Discography Check: Jay-Z

By @TrueGodImmortal 

So, we've arrived at this. Years ago, I wrote about Jay-Z and his albums, in minimal detail. I remember thinking to myself at the time, that if I had the chance to do this article over that I would. Well, today is that day. As we hear rumors of a new Jay-Z album on the way, along with a bunch of random appearances over the last year or so on tracks, a new Live Nation deal, and a couple of concerts coming at the end of the summer, it's safe to say Jay is about to be in the news a lot in the next few months. With that being said, I wanted to take a look back at his catalog and discuss his albums. He has some great projects in his catalog, and some not so great ones, and that's what we are here to discuss today. Jay is one of the greatest rappers of all time and many believe his catalog is one of the best in hip hop. Today, we examine his discography. Let's get into it.

*Reasonable Doubt (1996)

-The initial album. The debut. The ultimate. Like so many artists before him, Jay would have his greatest work come at the very beginning of his career. After a long process, Roc-A-Fella Records was born and Jay went to work with producers like DJ Premier, Ski, Clark Kent, and more. What he ended up creating is my all time favorite album from him and one of my top 5 albums ever in hip hop. Whether Jay hit you with some real world views from his perched position on "Can I Live", spoke of the harsh reality of the underworld on "D'evils", or even gave you his "Regrets", Jay came right out the gate with an extremely well rounded debut. Reasonable Doubt is an album that has a small bit of soul searching underneath the drug dealer tales and lyrics, and if you listen closely, you can hear that Jay was at his most hungry period not only in his career, but his life. Reasonable Doubt is the beginning of the Jay-Z story, but it's the most important piece and one of the greatest works in hip hop history. That's one hell of a way to make an initial impact.

Top 3 Songs
"Can I Live"

*In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)

-His most underrated album is a near classic in its own right and the best of the Volume albums. Truthfully, like most of the Volume albums, this project has its share of flaws, but for the most part, this is an amazing album overall. From the beginning of the album, we see Jay in what feels like reflective mode, recovering from the loss of his close friend The Notorious B.I.G., Jay saw an opening to now continue on what his friend started as the King of New York. He speaks on this via tracks like "Real Niggas", "The City Is Mine", and in a way, "Where I'm From", but he also goes through the motions that comes with fame on a track like "Lucky Me". He speaks about his success and his wealth on "Imaginary Player", which is the best song on the album, and he gets very personal and in depth on "You Must Love Me", one of the most underrated gems in his entire career. Aside from "Sunshine" and "I Know What Girls Like", this album is extremely solid and I think it is one of his best without question, production wise and lyrically.

Top 3 Songs
"Imaginary Player"
"Lucky Me"
"Where I'm From"

*Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (1998)

-I'll say it and probably catch hell for it, but who cares: Vol. 2 is the most overrated Jay-Z album. Now, some of you reading this might not see it as overrated, because like me, you think it's just a solid album and nothing more. However, there's a lot of people who believe it's a top 3-4 Jay album (their opinion) and there's people who believe this is a classic. Now, as far as sales go, it's the biggest moment in Jay's career, so in that sense, yes, it is a classic based on impact (maybe). The thing is, the music hasn't aged tremendously well IMO, especially the production. Where Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 1, The Blueprint, even American Gangster maintained a but of replay value, this album tends to lack it. Once again, this is my personal opinion as a fan of hip hop. Don't get me wrong, the album is full of great songs, like "Nigga What, Nigga Who", the hit "Money, Cash, Hoes" with DMX, the Too Short assisted classic "A Week Ago", the epic posse track "Reservoir Dogs" with The LOX, Sauce Money, and Beanie Sigel, and the Mase diss record "Ride Or Die" (which could also be viewed as the early subliminal shots at Nas as well). The tracks that lack include the Foxy Brown assisted "Paper Chase", Da Ranjhaz featured "If I Should Die",  the Kid Capri featured "It's Like That", and personally, I wasn't a big fan of the sequel to "Coming Of Age", mainly because it was inferior to the original by miles. Still, Vol. 2 is a solid album, with a lot of mainstream hits, but it lacks cohesion and the production leaves you a bit unsatisfied. Still, the success of this album can't be denied and it turned Jay into a worldwide star instantly, something that he deserved with the first two albums he released.

Top 3 Songs
"A Week Ago"
"Money, Cash, Hoes"
"Reservoir Dogs"

*Vol. 3: Life And Times Of S. Carter (1999)

-I'm on the fence about this album. It's not bad at all. It's not exactly great. It's a good album. I think people remember it as one of Jay's worst albums mainly because he followed up Vol. 2 so quickly. The one thing I loved about Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3 as far as an album series went is that none of these albums sound the same. With Vol. 1, the sound was more lush, and with Vol. 2, Jay went more commercial, so it's only right Jay went a little darker with Vol. 3. Working with Timbaland closely on this album, Jay would end up going with a more street orientated vibe than the other two Volumes, and on tracks like "Dopeman", "There's Been A Murder", "Come And Get Me", and more, Jay would coast over the instrumentals with ease. Other hits like "Do It Again" and "Big Pimpin" helped push the album to triple platinum sales, but like most albums, it has some flaws. The Mariah Carey featured "Things That You Do" is weighed down by the slightly lifeless production, while the Amil featured "S. Carter" also suffers from the production. The apex of the album comes at the beginning with the last DJ Premier/Jay-Z collaboration "So Ghetto". It's honestly one of the best songs he's made, and it's the highlight of this album. Though essentially well rounded, Vol. 3 doesn't always connect and that's why it's not recognized as one of his best.

Top 3 Songs
"So Ghetto"
"It's Hot (Some Like It Hot)"

*The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

-For a while, I considered this album a classic. I remember listening to it everyday after school (and on the way to school) remembering every lyric on every song. It's interesting to look back at it now, but I think growing up, this was my favorite Jay album for some reason (besides Reasonable Doubt). After Vol. 3, in retrospect, I think we saw that Jay was heading down a path towards more introspection. Call it growth, maturity, or whatever you want, but Jay had seemingly began his path to making more introspective music and the Dynasty was essentially the first manifestation of it. Sure, Jay had given a small glimpse of introspection and vulnerability on earlier albums like Reasonable Doubt and briefly on Vol. 1, but he would take that to a higher level on The Dynasty. Backed by his Roc-A-Fella crew that included Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and for a second, Amil (she makes the most brief appearance on this album), Jay was locked in and set out to make an album with balance. The Dynasty has an immense amount of balance and though it's essentially a glorified compilation with Jay as the face of it, it delivers in a major way. From the West Coast inspired bangers "Change The Game", "Get Ya Mind Right Mami", and "Parking Lot Pimpin" to the street wise tales that were presented in "Stick 2 The Script" and "Streets Is Talking" to the deep introspection provided on "This Can't Be Life", "Soon You'll Understand", and the very personal "Where Have You Been", this album doesn't really miss. I'd dare say it's in the top 6-7 of Jay's album releases, which in his catalog, says a lot. Personally? I'd listen to this album over The Black Album and Vol. 1 (two possible top 5 Jay projects), but that's just my personal bias. The Dynasty, however, is a great album and to this very day, it remains a personal favorite of mine.

Top 3 Songs
"This Can't Be Life"
"Where Have You Been"
"Soon You'll Understand"

*The Blueprint (2001)

-Of course. The album many consider Jay's 2nd best album is a true classic and is the most introspective Jay album to date. Backed with the soulful production that mostly came from Just Blaze, Kanye West, and the Virginia producer Bink!, Jay gave us some of his most mature songs and lyricism over some amazing beats. He spoke of relationships that failed on the amazing "Song Cry", gave us a window into his life with the title track, spoke to his addiction to women on the extremely soulful "Girls, Girls, Girls, and sparred with Eminem on the classic track "Renegade". Still, the apex of this album comes near the end when Jay talks about haters and the struggle to remain who you are on "Heart Of The City" and "Never Change", two of the best tracks on the album and in Jay's career. The Blueprint is an album that will be known as the 2nd greatest Jay album and has my vote for one of the greatest hip hop albums of the 2000s.

Top 3 Songs
"Song Cry"
"Never Change"
"Heart of The City"

*Jay-Z Unplugged (2001)

-I'll only briefly touch on this one. It's essentially just a live album based on the MTV live show that Jay did, as he was essentially transitioning into a more aware time period in his career, and being backed by The Roots and Jaguar Wright on stage made him seem like he was going into a new direction. The only track on this album that is new is the only track that isn't live, the smoothly produced "People Talking", as Jay spits some really dope verses over the soulful production. Though not an official album, Unplugged is slightly important in the Jay-Z journey, thus it's included here.

*The Best Of Both Worlds w/ R. Kelly (2002)

-I remember when this album first dropped, and I was excited for it initially. The concept of two of the biggest stars in the game working together was really a big deal to me then. I thought to myself "Just Blaze, Kanye West, R. Kelly, and others could end up all working together to make something special", but what we got instead was an album mostly handled by the Trackmasters, who I wasn't extremely fond of at this point. Lyrically, this album is as lackluster as they come, but that's the point. Kelly and Jay seemed focused on making hits, but the album itself fell a little short. Though tracks like "Take You Home With Me", "Break Up To Make Up", "Honey", and the hilarious Devin The Dude featured "Pussy" are all solid tracks, but my favorite is the Isley Brothers sampled "It Ain't Personal", which really hints at not only the eventual Dame Dash and Jay breakup, but spoke in a way of the Jaz-O beef he was involved in. Though this album was panned by critics, it still has a few solid tracks, making it a decent listen, but one well below expectations.

Top 3 Songs
"It Ain't Personal"
"Somebody's Girl"

*The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse (2002)

-Though I wasn't a bit fan of the double album idea, I can admit this album was solid overall. It was released as the Blueprint 2.1 later on condensed into one disc, but that album still somehow felt uneven, even with the reduced tracklist. This is a good double album, but I'd rather he cut down on some of the filler. Tracks like the tribute to Biggie "A Dream", the Just Blaze produced "Hovi Baby", the Neptunes featured and produced "Excuse Me Miss", and the underrated Big Boi and Killer Mike assisted "Poppin Tags" all helped to round out an album that could have benefited from a bit of a cut down. Because of the filler, BP2 seems to reside in the lower tier of Jay albums, but he does provide a lot of amazing verses and dope songs that truly would be more appreciated in a more cohesive album.

Top 3 Songs
"Meet The Parents"
"Hovi Baby"
"Excuse Me Miss"

*The S. Carter Collection (2003)

-One of the most infamous mixtapes in hip hop history, Jay would debut his Reebok shoe with his first ever mixtape. A mix of remixes, older unreleased tracks, and freestyles over popular beats, Jay was comfortable on this tape, rapping as freely as we've ever heard him. No precision, no storytelling, no need for making hits, it was just Jay over beats, letting the rhymes flow. It's one of my favorite moments of Jay's career, and it was executed very well. The freestyles over "Pump It Up" and "Flava In Ya Ear" show that Jay is nearly untouchable and are among my favorite tracks on the tape.

Top 3 Songs
"Young, Black, and Gifted Freestyle"
"Flava In Ya Ear Freestyle"
"Pump It Up Freestyle"

*The Black Album (2003)

-This was supposed to be the final Jay album, BUT as we learned... that wasn't the case. Originally, this album was going to have 14 different producers for 14 different songs, but in the end, that didn't happen. Instead, Jay enlisted frequent collaborators Just Blaze, The Neptunes, and Kanye West for multiple productions, while trying something new by working with producers like DJ Quik and 9th Wonder, among others. There are no features on this album minus Cedric The Entertainer on "Threat" and Pharrell on the hooks of the songs he helped produce, and we get nothing but Jay on the verses. This album is seen by many as a classic, and while I won't dispute that, it's a fact that the album has its share of flaws. "Change Clothes", "Justify My Thug", and honestly, "My 1st Song" feel a bit lazy in execution, even though Jay lyrically is never bad here. The production and the hooks tend to bring his great lyricism down a notch, but that's not the case with the great songs on the album like "Encore", "Lucifer", "PSA", "December 4th", and "Threat", where Jay remains in the zone throughout the tracks. The Black Album is a near classic in my book, and it was a fitting way for Jay to go out..... or at least a great way to take a break.

Top 3 Songs
"December 4th"

*Jay Z and Linkin Park- Collison Course (2004)

-The mashup album from these two powerhouses doesn't really deserve much of a mention here, because it's not new material, but it was definitely different for the time. Linkin Park utilized their music and production to complement Jay's classic songs and rhymes, and it was a strange mix, but it was very successful. There's not much to speak of here, but it was a significant release commercially for Jay, thus it is included here.

*Unfinished Business w/ R. Kelly (2004)

-Some things are better left alone. This is one of them. After the failure of the first Best of Both Worlds, Jay should have left it at that. Instead, he decided to go back to the drawing board and essentially create what is an updated version of the first. This album has very little to speak of positively, and bringing the Trackmasters back once again probably wasn't the smartest idea on production when you have Kanye and Just available. If anything, this album is memorable for the inclusion of the hilarious "Big Chips" track, which is so bad that it's great. There's a few solid moments, but otherwise this is a waste of time for both legendary artists.

Top 3 Songs
"Break Up (That's All We Do)"
"Big Chips"
"Don't Let Me Die"

*Kingdom Come (2006)

-It is widely seen as the worst Jay album by a number of people, or one of his worst without question. There's a good reason for that. After a 3 year layoff from hip hop, Jay returned in the weirdest way possible. He returned more "refined" and more polished so to speak, as the rugged lyricism that was scattered through his albums was completely gone. Instead, Jay rapped from the position of President at Def Jam, rather than the Jay that made The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt classic. It was a progression in a way, but lyrically, Jay seemed to take a step back and the production here was hit or miss. Kanye supplies one of the best beats on the album for the John Legend assisted "Do U Wanna Ride", but aside from a few other tracks like the Coldplay assisted "Beach Chair", and the amazing intro "The Prelude", the production just lacks. That is no more prevalent than on the laughable track featuring Pharrell and Usher "Anything", where Jay spits hilariously bad verses, and even on the Beyonce featured "Hollywood", the awkward production does little to make the song pop. Overall, Kingdom Come is uneven, like a few other Jay albums, and the perspective he raps from is somehow not relatable, which is a first for Jay in a big way.

Top 3 Songs
"Beach Chair"
"Do U Wanna Ride"
"The Prelude"

*American Gangster (2007)

-I've always felt this album doesn't get enough credit. It's a classic to me personally, and the production and lyricism are a bit of a throwback for Jay. Backed by soulful samples and smooth drum patterns, Jay went back to a time in his life that he thought he had left in the past and created one of his best albums. From the engaging production of "American Dreamin" to the comfortable lyricism he spits alongside a hungry Nas on "Success" to the intense rhymes on "Pray", American Gangster delivers. The song that sticks out to me the most on this album is "Party Life", as the sample and the production invokes the 70's era that the movie itself was centered around and based in. Though some didn't appreciate this album, there's no denying Jay was back to himself lyrically and delivered in a major way that he didn't with Kingdom Come. Sometimes, a return to roots is what you need.

Top 3 Songs
"American Dreamin"
"Party Life"

*The Blueprint 3 (2009)

-If you ask me my least favorite album from Jay, this is my pick. The reasons why are various, and I'll actually break them down one by one. For one, I think The Blueprint series deserved a better end to the trilogy. Two, I thought after trying to showcase progression on Kingdom Come and going back to his roots on American Gangster that we'd see a more poised Jay on his next album. It's hard to describe it, but this album felt like regression disguised as progression. Production wise, the album was mostly handled by Kanye and No ID, along with a few contributions from Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and The Neptunes but it just doesn't grab me. For instance, the Drake featured "Off That" is honestly a bad song, and it feels like an attempt at a new "anthem" that fails miserably. Though the Alicia Keys featured "Empire State Of Mind" was a massive hit, the song itself is just alright, and the same could be said for the hit Rihanna and Kanye assisted single "Run This Town", which was solid, but just didn't grab me either. Though the production of "D.O.A." was solid, it came off as gimmicky and that's a rarity for Jay. However, when Jay does connect, he connects big time. The Neptunes and Pharrell assisted "So Ambitious" is a favorite, as is the amazing "Thank You" and the really solid intro "What We Talkin About" are all great tracks. Jay embraces the new era by featuring Kid Cudi, J Cole, and Drake, it's just that the songs don't really hit as hard as they should. Many do love this album, but it just doesn't do it for me. Of all the Jay albums, I listen to this the least. Is it a terrible album? Not exactly, but it just falls very low of expectations and feels like Jay is trying too hard, something he's seemingly done more as the years went by after the "retirement".

Top 3 Songs
"So Ambitious"
"Thank You"
"What We Talkin About"

*Watch The Throne w/ Kanye West (2011)

-I'll admit. I wasnt extremely fond of this album when it initially dropped. It's not that I thought it was bad, but there was the thought of what it was going to sound like versus what the finished product was. After hearing the leaked single "The Joy" over an amazing Pete Rock beat, I was almost certain that we'd hear a mix of American Gangster Jay and MBDTF Kanye, which could have honestly made that an all time great album. Instead, we got a mix of solid tracks with some commercial centered songs and a few "stadium" sounding tracks that definitely came off as Kanye's idea. Now, when you look at tracks like "No Church In The Wild", "The Joy", "Primetime", "Otis", and the huge hit "Niggas In Paris", this is what you expect from the duo, as their lyricism was in point for a majority of these songs. However, where the album falters is a slight lack of cohesion. Sure, the themes of opulence, the price of fame, and fatherhood are great to hear, the sound just doesn't flow together as smoothly as one would hope. It's a shame they won't have a second chance at another Throne album now. I wonder what that would sound like honestly.

Top 3 Songs
"The Joy"
"Murder To Excellence"

*Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

-This album is one I feel a bit unsure about honestly. There's a bit of music on here that's really good and solid, but the truth of the matter is, this album is essentially an acquired taste. If you're a huge Jay fan like myself, you are either pleasantly surprised by the album or disappointed by it. There's really no in between. For me, I enjoyed tracks like "Heaven", "Picasso Baby", "F.U.T.W.", and a few others, but could have done without the tracks that sound like Jay is trying too hard, like the short but pointless "Versus", the surprisingly disappointing Nas collaboration "BBC", the hit "Holy Grail" that was popular but wasn't that great (IMO), as well as the strange single "Tom Ford", which really sounded like Jay trying way too hard to stunt. When Jay stunts on tracks like "FuckWithMeUKnowIGotIt" and "La Familia", it works to an extent, but this album feels like his last two previous projects did: regression disguised. MCHG isn't a horrible album, but it just has its share of disappointing moments, making it an album that will reside in the lower tier of Jay albums.

Top 3 Songs

Jay is one of the greatest rappers ever without a doubt. His discography isn't perfect, but with more good/great albums in his arsenal and only a few lackluster projects, his catalog is definitely one of the greatest in hip hop history.



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