Hova, Jiggaman, Iceberg Slim – whatever name you know him by, he is Mr. Shawn Carter, or Jay-Z, and he is regarded by many as the greatest rapper of all time. From countless hit solo works to collaborations with many highly-regarded artists, the best Jay-Z albums prove to be timeless favorites.
There’s good reason for his legendary reputation. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “Jay Z has had more US No.1 albums (13) than any other solo act in the history of the Billboard 200.” They note that only The Beatles have more – not bad company for Mr. Carter to keep. Jay-Z’s first album debuted way back in 1996, and his latest release was in 2017, though he doesn’t claim to be retired (he tried the retirement thing briefly around 2003). With over 27-million albums sold and such an extensive body of work, we were curious to learn which albums music industry experts consider to be Hova’s best.
Research finds that “rap music is increasingly adding in mental health messages into the most popular songs of the day.” That’s right, researchers said that “The fact that [rappers] are talking about mental health could have huge implications for how young people perceive mental health or how they look at themselves if they struggle with mental health, which we know millions and millions of young people do.” And Jay-Z is listed by the researchers as one of the artists whose hits often “focus on laying out [his] emotional state for the fans.” And fans appreciate the more positive messages being put out by their favorite artists.
For more good news, another study found that “positive, “pro-social” rap songs were “found to be heavily favored” by fans, but that’s not always what music labels promote, unfortunately. To look into this, “Researchers at UCLA conducted a multifaceted study to examine the link between which rappers’ fans supported on social media, and which artists were actually signed by labels, hoping to find if there was a difference in preferred lyrical content between the two groups.” And they did find a difference because fans preferred rappers “that endorsed positive actions, such as feeling grateful, engaging in spiritual practices, valuing education, and supporting community building — over less positive songs.” But “labels seemed to focus more on signing artists whose songs demonstrated more ‘antisocial’ rhymers.”
With all of the positive research behind hip-hop and rap, it’s only right that you dive into the work of one of the greats. StudyFinds turned to the experts and compiled a list of the top five best Jay-Z albums of his career to check out next. Of course, we want to hear from you. Which Jay-Z albums tops your list? Comment below to let us know!
The List: Best Jay-Z Albums, Per Music Fans
1. “The Blueprint” (2001)
This album landed on all nine expert reviews we checked, and it ranked number one on six of them. Released in 2001, many experts list this album as the point where Jay-Z solidified his name in the rap world to become the dominant force that he is.
“Jay’s strongest body of work is undoubtedly this one,” writes One37pm. “‘The Blueprint’ mapped out a winning game plan for other MCs that most definitely inspired a lot of the rappers that shine in this day and age. Just Blaze and Kanye West gifted Jay with defining soundscapes that accompanied his most memorable songs – ‘Takeover,’ ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.),’ ‘U Don’t Know,’ and ‘Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)’ provide all the proof in the world of that undisputed collaboration.” They also note an ongoing debate: “People still argue about whether Eminem or Jay took the lyrical W on ‘Renegade’ to this very day, plus ‘Lyrical Exercise’ is still held up as one of Jay’s best B-Side tracks.” Regardless of who is the winner of that battle, they say that “‘The Blueprint’ is damn near perfect in my eyes.”
Beats, Rhymes, & Lists writes, “Listening to The Blueprint top to bottom is listening to a rapper at the very peak of his powers.” They note that “At the time of recording, Hov was taking heat from all angles. He was awaiting two criminal trials for gun possession and assault; he was getting into it with rappers like Nas, Prodigy, Jadakiss, Fat Joe; and he was getting criticism for being a sell-out to sell more records.” They say that “It was with this energy that Hov got into the studio with the likes of Kanye, Just Blaze and Bink, who provided the rapper with an array of rich soul samples for him to go to war with. Back against the wall, Hov came out swinging on the album, reestablishing his reign over hip hop and taking the artform to a higher level with his masterful command of endless flows and triple entendre wordplay. This is why The Blueprint is Jay-Z’s greatest album of all time.”
“Scarface’s verse on the lowkey Jay-Z classic ‘This Can’t Be Life’ is still the most acclaimed and resonant part of that song—but it certainly isn’t the only reason it’s essential,” writes Spin. “Right before he steps to the mic, Jay throws out a line with such resolution, you forget it isn’t a universally accepted truth: ‘Everybody got a story. We all ghetto, b.’” And they think that “A big part of Jay’s significance was how he embodied that idea. He wasn’t just the superlative—the strands of his biography that he examined on record burrowed themselves within you in a way that made you feel like you mattered. That charm peaked in 2001. Reasonable Doubt is the starting point of the Top 5 conversation—The Blueprint cemented it.”
2. “Reasonable Doubt” (1996)
This album put Jay-Z on the map in 1996, and he’d only rise higher from there. Though this album is still considered number one by many, listening to it now confirms just how much Jay-Z has matured in his lyrics, personality, and talents.
“Reasonable Doubt introduced the world to Jay-Z, the hustler who was leaving the life behind but not before regaling us with tales of the highs and lows of the street life with a smooth mixture of humor and regret,” writes Hip Hop Golden Age. “He was arrogant but still grounded, his characterization never becoming caricature, his conversational flow making it feel as if he were talking to each of us individually.” But they think “His boasting was always offset by the things he saw and the different choices he wished he’d made, the rap equivalent of Michael Corleone sitting alone, staring at the water at the end of The Godfather Part II.” They go on to share that “He effortlessly merged words and syllables while at the same time employing vivid imagery and witty wordplay to make sure you listened while at the same time throwing in coded slang and double entendres that would only be appreciated upon multiple listens. Though originally criticized for its materialistic approach, there is an undercurrent of doom and melancholy throughout, with Jay unhappily resigned to the life over beats that are rich but not overwrought from the likes of Clark Kent, Ski, and Premier.”
Soul in Stereo writes, “Edd said: I’ll never forget one of my best friends saying back in 96, ‘I think I need to go get that Jay-Z album. I think it might be pretty good.’ Yeah playa, it was pretty good all right.” They go on to share that “From top to bottom, I can’t find a single fault with this debut album. Every verse is a gem, every ounce of its production is iconic. I rocked this album on the bus during field trips, while playing video games and even while doing chores – Jay’s vivid storytelling was absolutely captivating.” They also note that “Years later, I even wrote a college essay based on ‘22 Two’s.’ And best of all, amongst my friends, this album seemed to be our own little secret. While MTV and BET were obsessed with Jay’s track with Foxy Brown, who seemed set to be the star of the duo, we knew that Jay-Z had so much more to offer – we knew he was destined to rule rap. We were right. And it all started with this album.”
“Even 24 years after its release, Reasonable Doubt remains amongst the top of Jay-Z’s discography,” writes Fantastic Hip Hop. “Revolving around how selling drugs for nearly his whole life has given Jay-Z a chance to make it out of the hood, the hunger and success in his lyrics, flow, and delivery makes sure this opportunity is captured. There’s so much offered here from the calm yet powerful ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’ with Mary J. Blige to the gritty ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’, which features none other than Biggie. While all of these tracks can be broken down and admired for hours, the DJ Premier produced ‘D’evils’ sums up the entire record with the lines ‘This sh*t is wicked on these mean streets, None of my friends speak, we’re all tryna win, But then again, maybe it’s for the best though’.”
3. “The Black Album” (2003)
This 2003 offering from Jay-Z only aided him in his continued rise to the top. This album landed in different spots on the experts’ lists we reviewed, but it ranks in the top five on each list it is on, making it another top choice of experts and Jay-Z fans alike.
Hip Hop Hero writes, “One of the greatest albums in hip-hop history only just makes it into the top three of Jay’s work, for that reason alone the New Yorker should be considered one of the best there is. On The Black Album, Jay laid down a marker that, even to this day, few have ever matched. Featuring some of the biggest names in the game, including Timbaland, the Neptunes, Eminem and Kanye there is only one fault on the entire album and the less said about ‘Justify My Thug’ the better.” They go on to say that “Billed originally as Jay’s swansong, it’s fitting that the final track on the album ‘Allure’ should see him reminisce about street living. Equally, there is ‘My 1st Song’ which is genuinely blessed with his classic double-time stutter style. It’s a peach of a record and deserves to be heard right now.”
“First of all, let’s take this album to task like we’re supposed to: The Black Album was a grade A troll, thematically unified by Jay’s ‘retirement’ which turned out to be more like a sabbatical,” writes Complex. “He seemed to think that without actually becoming a ghost, he would never be appreciated properly. So, he got his flowers while he could still smell them and a chance to bask in appreciation of fans by faking a retirement.” Though, they write, “In the end, it was a miscalculation: It turned out putting out some of your best material that late in your career did more to secure his place in rap’s pantheon than sitting on a beach chair somewhere.”
Mic Cheque writes, “It’s 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 its larger-than-life ambience made the album feel like Jay was being honored for his contributions to the genre.” They also share that “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.”
4. “Volume 2…Hard Knock Life” (1998)
If you’re a Jay-Z fan, you can probably hear the chorus, ‘It’s a hard knock life,’ in your mind upon reading the words. It may not have been possible to escape the song with how much airtime it received. Regardless, this 1998 album made many experts’ lists as another top offering from Jay-Z even though it was a change of pace from what many expected to hear from him.
Spin writes, “On his third album, Jay-Z began to ease into a playfulness that came as easy to him as being a hardass, setting up a contrast between his paranoia and desperation and the deftness of his untroubled flow.” They share that “More than anything, he created a unified musical picture for the first time, on what would be the first great pop-rap blockbuster of several that would come in rapid succession.” They go on to note that “Vol. 2 hangs its hat on the work of producers who were doing their best to surprise with every new beat at that time–formidable talents Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, in particular. This approach gave Vol. 2 a distinct feeling of modernity–not forced, but state-of-the-art. In sound, it was an exchange between motoric aggressiveness (‘If I Should Die’), club swagginess (timeless Jermaine Dupri-masterminded classic ‘Money Ain’t a Thang,’ Irv Gotti’s ‘Can I Get A…’), and harder-to-characterize composites like the Superfly-sque ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or the spacey diversion ‘It’s Alright (Streets Is Watching’). Jay seemed to feel comfortable at every turn.”
Soul in Stereo writes, “Edd said: Now we’re in rarefied air. If you listen to some Jigga fans, they’d swear he arrived on the scene and immediately became the greatest of all time after one song.” They go on to say “They’re wrong because they were probably born in 2008. It wasn’t until this album, Jay’s third solo release, that he went from respected underground rapper to hip hop megastar. And he deserved the honor. Tinkering with the formula from Vol. 1, Jay expertly reached out to the radio and the streets, captivating both audiences. Some fans deride this album’s mainstream hits but that’s ridiculous. This set contains many of the best songs of the late 90s. It has style AND substance and, for better or worse, influenced a generation of rappers to claw for mainstream success. It’s a true classic.”
“The album that launched him into the stratosphere, Vol. 2, was the moment Jay-Z figured out how to merge the street with the charts,” writes Hip Hop Golden Age. “Instead of awkward reaches for airplay with Babyface and Blackstreet, we get ‘Can I Get A…’ and the title track, with its brilliant flip of the Annie sample that couldn’t be replicated (as he would discover a year later with ‘Anything’).” They note: “He firmly establishes his spot with performances like the Mase clapback ‘Ride or Die’ and ‘It’s Like That’ (‘Impregnate the world when I come through your speakers’). There are even fewer solo tracks than Dynasty, but they all feel organic and just part of Jay inviting others on his ascension to the top.”
5. “American Gangster” (2007)
This is Jay-Z’s tenth album, and yes, it was inspired by the Denzel Washington film of the same name. Though this album didn’t make its way onto all experts’ reviews, it is considered by many as a good follow-up to a less popular, “Kingdom Come” album.
Fantastic Hip Hop writes, “Bouncing back from the disaster of Kingdom Come, 2007s, American Gangster restored the culture’s faith in Jay-Z. Accompanying a Denzel Washington film of the same name, Jay tied together the two experiences with their shared themes of greed, suspense, and pain. Opposed to all of his other records in the 2000s, executive production from Diddy adds some Bad Boy flare to Hov’s catalog. From the mental health cry ‘No Hook’ to the vibrant ‘I Know’ with Pharrell Williams, there is so much versatility within this cohesive body of work.” But they say that “making amends with arch-rival Nas on ‘Success’ is one of the many iconic moments American Gangster is immortalized in hip-hop royalty for.”
“There’s no doubt that American Gangster is an underrated gem,” writes Hip Hop Hero. “Not often breaking the top five of Jay’s best, the reason this record flourishes, especially when looking back, is the simplest, soulful and oh-so-sultry beats courtesy of Diddy and the Hitmen. It’s the exact album Jay would have made had he been active in the seventies.”
“I was and still am in awe of how the one-two combo of the American Gangster film and this album came together,” writes One37pm. “You can just listen to this LP and vibe with an incredibly inspired Jay that has a new fire lit up under him. Jay dove into his old self here and got back to the kingpin struggles that kicked his career off.” They note: “The ‘Reasonable Doubt’ vibes are strong here, which is why I have such a deep love for it – ‘No Hook,’ ‘Sweet,’ ‘Say Hello,’ and ‘Success’ are clear evidence of that feeling. Even the songs that noticeably adopt a radio-friendly sound still hold up (‘Hello Brooklyn’ and ‘I Know’ are the clearest examples).” And on Jay-Z’s brief retirement: “‘American Gangster’ reminded me that Jay’s decision to do a U-Turn on his retirement was for the best.”
You may also be interested in:
- Hip Hop Hero
- Mic Cheque
- Beats, Rhymes, & Lists
- Fantastic Hip Hop
- Hip Hop Golden Age
- Soul in Stereo
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