Let’s get the most important point out of the way—your favorite Jay-Z song says more about you than it does Jay. Curating and ranking a top song list for any artist proves vexing and guilt-inducing, but this is especially true of the Jigga Man. Why? Because he means such different things to such different people. Best rapper alive, sure, but maybe you really love Jay because he inspires your own hustler ambition to be a businessman and a business, man; perhaps it’s his smooth flow, his hitmaking ability, his party anthems; it’s possible you simply love Hov’s bars, those double entendres or profound lines you post as Instagram captions or Twitter clapbacks. The list goes on.
Mr. H to the Izzo has vacillated between being an album artist and a singles artist throughout his career. His best records deftly combine his business and artistic impulses (Blueprint, The Black Album) while his worst efforts feel stuck in between accomplishing neither (Unfinished Business, Magna Carta Holy Grail). Jay’s discography can be usefully described as sprawling, a convenient documentation of the genre’s various trends, values, and missteps. Sometimes he captures the zeitgeist, other times tries to emulate what’s hot and gets burned. The bulk of his best material debuted more than ten years ago, when social media didn’t even exist.
Why are we ranking Jay-Z top 25 songs then? Mostly because it’s fun as hell, an excuse to lose yourself within the music produced by one of the best rappers of all-time. But also because Jay-Z’s career deserves reappraisal—with the success of his 13th studio record 4:44, Hov continues to prove he can succeed where other rappers can’t. Jay is 48 years old and remains a supremely captivating artist, gracefully transitioning into aged-man rap that retained its cultural impact where other hip-hop luminaries have failed. Now, Jay-Z is about to partner with Beyoncé for the On The Run II Tour, co-headlining the biggest summer concert this year. It’ll only be the umpteenth time he’s owned the summer; after all, they go together like Nike Airs and crisp tees.
What more can he say to you? Not much. If you haven’t been convinced of Jay’s greatness by now, you haven’t been listening. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the songs below.
Empire State of Mind
On Jay’s first No. 1 song as a lead artist, he re-contextualized the push-pull dynamics of the bright lights, big city into a street-level hustler narrative. With boasts like “I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can,” the sheer scope is undeniable. All you can do is nod along in agreement.
A proper mainstream debut for two legendary figures in hip hop; the sped-up soul-sampling Kanye and Jay-Z, the aspirational idol. Kanye's masterful flip of a classic Jackson 5 sample sucks you into an infectious groove, while Hov playfully schools you on how to move through whatever game of life you’re playing.
Money, Cash, Hoes
As the story goes, at the onset of the nineties Jay-Z and DMX went at one another in a puff-your-chest rap battle in a Bronx pool hall. Things apparently got intense and the winner of the fight depends on who you ask. Therefore, when these two hip-hop titans collided on a massive street rap anthem over vintage Swizz Beatz production, it was like an earthquake brawling a hurricane in blizzard conditions. Marvel at the dark destruction left in their wake.
I will always love Kanye for including that interlude of fans begging Jay’s return to the stage for one more verse. It’s one of the great rap tricks in his catalog, and I’ve definitely sat alone in bedrooms throwing up the Roc diamond chanting, “Hova.” That great wailing trumpet provides context for giving Jay-Z his flowers while he can still smell them.
Run This Town
This song bangs no matter where you are or who you are. The pulsating piano chords, the fuzzy guitar runs, and various sample ornaments from No I.D. keeps your ear desperate to hear more. Jay-Z and Kanye reportedly fought over this beat, but it became a coming-out party for Jay, Ye, and Rihanna as they declare themselves rap’s Royal Court under the newly-formed Roc Nation label. Pledge your allegiance.
Where I'm From
You wouldn’t recognize the sample producer Amen-Ra constructed this beat around nor would you likely recognize the graphic depravity and destruction Jay-Z evokes in his rhymes. With a stray guitar screech from Yvonne Fair’s “Let Your Hair Down,” the isolated and distorted sample pierces your bones on each chopped loop. "Where I'm From" remains Jay’s most evocative description of the Brooklyn ghetto with zero glamorization or sugar-coating. When he spits on the hook, “Where I’m from, Marcy son, ain’t nothing nice,” you know he’s telling the truth.
Streets Is Watching
In a stream-of-consciousness, cagey confession, Jay-Z confronts his newfound fame, reflecting on his street-corner ties and previous dealing principles. “Look, if I shoot you, I'm brainless, but if you shoot me, then you're famous,” Hov raps on the opening lines, entangling the listener in his conundrum. The final verse sees Jay rapid-fire recounting his rise during his drug-dealing days, where he practically marvels over how he escaped without getting caught.
You always knew Jay-Z would respond. With Beyoncé’s scorched-earth Lemonade dragging Jay over the coals for his infidelity, an apology in song form was all but assured. “I apologize for all the stillborns cause I wasn't present / Your body wouldn't accept it,” he admits, devastatingly. Even in his most gruesome accounts of fame and the streets that raised him, Jay always positioned himself as the consummate hustler, the guy who knew how to win regardless of the game. But here the mask slips and Shawn Carter reveals the pyrrhic nature of his victories.
Can I Get A...
Jay-Z always loved a song with a great bounce, and it’s near impossible not to bop your head along to this track. Irv Gotti originally positioned this song as Ja Rule’s breakout track, but in true boss fashion, Jay demanded the beat upon hearing it. The pair brokered a deal with Ja remaining on the song’s third verse and Jay shrewdly adding Roc-A-Fella’s newest artist Amil to provide a woman’s touch.
Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)…
Presented as a celebration speech at an awards ceremony, Jay-Z toasts his partners and customers that made him the success that he is. These euphoric horns are probably the most famous trumpets in hip hop outside of “SpottieOttieDopalicious,” or anything Nico Segal has done with Chance the Rapper.
Renegade feat. Eminem
Don’t let Nas convince you otherwise—Eminem didn’t murder Jay-Z on his own shit. Yes, Em’s antagonistic punchlines and knotty internal rhyme patterns do slightly edge Jay’s smooth delivery of subtle metaphors and potent storytelling, but Jay more than holds his own.
This song began as a collaboration between Eminem and his Bad Meets Evil partner Royce da 5’9”. But when Jay approached Em about doing a track together for the Blueprint, he wiped Royce’s verses (with Royce's blessing) and sent the song to Hov. Bar for bar, it’s some of the best rhymes either artist has ever put together. As Jay raps about Eminem’s verses on his career-spanning “A Star Is Born,” “his flow on ‘Renegade,’ fucking awesome—applaud him.”
On The Black Album, which was supposed to be his final album, Jay’s original concept was to include a beat from each of his favorite producers. That included the legendary Rick Rubin, the Def Jam icon. But the idea to flip Ice-T’s original “99 Problems” and “tell the other side of that story” came from Chris Rock, according to Rubin.
“[O]ur idea was to use that same hook concept, and instead of it being a bragging song, it’s more about the problems,” Rubin told Vulture about the song’s inception. The recording process of Jay’s intricate second verse—where he recounts a close run-in with the cops—was forever immortalized in the Fade to Black documentary. With Jay playing narrator, cop, and drug dealer in the verse, Rubin claims it’s the only verse he ever saw Jay-Z write down.
With Max Romeo’s classic “Chase The Devil” providing spiritual foundation, Hov brawls past and present demons with a delicate mixture of anguish and anger. "Lucifer" showcases Jay-Z’s command of intricate flows, fitting into the tight pockets of Kanye’s chaotic, encapsulating production, which loom like a lost soul from the Greek underworld. Jay manages to stay afloat, but remains conflicted about his desires for retribution against murderers of Biggie and Bobalob.
Brooklyn's Finest feat. Notorious B.I.G.
Bars, bars, bars. What started as a standalone Jay track called “No More Mr. Nice Guy” changed hip hop history when DJ Clark Kent accidentally played the beat for Notorious B.I.G. in a studio session. Biggie loved it, as Clark Kent predicted he would, and became frustrated when Clark wouldn’t give Biggie the beat.
“You give this motherfucker [Jay-Z] everything,” Biggie complained, according to Clark Kent. The compromise: A collaboration between the two that almost didn’t happen because Dame Dash didn’t want to pay any royalties to Puff Daddy. Biggie and Jay met through this one, and it stands as testament to their inimitable chemistry. Two of the best ever to do it.
Overflowing with sheer disrespect, "Takeover" is arguably y the best diss song in hip-hop history. Kanye West masterfully sampled those gnarly guitar chords and Jim Morrison’s primal growls from The Doors “Five to One,” deftly adding crucial flourishes like David Bowie’s distorted “Fame” and KRS-One’s “Watch out, we run New York.”
Let’s not bury the keynote address: Jay’s savage deconstruction of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy (RIP) and Nas, the latter of whom receives devastating, missiles like “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song” and “what, you tryin’ to kick knowledge?” The pulsating death march of Jay’s cold speech demonstrates his no-holds barred approach to rap beef, and his self-assured status as both king and executioner.
Jay-Z’s newfound vulnerability as a lovesick crooner is subtler than it’s often credited. "Song Cry" treads familiar thematic ground of young, prideful man confronting the crossroads of facing intimacy or feeding their egos, and later regretting their decision. But Jay plays it more honest than most, vacillating between defeat and defiance as he believes his masculinity demands of him. He delivers overcompensating lines like “But deep inside a nigga so sick” and “I was just fuckin’ them girls, I was gon’ get right back!” fully aware how full of shit he is, but his ego commits him into believing the delusion.
I might be overrating it because it’s a song only reformed man-children can truly identify with, but rappers didn’t really expose their bruised hearts on this scale. For the record, The MTV Unplugged live version with Jaguar Wright holding down the vocals and Hov’s intimate performance is the track’s superior rendition.
You wouldn’t be wrong calling this an anti-gospel record. With melancholic, minor-key production from DJ Premier, Jay-Z’s recounting of childhood friends turned enemies illustrates, in a nihilistic sense, the meaning of crabs in a bucket. The sordid tale includes some of Jay’s most twisted, macabre lines like “I kept feedin' her money 'till her shit started to make sense,” which guts you with sneering cleverness.
Jay-Z says the song came to him in a dream, but the horror of the track is understanding that the story is no hallucination. Jay often claims "D'Evils" as one of his favorite songs he's ever made, and Premier explained to Complex that it’s “totally personal and dear to him.”
Niggas in Paris
It’d be a fun exercise to rank every Kanye & Jay-Z collaboration, though no matter how you slice it, this song should always rank No. 1. Defiantly baroque and delightfully histrionic, the track stands as a self-constructed monolith to the monetary success and career triumph against all odds. The title itself is the powerful statement—they rose from disenfranchised hustlers to rapper-barons crashing the most aristocratic of parties, yet never lost sight of where they came from.
“If you escaped what I've escaped / You'd be in Paris getting fucked up too,” Hov raps, capturing the mood. There’s a reason the pair played this record 5, 7, 12 times consecutively during the Watch The Throne tour—it bangs like crazy, yes, but it’s the moral center of their gold-plated, dick-swinging collaboration record.
I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)
Inspired by festivities thrown by Kimora Lee Simmons, where Mary J. Blige was “dancing like crazy on the floor,” "I Just Wanna Love U" remains Jay’s quintessential party anthem. Hov claims they played it thirty times in the studio after making it, and you can’t even blame them. It’s just so damn catchy—brought together through Jay-Z’s buttery flow, Pharrell’s ecstatic Curtis Mayfield impression, and that fluttering, knocking Neptunes bass line. Jay pulls off the best rapper trick of his career, interpolating Carl Thomas’ famous hook off-key, “And I wish I never met her at all…” Who doesn’t want to sing along to this classic?
Can I Live?
With the most tightly woven rhymes and multisyllabic gymnastics of his career, Jay-Z spills out the passion, pursuit, and paranoia of his hustler ambitions, caught between his paths in the crack game and the rap game. The record’s producer, Irv Gotti, likens the track’s ethos to the classic Scarface tagline: “He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance.” Or, as Jay puts it, “I’d rather die enormous than live dormant, that’s how we on it.”
While the Isaac Hayes’ “The Look of Love” sample and quasi-shrill strings lurk forward, Jay maintains the calm demeanor necessary to survive his environment. After thirty-two bars of confession, equally exasperated and enamored, he finally wonders, “Can I live?” The record’s secretly a love song—a toxic love, Jay laments, that won’t end well if he continues onward, though his wistful crave to do so may remain.
U Don’t Know
Renting out two rooms at Baseline Studios while conceiving his classic Blueprint album, Jay-Z would craft songs with one producer in the main room while the other tinkered away in the smaller one. Those two producers? Kanye West and Just Blaze, who competed every day like it was a “heavyweight slugfest.” When Just played Jay the beat that would become “U Don’t Know,” he simply responded, “Oh my God.”
It’s the only proper reaction to the song, a tour-de-force, thumping facemelter, which can’t be legitimately experienced through headphones or laptop speakers. Sit between two speakers with a subwoofer aimed at your face—then you’ll understand the brash, beautiful power of this record. It’s Hov at his cockiest, haughtily elongating syllables and boasts through a shit-eating grin, so sure the competition can’t catch up. “I—will—not—lose—ever—fucker,” he ends the record, as your brain gloriously explodes.
Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)
You can’t understate how pivotal this record was to Jay-Z’s career. Before this, he opened for Puff Daddy’s No Way Out tour; afterwards he became a radio star, suddenly accessible to millions. Kid Capri spun DJ sets in between acts of the No Way Out tour and he had the “Hard Knock Life” beat from producer The 45 King for market research. Hov heard it leaving the stage one night and demanded the instrumental.
From there, most know the story of Jay writing Annie director and lyricist Martin Charnin, lying about how he won a school essay contest to see Annie and the impact it had on him, all to clear the sample. Not only is "Hard Knock Life" a banger, but the song deftly connects the orphan’s lines of “Instead of treated, we get tricked” with ghetto plight; the system’s rigged against them, too. I almost resist playing this song because once you hear those orphan’s sunny voices, they’ll rattle in your head all day.
Big Pimpin' feat. UGK
It still amuses me that Pimp C so thoroughly curbed “Big Pimpin’” at first. Worried over how “pop” the record sounded against the country-funk vibrations he’d cultivated, Jay-Z and his UGK partner Bun B had to convince Pimp to spit a verse. “’Look, fam, it’s going to be the biggest record of your career,” Jay urged. Pimp relented but only gave them eight bars (it’s probably the best eight-bar verse in rap’s history) while Bun B’s verse includes one of the all-time wonderful disrespectful lines in hip hop: “Go read a book you illiterate son of a bitch.”
But the beat is the drug that keeps you a fiend coming back for more. The Egyptian flutes Timbaland sampled are like those from one of the Super Mario Bros. games—they literally transport you to a new land, where those same instruments overflow with champagne and the indigenous populations wear pimp coats and travel by yacht. You literally feel richer listening to “Big Pimpin’” as Timbo’s elastic drums dislodge any logical brain wiring and encourages you to be all the way back on your bullshit.
Dead Presidents I/II
Watch any video of Jay-Z creating music in the studio and you’ll usually see a scene of him with faraway eyes, a wry, scrunched face, nodding to the rhythm as the beat loops. His writing process is a response to the audio prompt, placing his voice inside the production, while also conversing with the emotional textures of whatever the music is saying. When explaining a song’s inception like “Dead Presidents,” Hov is prone to saying something like, I didn’t know I’d tell that story until I heard the beat.
You can’t imagine a standard pen-and-paper writing method could achieve a masterpiece as lushly atmospheric and vivid as “Dead Presidents.” The trick is how simply Ski Beatz constructed it—the chopped Lonnie Liston Smith piano loop, drums from Tribe’s “Oh My God (Remix),” the Nas vocal sample, and a low pass filter. That’s it. The rises and resolutions of the beat match Jay’s storytelling as he hits you with inspiration—“Live out my dreams until my heart give out”—and myopia—"Murder is a tough thing to digest, it's a slow process / And I ain't got nothin' but time.” Ski said Jay recorded two versions of the track “to give people more of him,” and you can endlessly debate whichever is best. Personally, I prefer thinking of them as one collective that blends together the melancholy and memories from Jay’s mind.
Public Service Announcement
Is this the most famous beat drop in hip hop? You know it without hearing it: Tension mounts as those bass notes thump and Just Blaze does his best impression of a 1960s Black Panther loudspeaker address. Whenever this track plays in public, mosh pits form out of Pavlovian training. Then it drops, those funked-out organ chords roar, and everyone collectively shouts, “Hov!” Live at a Jay-Z concert, it’s like a nuclear bomb detonating, and the first verse is verbal fallout of the welcomed anarchy.
This song was a last-second addition to The Black Album. CDs were about to press, artwork was printed, when a friend handed Just Blaze the Little Boy Blues sample. He immediately understood the track’s firepower and whipped the beat together in ten minutes. Media had already been invited for listening sessions and interviews, so Jay-Z would write four bars in the studio in between a session, and repeat that process until he had the lyrics. “Which means as he’s doing press, he’s thinking about this beat in the back of his mind, coming up with the song,” Just Blaze said.
An afterthought or a case of not overthinking things, you decide. But the crackling energy, the subtle wordplay, and fireworks that explode when this record plays is undeniable.