Today, we celebrate Shawn Corey Carter’s 44th Birthday. Jay-Z has seen his reign in hip-hop go mostly unchallenged despite it being a young man’s sport. So in celebration, I decided to rank Jay-Z‘s 13 solo studio albums from worst to best. This won’t include any collaborative efforts (re: Best of Both Worlds 1 & 2, Watch The Throne). Check it out below and let me know what you think.
12. Kingdom Come
Oh, Shawn. You retired on the high note that was The Black Album and then you returned with… this. Is is that bad? Probably not. Is it a good Jay-Z album, definitely not. It doesn’t help that the singles he chose were some of the worst to play on the radio in 2006. “Show Me What You Got?” Really? I get that you’re a 30-something rapper, but I didn’t want to hear this. At all. Maybe I’ll love you if you stayed faded to black.
10. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Not quite a solo album, Jay-Z allowed his whole team some shine on his 5th solo album. Beanie Sigel shined more than anyone (read: Memphis Bleek is still one hit away) with standout contributions in “This Can’t Be Life,” “Streets Is Talking,” and “Dynasty.” R. Kelly made an appearance on the radio friendly “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.” The fate of this album was sealed once we all realized Dynasty would never be a real group. I mean, where is Amil? I dare you to listen to this album front to back and enjoy it, forreal.
9. Vol. 3… Life and Time of S. Carter
Outside of providing us the name of Jay’s brilliantly curated website Life+Times, this album really gave us nothing. I mean, yes there’s “Big Pimpin‘” and “Do It Again” but I challenge you to name another song. Even deep cut Jay-Z fans would rank this as one of his worst, track for track. Jay was still stepping into his lyrical dexterity with this album, but I found Vol. 2 much more interesting.
8. Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse
Who asked for this album, exactly? After dropping a certified classic, Jay-Z followed up with this hodgepodge of cutting room floor cuts. As with most albums, there were some standout tracks, but as a 25 track double disc, Jay could’ve purged about 2/3 of the tracks, named it “Diamonds is Forever” and kept it moving. Instead, we get odd tracks like “Nigga Please” & “Fuck All Nite” that were far from the proper follow up for The Blueprint.
7. In My Lifetime Vol 1.
Why is this album better than Vol. 3? Let’s think about where Jay was. This is post Reasonable Doubt – essentially battling the sophomore slump. More people pay attention to his first album now than they did when it dropped, Jay has said that before. In My Lifetime Vol. 1 found an introspective, yet motivated Jay-Z. And he was having fun. And no one can deny “Streets Is Watching” which led to a hood film of the same name.
7. Magna Carta, Holy Grail
When a rapper is well-traveled and influenced by a variety of sounds and experiences, you get an album like this one. Does it suck? Nah, not at all. Was it phoned in? Definitely. This album didn’t crack my top 5 for a lot of reasons. One of them being the hype surrounding the release and the subsequent disappointment. The real star of this album is easily the production. Kudos to all involved. But Jay’s lyrics have been far more interesting and complex. Extremely timely – not timeless, this album will sit comfortably in a conversation revolving around the year of twerking and North West. Beyond that, not quite. There is “Beach is Better” though…
6. American Gangster
This album stopped me in my tracks. When I first heard, it was I was confused. Is this a soundtrack to the movie of the same name or nah? Was this Jay going back to his dope boy roots or was he playing a character? With samples from the actual movie, I think a lot of people dismissed this album as a soundtrack. It’s so much more than that. And so underrated to me. The simplicity and crispness of “No Hook” can’t be lost. Treat this entire album like a nouveau version of “The 10 Crack Commandments.” From the hustling to the success to the end, the story of most American Gangsters.
5. Blueprint 3
I feel like an anomaly because of my love for this project. It felt worldly (like MCHG) yet fun (like Vol. 1). Jay was really flexing his wealth besides the usual Rolls Royce, Bentley, Gucci mentions. It’s a feel-good album you can play from beginning to end without skipping a track. I could definitely live happily never hearing “Empire State of Mind” again, but in the grand scheme of the album, it completely flows. This album caused you to react. How often does music do that? There was “D.O.A.” then “Run This Town” then “Empire State of Mind” and the infectious “On to the Next One.” It’s just a good fucking album.
4. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
Top 4 status? Yup! This album is so underrated. I can listen to this album top to bottom and enjoy the whole ride. With tracks like “Hard Knock Life” and “Nigga What, Nigga Who” and “Money, Cash, Hoes,” and “Can I Get A…” and “Paper Chase,” how can you not agree. It’s so late 90’s but still stands up against Jay’s entire catalogue. Listen to it today. Just choose the tracks I picked and play your best 5 tracks from any of his other albums and tell me I’m wrong. It’s not his most street-sounding album, but this is the beginning of radio-friendly Jay, but that street appeal was still there. Still hard for your favorite rapper to do.
3. Reasonable Doubt
Jay’s first album doesn’t deserve top 3 status just because it’s his first album. It deserves top 3 status because it was a good rap album. Think about what other artists released albums in 1996. 2Pac, Busta Rhymes, Outkast, The Fugees, and Redman to name a few. And this album was able to cut through the clutter and produce one of the greatest rap debut albums of all time… OF ALL TIME! Even still, it didn’t go platinum until 2002, after the release of The Blueprint. Late listeners were exposed to a younger and more street savvy Jay-Z, pre “I’m a business, man!” I always feel a little more hood when listening to this album – can I live?
2. Black Album
Shawn you tricky mu’fucka you! You had us all believing that after 7 solo rap albums, it was all over. My mother copped me the limited edition blacked out joint because I was legitimately sad that it was all over. My favorite rapper was fading to black and presented us with his magnum opus featuring the best producers of the early 20o0s. If you’ve ever seen Jay in concert, you know these tracks go harder (in a stadium full of people) than the rest of his discography. Go just to hear to “Interlude/PSA” and “What More Can I Say” and your life will be changed. This man makes interludes an entire moment in your life!
1. The Blueprint
Undisputed. Or at least I’d like to think so. Where were you when you first pressed play on The Blueprint? I was sitting on my twin-sized bed, legs crossed, leaning in to my Aiwa stereo trying to catch every lyrical dip and flip and smiling at the diss to Nas. I was never a Nas fan and to hear that my favorite rapper wasn’t a fan of his either? Pure bliss. This album went on to catapult Jay (and Kanye’s production) into the spotlight more than any other album his previously released. It’s probably one of the most quoted albums from Jay including the now infamous “We don’t believe you, you need more people!” Tell me you can’t listen to “Takeover” and smile a bit at the cleverness of his poetic disses to Prodigy and Nas, even now. The Blueprint is a certified classic and comfortably sits atop the lists of many a critic’s top rap albums of all time. It deserves the top ranking. This album finds Jay at his peak, perfectly marrying his streeet savvy and his pop chart dominance.
Whew! That was hard. I moved albums around as I was listening and writing and thinking. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Let me know!
*UPDATED* Jay-Z released his own ranking of his albums on his website. Check it below.
1. Reasonable Doubt (Classic)
2. The Blueprint (Classic)
3. The Black Album (Classic)
4. Vol. 2 (Classic)
5. American Gangster (4 1/2, cohesive)
6. Magna Carta (Fuckwit, Tom Ford, Oceans, Beach, On the Run, Grail)
7. Vol. 1 (Sunshine kills this album…fuck… Streets, Where I’m from, You Must Love Me…)
8. BP3 (Sorry critics, it’s good. Empire (Gave Frank a run for his money))
9. Dynasty (Intro alone…)
10. Vol. 3 (Pimp C verse alone… oh, So Ghetto)
11. BP2 (Too many songs. Fucking Guru and Hip Hop, ha)
12. Kingdom Come (First game back, don’t shoot me)