected rappers and also the wealthiest. The Bedford-Stueyvant’s ability to put words together is second to none, and although many speculate as to whether he would be where he is if it wasn’t for the early demise of Biggie Smalls, the Brooklyn artist is epic.
As a professional recording artist, over his 30-year career span, Jay-Z has released 13 studio albums, one compilation album, one mixtape, five collaborative albums, two live albums and one soundtrack, resulting in a whopping total of 119 singles. However, having scoured his hefty catalogue, we have determined Carter’s five most legendary verses ever. See our controversial picks below.
The five greatest Jay-Z verses of all time:
5. ‘Smile’ ft Gloria Carter, 4:44, (2017)
This 2017 track features Jay-Z’s mother. This mellow and laidback song presents more like a freestyle, and although it has a chorus, its effect is so minimal in comparison to the verses in all of their glory. With lines such as “A loss ain’t a loss, it’s a lesson/ Appreciate the pain, it’s a blessin'” ‘Smile’ is akin to a heartful lecture, teaching young African-Americans how to be fully equipped for life. Carter skips and navigates the offbeats of the track with ease, and it is quite astonishing how easy he makes it seem.
Speaking on the US and the systems it has in place, Carter brazenly proclaims, “We deny Black entrepreneurs, free enterprise that’s why it’s a black market.” Jay-Z usually never speaks on politics and (unlike his counterpart Kanye West) keeps fairly shtum about any topic that could land him in trouble. However, on this track, Carter gets some things off his chest. The song is concluded by the Brooklyn musician’s mother, who reads an inspirational poem which encourages people not to “live in the shadows”. A sensitive yet powerful track is rife with lyricism here.
4. ‘Renegade’ ft Eminem, The Blueprint, (2001)
Released in 2001, Jay-Z recruited the hot new kid on the block at the time to feature on this record, and it is truly something to behold. As an individual who studied the dictionary loved to create magic with his words and top it all off with a flawless delivery. Until Eminem arrived on the scene, Carter was considered hands-down the best lyricist and an incomparable figure. However, Eminem most definitely took lyricism to a new level when he arrived. With the two going back to back on a track, naturally, there was a sense of competition, and fans were quick to compare.
On his 2001 diss track ‘Ether’, released after Carter’s album The Blueprint, Nas asserted, “Eminem murdered you on your own sh*t!” However, many weren’t so sure that the Detroit rapper had outclassed Carter. Jay-Z delivers a great verse on this track. It is one of the Brooklyn emcee’s best verses, with complex rhyme schemes delivered in a sombre tone. A masterclass in lyricism from two legends. With lines such as “I had to hustle, my back to the wall, ashy knuckles/ Pockets filled with a lotta lint, not a cent/ Gotta vent, lotta innocent lives lost on the project bench/ What you hollerin’? Gotta pay rent, bring dollars in” — it’s the story of desperation.
3. ‘Marcy Me’, 4:44, (2017)
4:44’s ‘Marcy Me’ hears Jay-Z speak about his childhood experiences in the crime-ridden projects of Bedford-Stueyvant. Produced by No I.D., the beatmaker that mentored Kanye West, ‘Marcy Me’ is a heavily reflective song. Carter explained his intentions concerning the track in an interview he did with iHeart Radio. Delving deeper into the song and its meaning, Carter detailed, “‘Marcy Me’ is a nostalgic walk through Marcy, and it’s about that hopefulness, that feeling of ‘Man, can I really do this? Can I really be one of the biggest artists in the world?’ You have these dreams, ‘Can I be one of the biggest basketball players?’ We have these dreams.”
The album cut, which samples the Portuguese progressive rock band Quarteto 1111’s 1970 track, ‘Todo O Mundo E Ninguém’ features impactful lyrics such as: “So maybe I’m the one or maybe I’m crazy/ I’m from Marcy Houses, where the boys die by the thousands” and “Marcy me/ Streets is my artery, the vein of my existence/ I’m the Gotham City heartbeat.” The song is undeniably moving and a must-hear for those who want to immerse themselves in the Marcy Houses.
2. ‘The Story Of OJ.’, 4:44, (2017)
This 2017 track features on Jay-Z’s thirteenth album, 4:44. The project was Jay-Z’s last full-length album and was very different from anything he had put out. 4:44 was received well by critics but not by diehard Jay-Z fans who fell in love with his 2000s mafioso rap style. However, aged 48, Carter had evolved and matured, which was subsequently reflected in his music. The Brooklyn rapper has always steered clear of controversy for most of his career. Whether political, social media-related or other, Carter has always avoided it.
However, this was not the case with 4:44. On his last album; the artist touched on highly sensitive topics, including racism and politics. Furthermore, he even addressed his marital infidelities. ‘The Story of OJ.’ focuses heavily on the harsh realities of being black in America. It speaks on how no matter how wealthy you are still seen as “a n*gger”. During the hook, Jay raps, “Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real n*gga, rich n*gga, poor n*gga, house n*gga, field n*gga. Still a n*gga!” The track has been interpreted a number ways, but it undoubtedly has a profound meaning.
1. ‘Lucifer’, The Black Album, (2003)
Produced by Kanye West, this 2003 track undoubtedly boasts Jay-Z’s best verse of all time. For this song, Ye sampled a well-known reggae jam entitled ‘Chase The Devil’ by Max Romeo and used it in a clever way, somehow managing to work it into an East Coast-style hip-hop instrumental. The Carter track addresses New York City’s high homicide rate compared to the rest of the US and the reasons desperate people murder.
Jay-Z incorporates all kinds of clever religious metaphors and similes, including lines such as “Jesus, I ain’t trying to be facetious, but ‘Vengeance is mine’ sayeth the Lord” and “Yes, this is holy war, I wet y’all all with the holy water…Lift up your soul or give you the holy ghost Please/ I leave you in somebody’s cathedral for stunting like Evel Knievel” the Brooklyn artist undoubtedly manages to rap incredible verses while staying thematically consistent. ‘Lucifer’ was widely considered one of the best tracks from The Black Album, and there’s even footage of Jay-Z and Kanye West making it in the studio. A fantastic song.