There are very few artists who can match the potency of Jay-Z, the premiere music mogul, undoubted king, and undeniable rhyme master. Hova has rightly established himself as one of the legends of hip-hop and while he certainly made his name away from the mic, being Beyonce’s husband can have that effect on your career, it is in the studio that Jay really put his own spin on the rap game. Unlike any other hip-hop artists before him, the rapper made sure that his albums weren’t hit singles with a few fillers, they were bodies of work, pieces of art set to be discussed for decades.
Announcing himself in 1996 with Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z has become the foreword in class. His rhymes are silky, visually engaging and underpinned by Hova’s natural flow, they are as happy to discuss the usual tropes of hip-hop (making money, getting girls and being a gangster on your block) but he’s also, especially in his later years, used his position to try and open the minds of his audience. Never afraid to take a creative leap, there’s no doubt that Jay-Z will be a legendary name in the rap game forevermore.
Born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969, the writing was on the wall for Jay at an early stage in his career. The rapper founded his label Roc-A-Fella in 1995 before he later released his debut LP a year later. It showed that while easily considered one of the greatest rappers of his generation, above all else, Jay was a businessman as well as an artist. In his albums, he gets to showcase both with a rare simplicity that few can match.
With a career that reaches back across three decades, it can be hard to know exactly where Jay’s career crescendoes, perhaps it hasn’t quite reached that point? But, below, we’re trying to lend a helping hand by providing you with a definitive ranking of his most precious asset—his albums. We take a look at the rapper’s LPs and rank them from worst to best, so you have a good idea of where to start when introducing yourself to Jay-Z. Equally, if you’re a fan already, let us know in the comments your own ranking.
Jay-Z albums ranked worst to best:
13. Kingdom Come (2006)
Everyone gets a bit rusty, don’t they? That was certainly the case for Kingdom Come, a record that landed in 2006 after Hova had been on a hip-hop hiatus for three years. While he hadn’t stepped up to a mic in those years, his fame and notoriety had grown ginormously. It meant expectations for his return were high.
Perhaps because of this, the record falls short, especially in comparison to the rest of his canon. While some moments on the album screamed that prime Jay was about to return (‘Dig a Hole’ being the pick of the bunch), they were drowned out by a huge bout of cheesy pop singles.
12. The Blueprint 3 (2009)
Conceptually, Blueprint 3 was always going to struggle to match the previous two records in the series and with the classic soul samples which peppered those albums were replaced by futuristic beats. It was clear Jay was trying to lay out a new blueprint for the future, but this 2009 LP is confused, at best.
While songs like ‘Already Home’ and ‘Reminder’ speak of an artist in turmoil, unconvinced of his own legacy, they’re juxtaposed by tracks like ‘Off That’ and ‘On To The Next One’ which demand his audience stop living in his past. Though Drake and Kid Cudi take on hooks, it’s only Roc Nation artist J Cole who gets a whole verse meaning even the collaborations are underwhelming. There’s no surprise that this one is so near the bottom of the barrel.
11. The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse (2002)
There’s no doubt that the effect of his feud with fellow New Yorker Nas can be heard on The Blueprint2. Nas’ classic diss track ‘Ether’ clearly spun Hova and he spent much of this record trying to recoup some of the losses. Almost the entire double LP is dedicated to that pursuit. It leaves the album a little directionless when revisiting in 2020.
Jay sounds almost whiny when he raps through the record, something perhaps punctuated by the cringe-inducing impression of Austin Powers that rears its ugly head. Saving grace ‘Meet the Parents’ may well be a great song but won’t keep this LP from being forgotten. Simply put, there are too many songs, too many sketches and not enough definition, something which makes it stick out like a sore thumb among the rest of his work.
10. Magna Carta…Holy Grail (2013)
Now, the inclusion of Magna Carta so low on this list is likely to split opinion but hear us out. The reason this LP is so low is that it is only made for the hip-hop elite. Full to the brim of self-referential moments that only the rap elite can understand, for the wider audience, the record is almost indecipherable.
There are some notable moments on the album, don’t get us wrong, but where ‘JAY Z Blue’ and ‘Nickels and Dimes’ triumphs, throwaway songs like ‘Versus’ and ‘BBC’ let the incredible production down. On the face of it, it is another unbalanced LP from Hova.
9. Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
After the huge success of Hard Knock Life, Jay was positively floating on air and was ready to return to the booth quicker than many expected. Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter saw Hova once again try to balance the two worlds he occupied — providing pop hits and searing rhymes in equal measure. It’s a difficult act to pull off and it shows.
Luckily, for the Jay-purists around, it does have some of the rapper’s most potent verses. Arguably one of the best MCs on the planet at the time, he shines on tracks ‘Put Your Hands Up’, ‘Come and Get Me’ and ‘So Ghetto’ all proving Jay to be at the top of his class. Focus on these songs instead of the forced pop they’re surrounded by.
8. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
A new millennium it may have been but the year 2000 proved that Jay was still the king of the hill and, on The Dynasty, he started to exert his unchallenged power largely by producing a record that he had much less to do with than his previous efforts — the rapper doesn’t even appear on two tracks.
It’s one of the standout moments for Hova, not because of his mafioso-like status in hip-hop but because it saw him confront some of his personal issues including the tragedy of miscarriage, the destruction of relationships and the burden of living without a father. While the continued presence of his crew is a little overwhelming there are moments of artistic bliss.
7. 4:44 (2017)
There’s always a worry that your heroes won’t know when to quit and with Jay nudging his career over the 20-year mark, there was a serious fear that 4:44, his most recent record, could fall flat on its face. Luckily, that wasn’t to be the case and, if anything, the LP goes to show that class is a permanent feature.
Following Beyonce’s landmark album Lemonade on which she accurately detailed both Jay’s infidelity and their combined path to happiness, the rapper had only one choice but to respond. While Jay is always at his best when in his sauce and sophisticated demeanour, on this one he is open and honest, gratefully passing on his apologies in this love letter.
6. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)
Difficult second album? Not a chance.
Jay proved that Reasonable Doubt was no fluke when he once again appeared as the saviour of hip-hop. Not concerned with actively pursuing beef or any kind of street cred, Jay emanated understated menace and a collected command of his craft. On this record, he lurched for the crown and empty throne left behind by Biggie’s death.
Tracks such as ‘Imaginary Player’ and ‘Streets Is Watching’ are possibly two of Jay’s greatest tracks and prove that the decision to release another album (originally he had planned to only release one then become a full-time executive) was the right one to make.
5. American Gangster (2007)
There’s no doubt that American Gangster is an underrated gem. 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.
There are loose notions of a concept album floating around the LP but to focus on that would be to miss some of the rapper’s finest work. Supposed to storyboard the career of a don there are stonking moments across the LP including ‘American Dreamin”, ‘Roc Boys’ and ‘Fallin’ which all deserve revisiting at your earliest convenience.
4. Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life (1998)
There’s never much doubt about the top four of Jay’s canon but, nevertheless, it’s worth reminding yourself of four of the greatest albums in hip-hop history, starting with this gem from 1998. Hard Knock Life sees Jay reign supreme as one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation.
It was this record that launched Jay into a whole new realm and made him a bonafide household name. Considering he had planned to have retired by this point, we’re very glad he had a change of heart. ‘Ride or Die’ and ‘It’s Like That’ aren’t just Mase clapbacks but perfect reasons as to how Jay became the greatest.
3. The Black Album (2003)
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.
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.
2. Reasonable Doubt (1996)
The old adage is that when an artist releases a debut album it should be considered their life’s work. Everything prior to that first record that the artists experienced is encapsulated in its black plastic grooves. For Jay, it’s one of the most visceral, slick and effortless pieces of art one could hope to stumble upon.
Flourished with Jay’s undoubted charisma, he exudes a sense of calm and collected menace that other rappers have never matched. He also did all of this while providing some of the most searing rhymes ever seen, effortlessly merging syllables, curating vivid imagery and, all in all, delivering one hell of an album.
1. Blueprint (2001)
He had been working on his rap game for five years within the public eye and, on Blueprint, everything came together to assert Jay-Z as the best rapper around. Everything that makes Hova a true king can be heard on this LP. From the soulful seventies beats, the introduction of Kanye as his producer, to the way he tells stories with consummate ease, on Blueprint, Jay laid it all out.
Songs like the title track, ‘Never Change’ and ‘Song Cry’ are all moments that will live in his legacy for a long time to come. Of course, we can’t forget about ‘Takeover’ either, which is right up there as one of the greatest diss tracks of all time. As well as that murder, there’s an argument that Eminem, the only feature, also dealt out his fair share of bloodshed. But nothing can take away from this being easily Jay-Z’s greatest album of all time.