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Hip-hop’s most notorious hustler has spent the better portion of three decades spreading game like gospel throughout his catalog. Whether you love or hate him, Jay-Z’s impact on the game goes beyond sixteen-bar verses and concept albums. He provided an entire generation with the blueprint on how to hustle through his music. Not many rappers can say their music has influenced the entire world with their unique view of the world and economics, making the hustler’s catalog the most sacred in the entire genre.

With over thirteen full-fledged studio albums under his belt, Jay has compiled some of the best moments in the history of hip-hop and music as a whole. From chart-topping records to intricate album cuts, the Brooklyn-bred hustler has reached every audience imaginable throughout his extensive catalog. Today, we take on the formidable task of ranking the thirty best Jay-Z records of all time.


Honorable Mentions


Album: The Black Album

It’s crazy to think that a record as recognizable as “99 Problems” could be slighted in a list discussing Hov’s best songs, but lets be honest: Jay has written more intriguing lyrical anecdotes and overall more sonically appealing anthems. Don’t get the placement twisted, though, as the blaring Rick Rubin production ended up being a great fit for Jay’s apathetic persona on record. “99 Problems” still remains as one of the most referenced records by any hip-hop artist, but the rambunctious nature of the songs falls behind many tracks in Hov’s catalog and even falls back in the stacked tracklist of The Black Album. Also, it isn’t even possible to go 55 in a 54! C’mon Hov!


Album: Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life

This is another heartbreaker that’s gonna cause some ruckus before we even start the list. Yes, we get it, the song is basically self-titled and even helped Jay take home a Grammy. But again, let’s be honest here. Jay has written and recorded hit records that sound better than this. The song’s spoof of the Broadway musical, Annie, is a fun to discover when you click play. But like any hit record, radio played this one out like crazy. The innocent sounding chorus of the children sampled by the coveted musical doesn’t hold up after your fifth full listen of the CD. The record did help rap breakthrough the mainstream barriers, but you have to admit it does become a tiring listen after a while. Shoutout to Hov for pulling off the finesse of a century though.


Album: Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter

This is starting to look like a purge against all of Jay-Z’s hit records, but once again, let us explain here. This record is credited as one of the first instances where Jay and Timbo developed a legendary connection that helped takeover the charts for sometime; but how often does this record get played in comparison to Hov’s other hits? “Is That Yo Bitch” was a monstrous club record that literally dominated dance floors for the ’99 and 2000. Unfortunately, this record was left in the dust of a New York City nightclub that got shut down for health code violations. The record is still a banger but continues to live in the shadow of its temporary impact.


Album: The Blueprint

And for the final purge of household Hov records, we have arguably the most recognizable record in Jay’s catalog. Childhood memories and mainstream bias will definitely fuel the hatred of this honorable mention, but how often does Jay bring this record up on his set lists? “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” is a monstrous record that should make a list of this caliber, but there’s other records on this same album with more staying power and significance. Realistically, this placement was a casualty of trying to take on a tumultuous task of this stature but hopefully we can rejoice in the fact that it was even mentioned. It would be criminal to not even include a record where Jay specifically “dumbed down” his lyrics, but at least we got Kanye West from this track.


Album: The Dynasty

This 2000 record was littered with so many underrated gems overlooked due to the impact of “I Just Wanna Love U”. The back and forth between each of the core Roc-A-Fella members on this joint perfectly demonstrated how strong the chemistry was among the camp. This track is the perfect capsulation of what the Roc-A-Fella dynasty truly meant to hip-hop as each artist showed just how much they wanted to be the best at their craft. No matter how many collectives we see being created in our lifetime, none will ever be able to pull off a record of this caliber.


Album: The Black Album

It’s always magic when Jay and Timbo get together on a track—however, the duo had to make something that would stand tall for their last dance moment. What resulted from another strenuous studio session with two titans was a hard-hitting banger that shattered club floors for years to come. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is one of those special records that gets the room moving in any occasion and even feels like it helps boost confidence. The early to mid 2000’s was a special time in music and the chemistry these two wielded played a big part in shaping what would make up the mainstream.


Album: The Dynasty

There’s nothing better than a classic Roc-A-Fella posse cut. The original four core members of Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek, Amil and Beanie Sigel helped lay the foundation for what would become an empire throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The quartet took it from Hollywood back to the ghetto as they laid rugged sixteens with no chorus in efforts to bring the edge back to the movement. Roc-A-Fella meant more than just hit records and the message was well-received when this track hit the streets.


Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1

It’s a shame that Vol. 1 was mainly perceived as Hov’s shameless shift into the mainstream because it’s tracks like these that make the album shine a different light. “Imaginary Players” helped incorporate a foreign vibe to New York street life on wax, taking a mellowed, nonchalant approach to the otherwise rigorous environment. It’s moments like these why Hov is widely loved because the overall atmosphere of the track could resonate in any region despite the differences in slang and location. There’s nothing better than throwing this on while cruising around, even if you’re just going down the street.


Album: Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter

It’s crazy how many people forget about this linkup between Jay and DJ Premier. This cut off of the widely revered Vol. 3 album didn’t get the widespread attention due to the chart shattering records this album had to offer. Jay returns with his signature slick talk gliding over a rugged Premo beat, sprinkling this mainstream juggernaut of a record with some gritty hip-hop. Though it’s a bit more lowkey compared to other Preemo collabs, “So Ghetto” is a staple in Hov’s catalog and is usually seen as one of the few bright spots off Vol. 3.


Album: The Black Album

It’s hard to believe that a Jay-Z and 9th Wonder collaboration would slip right under the radar. The North Carolina producer and ex-Little Brother member suddenly became hip-hop’s hottest producer after appearing on The Black Album tracklist. However, dedicated hip-hop listeners understood the severity of the placement as 9th’s soulful sound helped spawn a different side of Shawn Carter that we hoped to hear more of. Seriously, I don’t think Jay has ever sounded this good on a record, which is a huge statement in itself considering the man’s catalog. Had Jay not ‘retired’, a collaboration album between these two would’ve definitely sent the hip-hop world into a frenzy.


Album: 4:44

The one complaint many had about Jay during his lengthy career was his inability to emotionally open up on a full record. Jay had his moments here and there, but nothing close to what was reached on 4:44. On this cut, the now-elder statesman Shawn Carter shifts the focus from himself to his community, as he pens a love letter to the community that raised him. Hearing Jay try to accept the ever-changing ways of gentrification taking over his neighborhood created a personal space on the record where we saw Shawn Combs take the stage instead of Jay-Z. The vocals from The-Dream added an extra layer of sentiment to this already emotional record.


Album: Kingdom Come

One of the few bright spots on a rare lackluster Jay album helped fuel the freestyle game with its iconic beat. If you were actively keeping up with the hip-hop scene in the mid-2000s, then surely you remember when everybody and their mama rhymed over “Show Me What You Got.” Jay did the “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got” sample justice, courtesy of Just Blaze, as he proved he was still capable of making a hit record after coming back from retirement. The record still holds up great to this day but it’s difficult to listen to the song after hearing Wayne’s rendition of the jazzy beat, in which he tore the beat to shreds and solidified himself as the best rapper in the game at the time.


Album: The Blueprint 2

The overwhelming sequel to the certified classic Blueprint album didn’t live up to the unearthly expectations set before it. For being a two-in-one type of deal, the album didn’t have too many takeaways. But Jay still managed to score a hit with the reliable Pharrell collaboration. P’s hook over the enchanting beat set the perfect tone for a chilled club record and all Jay had to do was clock in and match the luxurious mood. Not too many are fond of Jay’s mainstream ventures, but it’s impossible to mean mug while listening to this song.


Album: The Black Album

It’s hard to find any blemishes on The Black Album, but if one change could be made, it would be to make this record the outro. Though it was advertised as Jay’s final album, “Encore” was the only record that felt like Jay-Z was truly about to retire. “Encore” is just as advertised, a well-deserved round of applause as we send off hip-hop’s living legend. The triumphant feel of the record really feels like Jay’s curtain call as he relives his career through a set of sixteens one final time. It’s hard to not get chills when you hear the beat fade while the applause intensifies.


Album: The Blueprint 3

I’m pretty sure its nearly impossible to find a single human being who hasn’t listened to this song. Over the years, Jay has managed to craft multiple anthems that perfectly captures with the larger than life persona that embodies New York City, but none get the job done like this one. From the keys on the instrumental to the lyrics shouting out New York landmarks, this record quite literally sounds like a movie scene where the character is absorbing the scene in Times Square. Jay’s love letter to New York isn’t the gritty reality he grew up in, but helps bring the Big Apple to a more positive and endearing light.


Album: Reasonable Doubt

The world first took notice of a laid back hustler when his debut unexpectedly took the rap game by storm in ’96. The mythical Reasonable Doubt opened with a hazy duet assisted by R&B superstar Mary J. Blige, making many wonder how a slick-talking kingpin got the Queen of R&B to appear on a track. The uplifting hustling hymn captivated the hip-hop world with Jay’s dope-boy swagger and Mary’s comforting vocals instilling an unmatchable sense of confidence in anyone who clicks play on the undeniable hip-hop classic. The audacity of a rookie to start off an album with a Mary J. Blige collab speaks volumes of the type of person the world was getting to know in Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter.


Album: The Blueprint 2

Many were quick to crown Nas the unanimous winner after a disastrous diss in the form of “Ether” led to one of the most self-detrimental moves of Jay’s career. After having “Supa Ugly” completely backfire on him, Jay wasn’t done addressing his issue with Nas, unleashing a sneaky bombshell in this star-studded sequel. On a record where the focus was Jay’s collabs with the industry’s heavy-hitters, Hov managed to set time aside to let everybody know that Nas wasn’t the hip-hop savior many painted him out to be. It’s hard not to go off when you hear a passionate instrumental like this one.


Album: American Gangster

The triumphant standout from the concept album inspired by the American Gangster film is the ultimate celebration of the Roc-A-Fella lineage. While the Roc-A-Fella dynasty went out on a sour note, its unofficial send-off track helps fans reminisce on the good ol’ days with the boisterous horns representing the regime’s ultimate success. Jay himself gathers friends from all over and uses his verses to offer a toast to old memories and present opportunities. It’s hard to realize how much different the world would be had Roc-A-Fella records not existed, but Jay continues to let the legacy live on through his musical journey.


Album: The Dynasty

One of the mosst iconic intro tracks of all time, The Dynasty intro set the tone for what hip-hop would later sound like as the Roc-A-Fella empire made its debut. Jay helped closed out the iconic 90’s with a bounce and an Annie sample dominating the charts, but as the rap game ushered into a new era, Jay recognized and took advantage of a leveled playing field as the industry adjusted to the Y2K era. Along with the help of producers like Just Blaze and Bink, Roc-A-Fella set the streets ablaze with sped-up soul samples and hard hitting drums. The Dynasty‘s intro helped spark what would make up the early 2000’s street rap scene and served as a major standout to this iconic compilation album.


Album: 4:44

One of the more elusive cuts off of the intimate 4:44 quite literally laid out a million dollars worth of game for $9.99. Though the album is best known for Jay’s internal monologue surrounding his life, no record off of 4:44 best represents the Marcy icon like this track. Despite its initial shock, the track’s title connects to Hov’s message of financial freedom in the black community, trying to steer many away from the flex-heavy culture. Hov broke it down in the most simplistic, yet shifty way as the somewhat simple lines carry miles of different messages behind them. All behind a beautiful piano sample from a Nina Simone record, The Story of O.J. is one of the most important tracks of recent memory, greatly displaying Hov’s ability to connect with the world no matter how out of touch he seems.


Album: The Blueprint

A song that was truly ahead of its time, there wasn’t a single song that reached the same levels of toxicity as this one. “Song Cry” is a record that came out at the right time as many pondered ifJay was even capable of opening up emotionally. Despite its cold plot, “Song Cry” puts Jay’s storytelling abilities on view, showing just how well he can lay out a setting and keep the narrative engaging. The near angelic touch of the beat does wonders as we hear a heartbreaking tale of a disingenuous relationship.


Album: Kingdom Come

The most common critique Jay received throughout his entire career was his lack of personal content. We all knew the almighty J-Hova who ran the streets of Brooklyn, but what we failed to see was a troubled Shawn Carter in these tales of crisis. “Lost One” was the first time we saw Jay open up to his fanbase as he coped with the death of his nephew who died in an automobile accident, driving the car that Jay had gifted him. Jay laid his pain on the track as he dealt with survivor’s remorse, allowing the somber piano keys from the beat act as a comfort blanket. It was the first time we had seen an emotionally troubled Shawn on the track, a bittersweet feeling in the hip-hop community, but Jay was able to bury the narrative that he wasn’t as authentic on the mic as many presumed. This heartbreaking tale remains one of the few standouts on the lackluster Kingdom Come and is one of Jay’s most personal records to date.


Album: Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life

Allow us to properly layout the scene here: Jay-Z at his peak rapping alongside a hungry Beanie Sigel, Sauce Money and a blazing group in The LOX. As one could imagine with that lineup, this record was an all-out lyrical war with the recently established Roc-A-Fella going toe-to-toe with rap’s most vicious emcees in The LOX. Each lyricist going at each other’s throats with real disses being flung around as if a fight were about to break out in the studio. Though it set the stage for a very ugly beef between both camps, “Reservoir Dogs” is one of the most overlooked posse cuts of all time.


Album: The Blueprint

Before Nas unleashed the most vicious diss in hip-hop history, Jay let off a lethal set of shots from afar with the second track off of the classic Blueprint album. Up until this point, Jay had his Roc-A-Fella crew doing his dirty work, but when they failed to hang with the greats like Nas and Prodigy, Jay had to eventually step in. The result was a brutal four-verse diss record picking apart careers of both Nas and Mobb Deep, putting the entire rap game on notice as he stepped up to the ring. Jay pulled out every trick in book, strategically picking off his enemies one by one with embarrassing childhood photos and failed album sale statistics. Nas eventually dropped the bombshell that was “Ether” but in between drops it had seemed like Jay had bested Nas in their lyrical war.


Album: Reasonable Doubt

To think that we were intended to receive a joint album between Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G under the group name, The Commission. The two Brooklyn heavy-hitters did an amazing job of lyrically going back and forth, one-upping each other with every verse that followed. The unofficial duo of Jay and Biggie brought a lot of camaraderie to the once overlooked Brooklyn borough, giving the distinct section of New York its own gritty footing within the Big Apple. It was once said by many that the pairing helped bring the best out of one another, and this record is a clear confirmation of such statement. Had Biggie’s untimely passing not happened, he and Jay would’ve turned the entire hip-hop world up on its head.


Album: The Black Album

Truth be told, any variation of a list containing the best Jay-Z songs is near-impossible to make due to the immense depth in the legend’s catalog; but no matter how daunting the task may be, it should be mandatory to include this record. Easily one of the most passionate records that Jay has ever put out in his career, the then-retiring Shawn Carter laid everything out on the line and demanded his respect as he saw the stage shine on his reflection one final time—or so he thought. In efforts to please the hip-hop world one final time, Jay channeled his inner-Gladiator and put on one final bone-chilling performance. As the lights dim and the beat cuts while Jay finishes his bravado, the career of a hip-hop legend finally sinks in as Jay lifts his jersey into the rafters—literally—for an appropriate closing act.


Album: The Dynasty

The unofficial trio of Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel and Scarface quietly crafted some of the best records in the history of the genre scattered across multiple albums. Despite its low-key nature, this joint stands out among the rest as we see the most intimate set of verses from each of the artists. Jay, Beans and Face pen some of their most personal verses to date with Scarface closing the record with a eulogy dedicated to the child of his close friend. The record almost feels like a tough pill to swallow, but it’s at some of the lowest moments that we receive some of the most heartfelt content we will ever see from an artist. Obviously, Face’s verse took the spotlight, with proper reason, but this is still one of the better verses Jay himself has ever spit.


Album: Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter

On the flip side of the coin that has “This Can’t Be Life”, we have a hard-hitting Timbaland-produced banger. At a time where Jay had a vice-grip on the Billboard charts, “Big Pimpin’” was one of the few products of the mainstream Hov era that managed to create a life of its own. Timbaland cooked up a phenomenal beat that could rile up a crowd in any setting while Jay shares the stage with the legendary UGK to promote a positive message of respecting women… to a certain degree. At this point in time, it was rare for East Coast artists to integrate with other regions—especially the South—but Jay recognized the impact UGK had on the world outside of the Big Apple and wanted to pay his respects. The three gracious gentlemen split verses to educate the world about the positive effects of nationwide pimpin’. In all seriousness, this is a timeless club-shattering classic, topped off with one of the most iconic verses coming from the late great Pimp C. R.I.P to the Pimp.


Album: The Blueprint

Arguably one of the most important Jay records for reasons that don’t concern the rapper himself. The unanimous classic record, The Blueprint, created some of Jay’s best musical moments as Hov and the rest of the Baseline crew carefully crafted what many consider his magnum opus. The expanded formula of utilizing sped-up soul samples sold us all when we heard this record as Jay rapped an amazing performance, expressing the lack of respect he feels from the hip-hop world. Jay himself did a great job of compiling imposing verses, but the beat stole the show as it properly introduced us to a polo-wearing producer known as Kanye West. West appeared on the first Dynasty album, but it was on The Blueprint where his musical presence was felt the most, accommodating Jay with soul-drenching lane for him to expand his horizons.

To this day, “Heart of the City” remains iconic for the record itself and its unintended task of introducing the world to another one of the best musical minds of all time.


Album: Reasonable Doubt

The DJ Premier-produced cut off of the Reasonable Doubt record is a prime example of how the legendary producer is able to bring the best out of any emcee he collaborates with. Jay was already rapping on an entirely different level all throughout the course of the album, but he knew he had to turn it up a notch when working with hip-hop royalty. As a result, we were gifted with one of the most interpolated records from the 90’s. The crafty play on the word devil, tying it to the unnatural desire for money and its influence gave Jay a lot of brownie points across the entire hip-hop realm as he and Preemo also managed to tie in Snoop’s “Murder Was the Case” and Prodigy’s “I Shot Ya Remix” verse where he introduces the world to the concept of the illuminati. This record overall has a lot of depth with plenty of layers to peel back and remains as one of Jay’s most intricate records to date.


Album: Reasonable Doubt

Arguably the most potent cut off of the coveted Reasonable Doubt, “Can I Live” perfectly epitomizes the drug dealer phenomenon in hip-hop. From the jazzy beat to the constant jewels dropped by Jay in the verses, this record exemplifies the hustling mindset to a tee. Jay effortlessly floats over the silky instrumental with each verse delving deeper into the lavish peaks and drastic lows of the drug game. “Can I Live” is one of the few Jay records that also managed to take on a life of its own, taking the simple yet vibrant phrase to new heights as it’s taken on a life of its own in the hip-hop realm. Everyone and their mother has emerged with their own iteration of the song title and beat at this point; but this speaks volumes in accord to the tremendous influence of the record. Reasonable Doubt has a lot of standout moments, but there aren’t many on the album that match the significance of “Can I Live”, aside from one major submission to be listed.


Album: The Black Album

Talk about going out with a bang! There is not one record in the history of hip-hop that matches the energy that “PSA” emits within an arena setting. Jay and Just Blaze put together a phenomenal stadium record that could immediately get the crowd out of their seats and into the pits of the show. Everything about this record screams bonafide hit, from the hard-hitting instrumentals to the iconic opening lines. It is now hard not to burst out and yell “Allow me to reintroduce myself” when the moment warrants it. Just like any of the tracks within the top five, “Public Service Announcement” has managed to find its way around many different interpolations of the record, speaking to the impact of the anthem as well as Jay’s individual influence on the game. There’s not one show Jay can do where he doesn’t perform this song.


Album: The Blueprint

The most iconic record on the unanimous classic Blueprint album serves as a true testament to Jay’s endurance as a hustler. The Just Blaze and Jay-Z combination never fails as we see the emblematic sped-up soul sample sound of the 2000’s reach its peak here. Jay effortlessly glides over the bass-knocking beat with words of motivation, simultaneously reminding anybody who tries to duplicate his style that he’s one-of-a-kind. This record also granted us the most iconic set of lines in the history of the genre as Jay raps (“I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell / I’m a hustler baby, I’ll sell water to a well”) which caused a decade-long worth of discourse as to whether he said “well” or “whale” (it would still make sense either way). It’s hard not to feel inspired after listening to three straight minutes of what could be perceived as the hustling blueprint.


Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1

Despite Jay flaunting his hustler persona as the pivotal focus of his brand, one could argue that this record best represents the Brooklyn-bred hustler. “Where I’m From” does a complete 180 turn from the lavish lifestyle promoted throughout Reasonable Doubt and shows people the unfiltered image of Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. Jay gives a tour of the neighborhood as he displays the true struggle he and his peers endure on the day-to-day basis as they attempt to get by. To this day, there hasn’t been a single Jay-Z record that lyrically gets raw like this record. Instead of flexing cashmere sweaters and dazzling rolexes, “Where I’m From” provides listeners the full experience of the grueling hustle that surrounds Jay and his neighborhood. It ain’t always pretty, but Jay will always find a way to let us know the horrors he’s endured to be at the spot he’s at today.


Album: Reasonable Doubt

As anticlimactic as it could sound, this placement shouldn’t be a surprise at all. We’ve covered a larger number of iconic moments in Jay’s career throughout this list, but none hold a candle to what “Dead Presidents” was able to achieve. The reflective beat made by Ski Beatz and notorious Nas sample has traveled all over the hip-hop realm, being used in freestyles and samples on a constant basis. But no matter how hard emcees try, they can never duplicate the magic that Jay was initially able to deliver on this track.

No rapper has perfected the art of the hustle in music like Jay-Z has. In a time where gritty street street rap was beginning to takeover the game, Reasonable Doubt provided a breath of fresh air with its drastic change in sound and sophisticated approach to lyricism. “Dead Presidents II” did more than supply hip-hop with the most adopted instrumental in mixtapes; it introduced a whole new lane to genre, synonymous with names like Rick Ross and Jeezy. While every rapper at the time was promoting low-life habits and grimy rhymes, Jay gave listeners glimpses of the glamour life, making sure to remind his peers to focus on the bag than anything else. It isn’t many rappers than can say they helped change the trajectory of hip-hop with a singular song in their catalog, but Jay and Ski delivered an undeniable hip-hop classic that’s got enough game to revolve a university course around.