You would have trouble finding a top rappers list that doesn’t include Jay-Z. From his stellar breakthrough record Reasonable Doubt to the In My Lifetime series that turned him into a commercial powerhouse – and even recently with his elite feature run – he’s proven himself one of the most important MCs in hip hop history. He is an undeniable contender for the greatest rapper of all time, and while his catalogue can be spotty at times, the highlights are nothing short of masterful.
1. Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Jay-Z’s debut is one of the best hip hop albums I’ve ever heard. In every regard, it is polished to perfection, with a variety of slick beats and Hov in his lyrical prime. The features are minimal, allowing Jay-Z to flex his effortless flow and spit some of the best verses of the ‘90s. However, when guests do appear on the record, they bounce off him so well, with “Brooklyn’s Finest” being the greatest example. Biggie and Hov go back and forth, competing for the smoothest verse, so comfortable together as if they had been working together for years. Each feature brings their all, but Jay-Z is always in the spotlight. As well as having some of the best rapping in hip hop history, Reasonable Doubt also has some of the best production. Whether it be the chilling piano on “Dead Presidents II”, the triumphant horns on the climax of “Can I Live” or the glamorous funk sound of “Politics As Usual”, Reasonable Doubt is gorgeous. For me, it’s Jay-Z’s best album, but his catalogue hereafter is still full of highlights.
2. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)
A year later, Jay-Z returned with the first instalment of the In My Lifetime series, and it’s fantastic. Unlike his debut, it isn’t perfect from front to back, and the production is noticeably weaker, but it’s no major issue. The highlights on Vol. 1 are numerous, with the opener starting the album on a high. “Medley” sees Jay-Z rap without taking a breath over a luxurious piano beat that sounds like a Reasonable Doubt B-side, and his performance keeps going even as the beat switches to a groovier sound. The streak of brilliance continues with the hard-hitting “The City of Mine”, with the stuttering bass and punching drums making it an instant earworm, and that’s not even mentioning the suave performance from Hov. However, things quickly take a turn for the worse. The production on “I Know What Girls Like” consists of nothing but bare percussion – a disappointing departure from the detailed beauty of Reasonable Doubt. Worse than that, with Diddy on the hook chanting, “They want to sex me, they think I’m sexy,” it makes for the worst moment in Jay-Z’s career thus far. These dull moments are minimal, though, with most of the record embodying a simpler, but funkier sound. His lyricism is still sharp, his flow is just as slick, and overall, Vol. 1 is a brilliant start to the trilogy.
3. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)
Even though Vol. 1 didn’t capture the same magic as Reasonable Doubt, it was still a stellar record. Vol. 2, on the other hand, is a little harder to defend. It has its highlights, and they are plentiful, but the missteps here are far worse than any awkward Diddy hook. My first issue with the record is the title track, “Hard Knock Life”. It’s a favourite among fans and a crucial song that made Jay-Z the star he is, but I just can’t resonate with the monotonous beat, and the sample is a song I never enjoyed to begin with. However, things quickly pick up with the triple threat “If I Should Die” with its infectious hook, followed by Hov’s braggadocious performance on “Ride or Die”. Going back and forth between brilliant and mediocre tracks, Vol. 2 is far from consistent. The DMX collaboration “Money, Cash, Hoes” has a laughable beat that sounds like the producer ran their finger up and down a keyboard, and that’s followed by the amazing “A Week Ago” with Too $hort where the two tell tales of friends quickly drifting apart. This inconsistency makes Vol. 2 such a jarring experience, but it’s still far from Jay’s worst work.
4. Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
The grand conclusion to the In My Lifetime series is undeniably the worst instalment. Although the previous two albums had their inconsistencies, Vol. 3 borrows their issues and exemplifies them, turning the record into a bloated amalgamation of everything wrong with Jay-Z up to this point. The rapper’s flows are fantastic, but sandwiched between irritating hooks over a range of poorly chosen beats, his performance isn’t enough to save this album. “So Ghetto”, produced by DJ Premier, makes for a smooth intro; “Big Pimpin’” is the unlikely collaboration between Hov and UGK, and they work surprisingly well over the hypnotic flutes in the beat; and the “Hova” intro, interlude, and outro tie an otherwise cluttered album together in a satisfying, cohesive way. Aside from these few highlights, however, the rest of the tracklist ranges from mediocre to terrible. “Things that U Do” is an absolute mess, with some horrid Swizz Beatz production full of meandering flutes, and a whispery hook from Mariah Carey that isn’t catchy nor interesting. Even the moments that aren’t terrible are merely passable. Aside from the few aforementioned highlights, the album is so bland and unremarkable. The list of problems I have with Vol. 3 is too long to discuss them all, but sufficed to say, it’s one of the worst albums Jay-Z has made.
5. The Dynasty (2000)
In a surprising return to form, The Dynasty is an underrated gem in Hov’s catalogue. From its many features to the diverse production credits, it’s an exciting listen with a plethora of highlights. The album was partly made as a compilation to showcase the many talents of Roc-A-Fella Records. Thus, the project features prominent appearances from Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, and Amil. As someone who isn’t a fan of Amil, I was dreading this record on my first listen, but her appearances are few compared to the other Roc-A-Fella rappers. And, even though The Dynasty is full of guests, Jay-Z is still the main event. His ferocious flows and witty pen can be appreciated so much more when he performs over genuinely good production. The Kanye-produced “This Can’t Be Life” is beautiful with its sombre bassline and vocal sample, giving each verse so much more emotional weight. The Just Blaze beat on “Streets Is Talking” is also magical, with the rising horns sampled helping build tension as Beanie and Hov tell tales of the streets. The Dynasty is perhaps Jay-Z’s most underrated project, overshadowed by the mediocrity of what came before and the brilliance of what came next.
6. The Blueprint (2001)
Many consider The Blueprint Hov’s best work, and while I disagree, there’s no denying that it’s up there with his strongest projects. From a production standpoint, the record is gorgeous. Many of the beats are handled by the same legends who worked on The Dynasty, with Kanye West and Just Blaze returning with even better production on offer. Unlike The Dynasty, The Blueprint only has one feature, allowing Jay-Z to fully dominate the mic with some of the sharpest lyrics and most confident flows of his career. From his vicious Nas diss “Takeover” to the clever wordplay on “Lyrical Exercise”, the project is brimming with iconic verses and quotable one-liners. There are no outright bad moments on the record, but tracks like “Jigga That N****” and “Hola’ Hovito” aren’t quite as strong as the rest, with their hooks more irritating than catchy after a few listens. The Blueprint is a historical moment in hip hop history, and you won’t find many hip hop albums that sound quite so grand and luxurious.
7. The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse (2002)
The Blueprint was track after track of phenomenal hip hop, but its sequel is nowhere near as consistent. That isn’t surprising, considering the album lasts an ambitious 108 minutes, making it Hov’s first and only attempt at a double album. There are standout tracks all over the project, but the glaring issue is its length, and so inevitably it has its fair share of misses as well. The opener, “A Dream”, is a touching tribute to Biggie Smalls from Hov and Faith Evans, but the overdramatic production with its crashing drums, growling guitar and ominous piano distract from the heart of the track and leave me wishing it were more stripped back. “The Watcher 2” is one of my favourite songs on The Blueprint 2, with great verses from Jay-Z, Dr Dre, and the legendary Rakim. Other highlights include the funky posse cut “Poppin’ Tags”, the explosive remix of “U Don’t Know” with M.O.P., and the soulful glory of “Some How Some Way” featuring powerful performances from Beanie Sigel and Scarface. Jay’s rapping is consistent, the beats can be hard-hitting, and the features bring some much-needed variety to the tracklist, but the album just can’t justify its length. From its twenty-five tracks, there are only twelve I would revisit, with the rest of the album passable, but not particularly memorable.
8. The Black Album (2003)
In 2003, Jay-Z announced he was retiring, and The Black Album would be his farewell project. The album tackles themes of legacy, fame, success, and the future, making this one of Hov’s most personal and lyrically compelling records. The whole album revolves around his retirement and how he will be remembered, exploring his conflicted thoughts on his legacy and his life. Because of its lyrical focus, The Black Album is perhaps my favourite Jay-Z album in terms of writing, and its production is stellar as well. From DJ Quik to 9th Wonder to Eminem, a whole army of producers were involved in its creation, making for a diverse tracklist where Hov thrives in so many different styles. Whether it be the throbbing guitar on “99 Problems” or the triumphant horns on “Encore”, Hov delivers on every track, with his best rapping performance since Reasonable Doubt. He truly raps like it was the last time he would ever hold a mic, with more passion in his voice than ever before. The Black Album is a masterpiece, and if Jay-Z’s career had ended here as he originally intended, I would have been satisfied.
9. Collision Course (2004)
Although it’s only an EP, Collision Course was a fun experiment for Jay-Z which I believe deserves a mention. The project consists of mashups between Linkin Park and Jay-Z tracks, and the result is strangely impressive. The roaring guitar added to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” gives the song a new punch I never could have imagined, and the rock-influenced version of “Jigga What” I actually prefer over the original. As a whole, Collision Course isn’t an EP I see myself returning to, but I can appreciate that Hov was willing to tackle a totally new sound. And, on an unrelated note, I’ll use this section to make clear that I have no intention of discussing the R. Kelly collaborations, but I doubt many readers would demand my thoughts on those forgettable projects in the first place.
10. Kingdom Come (2006)
Aside from a few collaborations here and there, Jay-Z had been inactive after The Black Album, sticking true to his word that he had retired from making albums. However, in 2006, he decided he wasn’t done with hip hop and made his comeback with Kingdom Come. Despite the enormous hype surrounding Hov’s return, is perhaps the most underwhelming album of his career. Even on messy records like Vol. 3 and The Blueprint 2, you could rely on Jay to bring a smooth performance, and that’s what makes Kingdom Come stand out – he isn’t rapping particularly well. Known for his slick flows and suave presence, it’s jarring to hear him so hesitant and awkward on a lot of these songs. This problem is clear from the very start, with Hov rapping on “The Prelude” in this sluggish manner like he’s trying to freestyle but can’t think of the words to say. The worst moments on Kingdom Come aren’t unlistenable, but they leave so much to be desired, with Hov’s weak presence making any good beat feel wasted. On slower cuts like the mellow piano of “Lost One”, he does sound far more comfortable, but these moments are rare. Kingdom Come started off Jay-Z’s comeback in such a disappointing way that many fans wondered if he should have stayed in retirement.
11. American Gangster (2007)
After the lukewarm response to Kingdom Come, Hov had to deliver with his next project if he wanted to maintain the faith of his fans, and thankfully, he delivered with American Gangster. The album was inspired by the crime film of the same name, with Jay-Z basing each song on a different scene to turn the project into a vivid concept record about the mafioso life in New York. You can hear how passionate he is, with Hov’s reluctant presence on Kingdom Come replaced with the same braggadocious swagger that made him such a formidable MC before. The production packs a punch, with a crisp, modern sound unlike any of his other work. The tense build of strings on “Pray” – layered over with a loop of shouting voices and crashing drums – starts the record off on a dramatic note, perfectly establishing its more cinematic sound. My favourite song on the album has to be “Success”, an iconic collaboration between Jay-Z and Nas, years after the height of their feud. American Gangster is a refreshing return to form for the New York MC, but unfortunately, it would not last long.
12. The Blueprint 3 (2009)
In my opinion, The Blueprint 3 is Jay-Z’s worst album. It is an insult to even compare it to The Blueprint, let alone to label it a sequel to the 2001 classic. Unlike Hov’s other missteps which were embarrassing from the start, The Blueprint 3 is a record which fit in perfectly at the time, but with each passing year, it sounds worse and worse. This is because Jay-Z relied heavily on the trendy sounds of the time – leaning more into pop rap than ever before – so in 2023, the project sounds horribly dated. The triumphant jazz backdrop on “Thank You” makes it sound like a victory lap for Hov, bragging as usual about his success. Beyond this song, however, I have nothing positive to say about this album. I have never been a fan of “Run This Town”, with its monotonous rock production and Rihanna’s hook not resonating with me at all. The chorus on “Empire State of Mind” is undoubtedly powerful, but the twinkling piano production like something from a Christmas film is not what I want to hear Jay-Z rap over. But those tracks are brilliant in comparison to the insulting deep cuts later on. “Hate” is abominable, with Kanye and Jay rapping with such an obnoxious delivery, and the autotuned repetition of “hater, hater,” in the beat being so irritating I cannot fathom how anybody could have thought it sounded good. That track is immediately followed by “Reminder,” where the bloated production and Jay-Z’s delivery are at their most obnoxious. The Blueprint 3 is overdramatic in its production, out of touch in its writing, and insufferable in many of its performances.
13. Watch the Throne (2011)
Ever since his production work on The Dynasty, Kanye West had become one of Jay-Z’s most frequent collaborators, so demand for a full collab album was deafening. Watch the Throne is their long awaited debut as a duo, and in many ways, it delivers. The rappers have amazing chemistry, hyping one another up with this infectious energy as they brag about their riches and success. “Otis” and “N****s In Paris” are some of the best examples of this, and even on the weaker tracks, you can always rely on the duo to bring an energetic performance. One major weakness with the album is that it’s somewhat one-note, with Hov and Ye bragging and bragging without much variety in theme. On those rare occasions they do rap about something different, it’s amazing: on “New Day”, the duo speak to their unborn children; on “Murder to Excellence”, they discuss the troubles of the black community and contrast that with the hope that anyone can rise above those struggles and succeed; and the album ends with “Why I Love You”, a song about betrayal, love, and admiration. These brilliant songs make me wish the album had more of a thematic focus, with the constant reiteration of their wealth becoming monotonous after a while. Watch the Throne may not be a consistent masterpiece, but it isn’t trying to be – it’s a fun collaboration between two titans of the industry, and such a memorable moment in hip hop history.
14. Magna Carta, Holy Grail (2013)
Magna Carta is another album where Hov tried to modernise his sound, but thankfully, it isn’t the same overproduced slog that was The Blueprint 3. From fast-paced trap production to blaring synthesisers, this album covers a range of styles, but the results are mixed. “Picasso Baby” is among the highlights, starting off with this growling bass guitar, over which Jay-Z thrives with verse after verse comparing his artistry to that of Pablo Picasso. “BBC” might be my favourite song on the whole album, starting off with a surprise Nas feature. The production is composed of this storm of percussion, with all the different elements coalescing into a dense wall of sound. Nas, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Timbaland, and Swizz Beatz all chant the hook, making for such a light-hearted and fun moment where some of Hov’s most noteworthy collaborators join together. Although these moments are brilliant, the rest of Magna Carta isn’t nearly as compelling, with the diversity of sounds on display not making up for the mediocrity of the beats. The weaker moments aren’t insulting, but merely forgettable, and because of that, I think I might look back on Magna Carta in a fond light because all I can recall are its highlights.
15. 4:44 (2017)
In 2016, Beyoncé released Lemonade, a vulnerable record from the popstar where she described her anguish regarding Jay-Z and his infidelity. 4:44 was made in response to Beyoncé, addressing the wrongs of his ways, acknowledging his regret, but also realising the worth of what he has in life. By far, it is Jay’s most personal album, with the rapper monologuing on tracks as he tries to articulate his guilt and desperation to redeem himself. Dealing with themes of love, guilt, life, and legacy, it’s his most thematically focussed project since The Black Album. It’s the only solo Jay-Z album to be handled by a single producer – No I.D. – and that adds more to the record’s cohesion. “4:44” is one of Hov’s best songs ever, with the wailing vocal sample adding drama to his emotional lyrics, confessing all he has done wrong and praying he has time to make things right. Each song is a highlight, from the hypnotic hook on “The Story of O.J.” to the touching collaboration with Beyoncé on “Family Feud”. After so many messy, inconsistent projects, 4:44 is a refreshing addition to his catalogue and one of his best albums.
16. EVERYTHING IS LOVE (2018)
I felt obligated to include this since I touched on the Linkin Park and Kanye West collaborations, but my thoughts on EVERYTHING IS LOVE are minimal. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have plenty of solid songs together, but none of them can be found here. To even refer to this as a Jay-Z album would be misleading because he feels like an afterthought compared to Beyoncé, whose prominence on the hooks and verses make it seem like the project should be under her name. The opener, “SUMMER”, is the only track which resonated with me, with its lush, soulful instrumentation complementing Beyoncé’s soothing voice. Beyond its intro, however, EVERYTHING IS LOVE offers little of note. The duo make no effort to hide their wealth, rapping and singing at length about how rich and successful they are compared to their listeners. The subject matter is reminiscent of Watch the Throne, but at least then, the dull lyrics were made less apparent by Kanye’s punchy production. This record is more interesting in concept than in execution, with the end result sounding like more of a novelty than a full-fleshed album.
Since EVERYTHING IS LOVE, Jay-Z has been busy making guest appearances on other artists’ albums. He made an iconic appearance on Kanye West’s Donda, marking their first collaboration in years; he provided a lyrically dense verse on Pusha T’s “Neck and Wrist”; and most notably, he had a four minute verse on DJ Khaled’s “GOD DID”, proving to the world he hadn’t lost his lyrical touch. While it’s clear Jay-Z is not retired, it’s uncertain if we will get another album anytime soon. Looking back on his catalogue, there are a handful of terrible moments and even more mediocre ones, but he has also made some of the greatest hip hop albums to ever grace the genre. Jay-Z’s discography is far from perfect, but when he’s at his best, his music is undeniably masterful.