It was incomprehensible that one of the greatest rappers of all time was about to retire. Taking the world by storm, Jay-Z gave his fans one last encore over a perfect soundtrack that Kanye created.
Thankfully, Jay's retirement was a good old-fashioned pump fake and he would go on to release more albums and do it with aplomb. Though, if he were to retire, this was the perfect track for his exit.
Premiering in 2001 at the first ever BET awards, this was the world's first taste of an anthem that is absolutely timeless.
Rapping intricate rhymes about drug talk over a recognizable Jackson 5 sample combined with an instantly catchy hook, Hova does what he does best: create great music.
A song to please the masses, it also appealed to the snobbiest of hip-hop critics and Hova's true blue fans.
Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)
A Kanye-produced track that Jay effortlessly rhymes over. Despite Jay's success, he started to get a lot of hate in the early 2000's, with many in the industry praying for his downfall. Jay responded with this track as he found it harder and harder to find love in the industry but in the end, took it all over.
Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…)
As soon the as loud drums and the even louder horns start playing, you know it's a song for the ballers. Jigga spits the song in a speech format, thanking people from his past and present to bring him the success he has today. The bold, brassy sound is a throwback to an era full of deep pockets, beautiful women, and extravagant clothes. Yeah, the Roc Boys were definitely in the building.
Can't Knock The Hustle (feat. Mary J. Blige)
Hova introduced himself to the public at large in typical fashion by having the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary. J Blige feature on the opening track of Reasonable Doubt. Though she couldn't feature on the music video due to label issues, Hova took the opportunity to showcase his cool, calm, and collected self; a theme prevalent throughout his phenomenal debut album.
Dirt Off Your Shoulder
As he prepped for retirement life, Hova wanted to leave on a high by reminding everyone just how great he was and easily he brushed all his haters off. Though the anthemic track was a classic in its day, it seemed to die down as the years progressed until then-presidential candidate Barack Obama brushed the dirt off his shoulders, reviving the song and making himself look hip.
Politics As Usual
Go back and listen to Reasonable Doubt and you can truly see how far Jay-Z has come in life. Throughout his debut album, he seems to have a foot still stuck in his street money, the fast money. Seemingly unwilling to break his underworld ties, it's none more so evident on this track when he spits all about his adored streets.
If anyone ever doubts Hova's technical ability as a rapper, they need to only point them to this song. Paying homage to A Tribe Called Quest, Jigga man decided to spit the word two/to/too 22 times on the first verse, a remarkable feat that sadly the second verse paled in comparison to as he decided to abandon the whole two/to/too schtick. Though he made up for it ten years later with 44 Fours, it just wasn't the same as the first time you heard him spit that on Reasonable Doubt.
At this time in hip-hop, every fan was craving a collaboration between two artists at the peak of their powers and they were rewarded with a distinctive track. Hova had to change up his flow to match that of Em's while the melodramatic Marshall contrasted the soulful, upbeat theme of the entire album so perfectly. The duo spent five-plus minutes spitting rhymes on their role model status, critiquing bad parents, and explaining their rebellious status in America. Nas did bring up a good question though: Did Em murder Jay on his own shit?
After featuring on Big Daddy Kane and Jaz-O tracks, it was time for Jay to step up to the plate, and he did so effortlessly. MTV and BET crowds were treated to Jay viciously spitting meticulous wordplay over a haunting piano-heavy instrumental and showcased hints of Jay's rapid-fire delivery style that he came to be known for in the '90's.
Streets Is Watching
The street life comes with paranoia as someone or something is always watching, very closely, waiting for you to make your first mistake. Jay delves into his psyche to spit about street life, including foiled plots, brushes with death, and a conscious that weighed heavily on him. Hands down, one of the best tracks ever recorded to portray street life.
Brooklyn's Finest (feat. Notorious B.I.G)
Forever immortalized in hip-hop history ever since he took to the mic, Biggie Smalls is one of the greatest of all time. So, when Jay-Z went toe-to-toe with B.I.G on this track, the world could only sit back and admire. Another track that helped Hova's reputation, the world had to respect him as he spat enough quotable rhymes to match Biggie's digs at wife Faith Evans and 2Pac.
Big Pimpin (feat. UGK)
No one saw this collaboration coming. A song full of braggadocio, UGK and Hova boast hard rhymes over a Middle Eastern-influenced sample from Timbaland that was unlike anything else in hip-hop at the time. This track makes "swag" rappers of today look straight-up silly.
Everyone knows at least one person who knows all the words to this track - you might even be that person. This track is immaculate in its production (thanks Rick Rubin) and the verses are so tight with Hova spitting about music critics, female dogs, and men who probably pee sitting down; all variations on the word bitch. He even had time to spit about his time as a d-boy and dealings with a K-9 unit. Damn.
Money, Cash, Hoes (feat. DMX)
The time was 1998. 2Pac and Biggie had recently passed away (R.I.P) and Jay-Z and DMX had filled the huge gaps left by the two greats. The duo had become the hottest commodities in hip-hop and decided to collaborate over a 19-year-old Swizz Beatz track. The duo discussed their lives three most important necessities: money, cash, and hoes. (Though, aren't money and cash the same thing?)
Can I Live
This track perfectly exemplifies Jay's ambitions in a nutshell. He'd rather die enormous than live dormant. He explains his theory on life, his ambitions for his career, the plight of a hustler, the ups and downs of a game, all the while sipping margaritas at a craps table.
The beef between Nas and Jay-Z was huge with the two NYC great creating timeless diss tracks targeting one another. Nasty Nas created Ether, a chorus-less track that took jabs at everything about Jay-Z and called him one too many names.
What Nas didn't realize though was that Jay-Z had something in the chamber that would discredit and dismantle Nas' career in one single, swift move.
The track, which is a Kanye West-produced monster, was "Takeover", a song that was more of a well-written essay than a diss song. With an introduction, three hard-hitting points, and a conclusion, Hova picked apart Nas' shortcomings. He also had time to take shots at Mobb Deep's Prodigy. The song fuelled the debate as to who really won the biggest feud since 2Pac and Biggie.
Public Service Announcement
Who knew a swan song could be just this damn perfect? Just Blaze and Jay-Z have a plethora of collaborations but this tops the list as Hova spits quotable rhyme after rhyme over Blaze's sample of "Seed of Love". Don't act like you still don't quote lines from this song in your everyday life, especially with classics like, “I got the baddest chick in the game, wearing my chain."
I Just Wanna Love u (Give It To Me) (feat. The Neptunes)
The Neptunes had a young, fresh, new sound about them that was bound to dominate the charts, something Jay spotted way before anyone else. He got them to produce this track for them, complete with a hook from Pharrell, and it solidified Jay as a hit-maker as it was his first #1, ever.
Hard Knock Life
Easily Jay-Z's greatest song not just due to its clever wordplay, his rhyme skills, but also the cultural relevance this track became known for. Sampling the Broadway musical, Annie, this track served as the catalyst for his rise to the massive amount of fame he now has. It truly marked Jay's arrival to the mainstream and allowed his name to become a household one as the song appealed to all genders, races, ages, and cultures, due to its child-like chorus, but life-analyzing verses.
The song broke down yet another cultural barrier in hip-hop as it allowed just about everyone to embrace the track with its innocent chorus but murderous verses, appealing to every demographic possible.
Jay-Z turns 43 today and in appreciation of one of the greatest rappers of all time, we take a look at 20 of his best tracks
In a career that spans two decades, eleven solo studio albums, a number of chart hits, and years of financial success, Jay-Z is definitely one of the greatest of all time. He now co-owns a NBA team in his native Brooklyn, he has altered the hip hop landscape numerous times, and as other artists have faded away, he has consistently been relevant, both culturally and musically. He has been critiqued as being too business-like and has responded with successful album after album, which made this list even harder to choose. On Hova's 43rd birthday we've broken down twenty of his top track - though in fairness that still doesn't pay proper tribute to the Jigga Man.