The biggest star to emerge from the culture of hip-hop, Jay-Z held a firm stance in the mainstream, captivating listeners with his nonchalant delivery, witty wordplay & ambitious subject matter. Jay-Z is one of very few lucky artists who has maintained relevance in all spaces of his career, even making tremendous moves amidst hiatuses.
That being said, Hov’s long-lasting presence in the game has spawned an extensive catalog of albums—some ageing like fine wine, while others not nearly holding up as they once did. The intention of this article is to sort through the clutter and rank Jay-Z’s solo discography from his worst album to his best.
13. Magna Carta… Holy Grail (2013)
Following the birth of his first child, Jay had elevated into a different mental space, far different from what we were used to seeing from the arrogant CEO. For the first time, street hustling anthems and traditional hip-hop beats weren’t apart of the agenda as Jay began to lean into a more experimental area. Until this point, we knew little to nothing about the rapper-turned-businessman aside from his dangerous past, which leads us to this project: an attempt for Jay to be more transparent about his life and interests. Though it was a good shot at trying to evolve musically, the album faced many flaws such as a bloated tracklist and an unfocused objective. Simply put, Magna Carta… Holy Grail is a premature version of 4:44.
Best tracks: “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit”, “Holy Grail”, “Somewhereinamerica”
12. Kingdom Come (2006)
After a short-lived retirement and a new source of inspiration from his new position as CEO of Def Jam, Jay-Z’s return to the game wasn’t as glorious as we had anticipated it to be. Widely regarded as his overall worst project, Kingdom Come was intended to be a return-to-form of balancing poignant bar-heavy tracks and glamorous mainstream-appealing records. However, this return to normalcy had a fairly rugged trip with the radio records coming off as weak attempts which overshadowed aspects that showed Jay at his best. “Lost One” and “Show Me What You Got” serve as the only quality standouts, displaying the sides of Hov that would best suit a formal comeback album. Though the initial responses to the album may seem as extreme overreactions compared to now, Kingdom Come is the weak link in Jay’s discography that is carried by the stigma of being his reemergence as an artist.
Best tracks: “Lost One”, “Show Me What You Got”, “Kingdom Come”
11. The Blueprint 2 (2002)
The follow-up to Jay’s five-mic rated classic is a prime example that some things just don’t require a sequel. Adopting a double-disc format for its structure to try and depict the dualities of being an artist, The Blueprint 2 was a commercial success with records “03′ Bonnie & Clyde” and “Excuse Me Miss” shooting up the charts, but the overall project felt misplaced. Both discs of the project didn’t really live up to their intended concept and felt like albums with scattered tracks that required filtering. While the purpose behind making a double disc project to insert himself in the same conversations as 2Pac and Biggie was a good motive, it ultimately failed to reach the goal set in place. The Blueprint 2 is far from the best Jay album, but it has a solid foundation with potential to be greater than what it already is. Had some records been cut and the tracklist rearranged, The Blueprint 2 could had easily been one of Jay’s best projects.
Best tracks: “Blueprint 2”, “Some How Some Way”, “Excuse Me Miss”
10. Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
The globally recognizable glam of this project shines bright but goes to show that everything that glitters ain’t always gold. What was once the jiggy era became a new inspiring time period for hustlers as Jay presented an image larger than life filled with champagne-popping yacht parties and fiery nightclub memories; However, as the Brooklyn emcee dug deeper into the luxurious lifestyle, it’s almost as he disconnected from the barebones roots of the genre. Granted, there were a handful of records that could satisfy the ear of any knowledgeable hip-hop head, the album steered in a completely different direction as it navigated through bouncy instrumentals and flashy lyrics to fit the dominant sounds of the era.
Is it bad album? Not at all, but a good chunk of the album is a clear product of its time and doesn’t necessarily age well to today’s standards. Life and Times of S. Carter is still a great album to revisit, properly representing the mainstream sound of the late 90’s (even going as far as shaping the era’s sound), but feels stuck in the flashy club setting that dominated the time period.
Best tracks: “So Ghetto”, “Big Pimpin”, “Dope Man”, “Is That Yo Bitch”
9. The Blueprint 3 (2009)
The final installment of the classic trilogy was a great attempt at ending the series off on a high note, but drowned in expectations to live up to its original predecessor. Depending on who you ask, many would agree the late 2000’s was a special time in the hip-hop world; It almost seemed as if the genre had been flipped completely upside down and was geared to suit the trendy nature of the “ringtone era.” The Blueprint 3 was set to be the album to end the decade off on a high note, but had too much on its plate to consider. Jay being one of the few active OGs in the game took upon himself to use this album to redirect the culture back on track while stamping some new young guns with the “leaders of the new school” titles.
Not only that, but Jay also had to seize the opportunity to promote the newly-established Roc Nation and those on the label. It seems that Jay bit off more than he could chew, but the hits that spawned from this album heavily contributed to the special feeling that surrounded this time period and make up the characteristics of what deems The Blueprint 3 a worthy closer.
Best tracks: “Run This Town”, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”, “Empire State of Mind”, “Young Forever”
8. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)
Following the release of his classic debut, the newly popular emcee from Brooklyn inked a deal with Def Jam that would change the trajectory of his career, for the better and for the worse. After signing a partnership deal with the tycoon of record companies, Jay-Z had finally established himself and his brand in hip-hop history. However, when the time came to work on the first album, Jay felt a lot of pressure from the industry to appease the mainstream audience. Being that hip-hop was smack in the middle of the jiggy era, Jay put the shiny suits on to climb them charts but soon realize the image he created through records like “Sunshine” and “I Know What Girls Like” did not correlate with the hustling nature of his debut. The true album that Jay wanted to make would come in the form of the album’s B-side tracks like “Where I’m From” and “Streets Is Watching” that embodied the grimy nature of his environment. Overall, the album was a clash of different identities that failed to co-exist but in that same battle shined aspects that showed Jay at his lyrical best.
Best tracks: “Where I’m From”, “Imaginary Players”, “Streets Is Watching”, “A Million and One Questions / Rhyme No More”
7. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)
After falling back and recognizing the faults within his last project [In My Lifetime, Vol. 1], Jay returned to form and captivated the world with his hustler’s playbook. Seeing that the over-the-top image of the jiggy era didn’t correlate with Jay’s nonchalant personality, Hard Knock Life would bring Jay back on track while setting him up for international success. The album’s title track still serves as a ghetto anthem to this day and proves you don’t have to sacrifice your true self to score a major hit.Rather than focusing on taking over the charts, the Brooklyn emcee decided to take over the streets, creating a plethora of hustling hymns that resonated with an entire generation of go-getters.
A highly regarded album in his catalog that spawned many hard-edged anthems like the star-studded posse cut “Reservoir Dogs” and the DMX-assisted “Money, Cash, Hoes”, Hard Knock Life usually resides in the upper echelon of Jay-Z discography rankings, which should speak volumes about the quality of the projects that pass it in this list.
Best tracks: “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Its Like That”, “Money, Cash, Hoes”
6. American Gangster (2007)
Inspired by the Denzel-starred film with the same title, Jay-Z’s American Gangster was a return to form, bringing back the mafioso-style of rap that was heavily present in Jay’s early career. It was immediately coined as the unofficial soundtrack of the film presenting the fictionalization of Harlem drug dealer, Frank Lucas. Following the shaky comeback that had many questioning the return of the ruler, American Gangster sought to patch up the problems created by Kingdom Come. The record was heavily centralized around the d-boy lifestyle, relying on crack era references and modern melodies to achieve the mission. “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)…” served as the album’s standout anthem while “Success” shows two bosses redefining the meaning of the word in their respective field.
Though the record didn’t see much success in the mainstream, American Gangster contains a goldmine of deep cuts that fans praise to this day, such as “Ignorant Shit” and “Blue Magic.” While it wasn’t the album that fully revived the mafioso style of the 90’s, American Gangster has remained firmly planted in all discussions surrounding Jay’s lengthy catalog.
Best tracks: “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)…”, “Success”, “Ignorant Shit”, “Blue Magic”, “I Know”
5. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
The wildcard pick of this list – Jay-Z’s compilation album was utilized to display the strengths of his newly established Roc-A-Fella roster. As we entered a new decade, the culture experienced a reset in what (or who) would dominate the game next. Enter: Roc-A-Fella Records. The independent label spent almost five years building a solid roster of killer emcees from New York and Philadelphia, but they were missing a key factor which this album provided: a clearly defined production style. The mix of sped-up soul samples and street-edged sounds by new producers who would go on to run the game, such as Kanye West and Just Blaze, gave this album a new level of importance as time passed.
Joints like “You, Me, Him And Her” and “1-900 Hustler” perfectly displayed the label’s chemistry, while “This Can’t Be Life” and “Where Have You Been” add a dash of vulnerability while maintaining a street edge. And where do we begin with the various anthems this record spawned like the summer smash “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me).” The Dynasty was the perfect project to usher us into a new millennium, bringing to the table a refreshing production style and a new roster of superstars.
Best tracks: “This Can’t Be Life”, “1-900 Hustler”, “You, Me, Him And Her”, “Where Have You Been”, “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”
4. 4:44 (2017)
Once an artist reaches a high level of success, how can they go about addressing any controversies surrounding their name? The answer lies within the art. After facing major criticism in the media following the release of his spouse, Beyonce’s, 2016 release, Lemonade, it was as if the rapping CEO was backed into a corner. Instead of fighting the flak head-on, a newly reformed Jay-Z took a step back and did what any artist in that situation should do: respond with the music. Instead of fueling a project with negativity and bitterness, the (now) veteran emcee promotes growth and success, spitting a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.
From giving financial advice on “The Story of OJ” to facing his faults on “Family Feud” and the title track, 4:44 still holds up as Jay’s most mature record to date, granting the wishes of many long-time fans in making a personal record. In a time where albums come and go, 4:44 is one of the few standouts to have a lasting effect since its release.
Best tracks: “The Story of OJ”, “4:44”, “Marcy Me”, “Family Feud”, “Kill Jay-Z”
3. The Black Album (2003)
Its crazy to think that at one point, this was considered Jay-Z’s final album. As Jay made the final preparations for his retirement from hip-hop, he knew that his last project had to be one of his best. In order to reach these high expectations, Jay made a hip-hop wishlist of producers to work with, ranging from Pharrell to Just Blaze to DJ Quik. With an all-solo rapping performance, The Black Album immediately sets the tone as Jay’s most important album, not only for the fact that his retirement followed, but it’s larger-than-life ambience made the album feel like Jay was being honored for his contributions to the genre.
“December 4Th” starts off the project with a proper introduction track, detailing Jay’s come-up from childhood to that point and quickly transitions into the farewell ceremony, “Encore.” In addition, project had its fair share of poignant events, from Jay’s acapella outro on “What More Can I Say” to his brutally honest analysis of his career on “Moment of Clarity.” The Black Album set the parameters for what retirement looks like in hip-hop.
While it was a short-lived hiatus more than a full-blown seclusion from music, seeing the king of the genre (at the time) take a step back and stop competing for the title was a one-of-a-kind moment for hip-hop and gave us a harsh reminder to appreciate who we have while they’re still here.
Best tracks: “What More Can I Say”, “Encore”, “Threat”, “Allure”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, “Public Service Announcement”
2. Reasonable Doubt (1996)
The holy grail of mafioso rap – or at least one of them. If Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the originator of mafioso/coke rap, then Reasonable Doubt is the trendsetter for the newly-founded sub-genre. Instead of fully embracing the grittier production style that Cuban Linx (and the entire Wu-Tang Clan) popularized, Reasonable Doubt took on a more luscious sound, inspired by the fine things that money could buy. Jay-Z’s debut to the world taught hustlers not only how to make money, but how to properly spend it as well. Sure, a Benz wouldn’t hurt to have, but as the ending on “22 Twos” says, (“we got to put money back into our own community”), The mafioso-themed debut also held various standout moments that vaulted Hov into the upper echelon of his class.
Whether it was going back-and-forth with The Notorious B.I.G. on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” crafting a summer anthem with Foxy Brown on “Ain’t No N***a,” or securing the best hip-hop beat of all time on “Dead Presidents II,” Reasonable Doubt achieves more than the average debut, containing events that we now look back on as colossal events in the culture of hip-hop. Finally getting his career in order by the age of 26, the new Brooklyn emcee on the block proves that you can’t knock his hustle, creating a new testament for hustlers everywhere to guide their profits.
Best tracks: “Dead Presidents II”, “D’Evils”, “Can I Live”, “Brooklyn’s Finest”, “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, “Bring It On”
1. The Blueprint (2001)
“I’m representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat / Where Malcom X was shot, where Martin Luther was popped.” After successfully taking over hip-hop with a barrage of hit records and a phenomenal record label roster by his side, it was time for Jay-Z to claim the throne. With his newly established in-house producing team consisting of the best new artists in the game, Hov had all the stars lined-up to create a potential classic. Everybody clearly understood the assignment, but it was up to Roc-CEO to execute. On September 11, 2001, The Blueprint hit stores nationwide, the same day that the Towers dropped. The album managed to sell 427,000 copies in its first week; impressive for a record launching amidst a national crisis. People everywhere were able to tune out the chaos and hear what the Marcy go-getter had to say after holding the game down for six summers.
The moment that The Blueprint dropped, it was instantly recognized as a classic, receiving high critical acclaim (including 5-mics from The Source) and prominent mainstream success. Singles, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Girls, Girls, Girls” occupied the charts while cuts such as “Song Cry” and “U Don’t Know” flexed the multiple pockets that Jay could hop in. Whether it’s sentimental solos or club anthems, Hov proved there wasn’t a thing he couldn’t do in this genre.
Reflecting on the success of The Blueprint, this record has managed to stand the test of time with it’s sharp wit and enticing performance. However, the ingredients that add extra flavor to the project, allowing it to stand out in comparison to Jay’s other classics, are the star-studded moments it created. We’re never going to see another emcee start off their album with a barrage of disses like Hov did on “Takeover,” or branch legends into hip-hop like Michael Jackson’s uncredited vocals on “Girls, Girls, Girls, Pt. II.” The Blueprint is a special case in a solidified catalog of classics, restoring a lost feeling through its soulful sounds and changing the course of any and all hip-hop albums released after. Many have their picks for the overall best Jay-Z album, with many of those being well justified, but none touch the level of cultural significance and influence as The Blueprint.
Best tracks: “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”, “U Don’t Know”, “Song Cry”, “Takeover”, “Renegade”, “Never Change”, “The Ruler’s Back”