- Jay himself said so
- It's the album he took his whole life to write
- It's considered an objective hip-hop classic
- He portrayed both the good and bad sides of hustling, something more conscious rappers wouldn't truly attempt for another 15+ years
But why is this his best album? This was Jay at his observational peak. He would rap on 2003's "Moment of Clarity": "Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense, but I did 5 mil / I ain't be rhyming like Common since". Well, this was him rapping like Common Sense. And while it was well regarded upon release, it wasn't fawned over by critics in the same manner as The Blueprint or The Black Album. In today's climate of instant classics, RD might have slipped undetected, and it may have in the late 90s too, if not for Jay rescinding his promise to make a solitary album and retire. Instead, he dropped the chart-chasing In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 and the true genius of Reasonable Doubt was exposed. There was no-one on the planet rapping about hustling with more skill than Jaÿ-Z, and no rapper since Slick Rick with the same level of intricate storytelling detail. This was exemplified by "Brooklyn's Finest", a collaboration with titan Notorious B.I.G. While Dame Dash urged Jay to wait for Biggie to lay his vocals before rapping, to avoid getting shown up on his own song, Jay was headstrong and "had to go and blaze it superfast". It took Big an entire 4 months for his verse to finally be laid, and rap nerds agree that Jay matched the legend bar for bar.
During his Combat Jack Show episode, Jay's long-time engineer Young Guru explains the moment he realised Jay was on the same level as Pac with regards to storytelling:
When he said the Rayful Edmonds line, I was like 'how did anybody outside of DC know about Rayful Edmond? Like, how you know about him? And then, the way he said it... So if you really was from the area, he's telling you... The point being, those lines for me brought me into Jay. Jay's honesty.
The honesty and emotion Jay managed to pack into that album, with tracks like "Regrets", "Dead Presidents", "Can I Live" and "Can't Knock The Hustle" was something he'd only manage fleetingly in years to come. This was his most passionate project. He has spoken before about the impact his words were having on the crowd, saying he would look out and see grown men crying in solidarity, because they understood his words and his truth. It's an untouchable album, and Jay's best.
- He balanced street poetry, storytelling, insane rhyming ability, and mainstream appeal
- It was a precursor to his biggest hits
- It introduced him to a mainstream audience, something ten more Reasonable Doubt's would never have done.
You know why people take away from this record? Because it has the Puffy record, and because... If there's just two records that are okay to you on a Jay-Z album, people start to question it. Where if there's five records you like on someone elses album you start going "this is kinda aiight"
The idea some people have of dumbing down is based on a misperception of what a great rap song can do. A great song can be dumbed down in the sense that it appeals to a pretty low common denominator. But's that not the whole story: A great hit can also give listeners a second layer, and then a third, and then more.So, while Jay reprised some of the incredible emotion and storytelling of his debut record with tracks like "You Must Love Me", "Where I'm From", "Lucky Me" and "Friend or Foe '98", he also sprinkled it with the "Puffy" juice, meaning he adopted the shiny-suit theory of Sean Combs' hitmaking abilities at the time. "(Always Be My) Sunshine" and "I Know What Girls Like" are the two tracks that so often come in for heavy criticism. But the truth is this was Jay playing with the formula that would see him sell 5 million records in 1998, and become one of the most successful recording artists (regardless of genre) of all time. And "I Know What Girls Like" isn't bad at all. The beat actually holds up incredibly well over time, and Jay was spitting bars: "Got the bomb place, fireplace John Blaze / Victoria Secret lingerie, ice like Don King" "Got to have things locked, champagne popped / Cruise around the world til the damn thing stop".
And if that's the worst song, then this album is not bad at all. Consider "You Must Love Me", a heart-wrenching tale that is now considered a classic song. Or "Where I'm From", which postured Jay as the heir to the Notorious B.I.G. throne. Or "Imaginary Player", the track that introduced Jay-Z as a connoisseur of the finer things, and has been referenced by J. Cole, among countless others, fostering that "pioneer" spirit that Jay would carry throughout his recording and business career.
Jay threw his entire ability into both divergent directions; the ignorant party hits were dialled up to 11, a precursor to "Big Pimpin'", and the introspective, emotional pieces were even more piercing and vivd than his debut. That is why this is his best album.
- His cold, heartless "Iceberg Slim" persona was perfected
- The emotionless violence would litter mainstream rap until 2003
- His highest selling record
- He helped launch Swizz Beatz and Memphis Bleek
- He perfected the mainstream formula: street single, radio single, crossover hit, and hard-edged album cuts for die hard fans
- This was proof he was learning and gathering knowledge at a frenetic pace
Biggie died, and he went and ran to the Biggie formula... But that wasn't his energy. He made that album (Vol. 1), he didn't fuck with none of us. It was a Bad Boy/Hitmen album... Jay especially, he looked and seen what I did with X and he was like 'woah. Holy shit that shit work'. His Vol. 1 album went like platinum, X comes out and sells 5. So now he's looking for shit, he's in my office a little bit more now, in Def Jam... When he dropped "Hard Knock Life" it was a quick impact. It got him on David Letterman, you know what I'm sayin' it got him everywhere. But it was a quick burn... "Can I Get A..." stayed on the charts for almost a year. "Money Cash Hoes" was Jay coming around after X was the biggest... in the world and saying 'lemme get some Swizz Beatz'.Jay was showcasing his talent for being the ultimate sponge. He'd soak up all knowledge, skill, and talent around him, and channel it into his own version of success. By 2001 he'd be a true pioneer, but this record is his best because it put the finishing touches on "Jay-Z: Recording Artist". He'd finished tweaking the formula. He had his radio single, "Can I Get A...", he had his street single, "Money, Cash, Hoes", he had his huge crossover hit, "Hard Knock Life", he was already promoting his Dynasty through Bleek and Beans, and he had discovered the power of a hot producer (Swizz Beatz), a power he'd utilise via his status and power with Timbaland, Just Blaze, Bink!, Kanye West, Pharrell, and even Eminem in 2003. Jay is savvy, and Vol. 2 is him at him most savvy.
- Solidifed Jay's reign at the top of hip-hop
- He was so passionate about the album he almost went to prison, proving once and for all he did care about his music outside of sales
- He became "the master of the intro"
- He introduced the backbone of his Dynasty (Bleek, Beans, Amil)
- He discovered the power of the R&B collaboration, vital to his 2000's success
- The first to truly feature the "Jay-Z sound"; modern, heavy, deep, witty, and accessible
While "Hard Knock Life" was, as Irv said, a quick burn, Jay's star rose into the stratosphere in 1999. He was a red-carpet regular, yet still able to connect with the hip-hop underground, notably dropping heat on Sway's classic "The Wake Up Show". This was the album that began his dominance at awards shows, earning two Grammy nominations, his first American Music Award, and his first BET award. It's likely still his most commercially accessible album, with wall-to-wall smash beats, which he used to drop some of his wittiest, lyrically dynamic lines. "I ain't crossover, I brought the suburbs to the hood", "Thug n*** till the end tell a friend bitch / Won't change for no paper plus I been rich", "The fo-fo like a force field you won't get me", "I'm about a dollar what the fuck is 50 cents?" "She keep begging me to hit it raw / So she can have my kids and say it was yours / How feel is she? And you wifed her / Shit I put the rubber on tighter."
It also featured multiple flows that began to prove his diversity. There was no singular "Jay-Z" flow. His rapid-fire switches on "Big Pimpin'" have never been topped, even by that legendary Pimp C verse. His rapid-fire spit on "Is That Yo Bitch?" was only overshadowed by an imperious Twista.
But mostly, this album was his best because it was the first that featured the "Jay-Z" sound. He wasn't copying anyone, he was pushing the boundaries through world music with Timbaland, legendary collaborations with DMX and Mariah, and huge budget videos. Jay had finally arrived in the mainstream, where he remains to the current day.
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
- Greatest intro of all time
- He introduced his "Dynasty", one that artists would reference as inspiration for the next 17 years
- He finally achieved that "record label boss" goal he'd so craved at the beginning of his career
- The legacy of Roc-A-Fella
- The music was fun, aggressive, and even inspired Britney Spears!
- It launched the careers of Beanie Sigel, Kanye West, Bink! and Just Blaze
The beats are perfectly selected for who is on what records. It's hard. When you're talking Jay-Z you're comparing Jay-Z to Jay-Z. So it's very difficult...He then claims that Dynasty is Jay's 4th best record. But it isn't. It's his first. It's his greatest achievement as the record label boss he always dreamed of being, ever since he saw what Russell Simmons had done at Def Jam and envisioned his own "dynasty".
I was looking at Russell and thinking, I want to be this n***, not his artist.Roc-A-Fella Records allowed Jay-Z to move into the presidency at Def Jam in 2004, but it was this album that hammered the point home. He cultivated careers for Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Amil, Just Blaze, Bink!, and Kanye West. And it all started here. Kanye West produced "This Can't Be Life", Just Blaze basically blew the competition out of the water with "Intro", as well as "Streets Is Talking", "Stick 2 the Script" and "Soon You'll Understand". Bink! did "You, Me, Him and Her", and "1-900-Hustler". Bleek's next album The Understanding shifted 900,000 copies. Beanie Sigel, who 2 years prior couldn't even count bars, sold 695k and then 585k between February 2000 and June 2001. Hell, even Amil's record charted.
But this was just the beginning of the legacy of Roc-A-Fella. Genius provided this infrographic recently that proved just how influential the label was in the industry. I can't even post the picture, because it's so large it'd take up 4 pages. Countless artists would point to Roc-A-Fella Records as their inspiration for starting their own label, or wanting their own situation. And while labels like Def Jam and No Limit had released collaborative albums, none of them had gone number 1. Dynasty did. Dynasty has gone double platinum. Hell, it even inspired Britney Spears!
And the music itself? Fire. Pure fire. From the first single "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)", to gritty gangster refrains like "Squeeze First", to West Coast smoke-tracks like "Get Your Mind Right Mami", this album was the precursor to Jay's The Blueprint 2, in which he explored a number of discordant styles and genres. But while that album was overblown and patchy, Dynasty is an incredibly tight project, and the sped-up soul samples from Just Blaze and Kanye West would soundtrack the next 5 years of hip-hop classic albums.
- Introduced an entirely new sound that would dominate the charts for 5 more years
- Ended the mainstream career of one of the greatest emcees with 2 verses
- Sold incredibly well despite being released September 11, 2001
- Flawless front to back
- After this record, he would never lose again, in any realm
- Proof that Reasonable Doubt was no fluke
- It was written and recorded in 2 weeks!!!
The sped-up soul samples that Just Blaze, Kanye, and Bink! were creating signalled an entirely new direction for mainstream hip-hop. The Swizz Beatz/Timbaland/Scott Storch era had come to a close, and the power of this new movement was such that Kanye's second ever single, "Slow Jamz", actually hit number 1 on the Billboard 100 in 2003.
The Blueprint²: The Gift & The Curse
- The most diverse mainstream rap album of all time
- For the first time in his career, Jay was brave. He didn't write The Blueprint 2, he created an entirely new sound and direction
- He distinguished himself as one of the greatest technical rappers by playing with a variety of flows over a variety of instruments
The Black Album
- It is as close to perfection as Jay ever came
- Considered a classic by almost everyone
- His most autobiographical release
- His lyricism and storytelling blended perfectly
- No beat, no lyric, no flow, no ad-lib is out of place. Front-to-back the smoothest, most enjoyable, most accessible listen of Jay's career.
- "The maturation of Jay-Zeezy" - his growth between The Black Album and this is staggering
- He began to lay the blueprint for veteran rappers to transition from the streets to the corner office on wax
- He saved Def Jam
- It felt unfinished, which gave listeners a unique view of the process Jay goes through when making an album
It was an ugly path though. While Jay claimed he was saving hip-hop with this record, he was actually trying to save Def Jam, which isn't surprising when you consider everything Jay does has at least two meanings, and "Kingdom Come" is of course a comic in which Superman is believed to have lost his powers, only to regain them in glorious fashion, saving many innocent lives. Young Guru told Complex this album saved Def Jam employees from being fired, but it came at a cost. Jay was in Africa on his "Water For Life" tour, and his voice was ruined from the performance schedule. The fatigue shows in the album, with some lacklustre tracks ("Do U Wanna Ride", "I Made It", "Anything", "Hollywood") almost derailing the entire project.
We'd already seen some examples of Jay experiencing existential issues ("What More Can I Say"), but none as deep, honest, and hard-hitting as "Beach Chair", one of his all-time greatest lyrical and thematic achievements. He wrote in Decoded that the song is "..a meditation on ambition and the laws of the universe, on questions I can still only ask but not fully answer". Once you frame the rest of the album in the depth of this track, it begins to make perfect sense. The depth of the survivor's guilt he felt after making it out of a situation that claimed many of his friends and associates (including Emory Jones, mentioned on "Do U Wanna Ride"). The timid offering that karma may just be catching up to him on the heart-wrenching "Lost Ones". The realisation that he needs to be more aware of his own status and celebrity on "Minority Report".
People like Jay-Z are very rare. The way his mind works is intricate and detailed. As he said in Decoded: "...even when I'm sitting still, my mind is racing. I've built my life around my own restlesness". Until this record, we'de only seen the finished product of what his mind could do. Kingdom Come is performance art; it's Jay creating a record in front of our very eyes.
- Proof he could still create a critically acclaimed record post-retirement
- His tightest concept record
- His most focused project
- The tightest blend of every Jay-Z attribute we love (flow, beats, storytelling, technical ability)
"When I come back like Jordan, wearing the 45, it ain't to play games with you". We compare rappers to athletes all the time. Each is deemed to have a limited creative peak. Insanul and Genius theorized for rappers it is five years. American Gangster is Jay's best album because, like Michael Jordan, he came back and won another championship. Another platinum, number 1, critically acclaimed, classic album. It's his best because he defied all odds, all the negative press, and a gradual tide of public opinion that was beginning to turn against him. It's his best because it's the most focused he's ever been on wax. Because he managed to transform his life experience into not only a great mainstream record, but a cautionary tale to those who seek fortune through illegal means.
He did so by gaining inspiration from the film American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington. The film was about Frank Lucas, a drug kingpin in New York who was shipping drugs in from Vietnam and selling them at ridiculously low prices, just as Jay had done decades before in Trenton. The parallels didn't end there. Lucas employed his entire family, just as Jay has through The Carter Foundation, Roc Nation, Roc Nation Sports, D'Usse, and a number of other avenues. Both sold drugs, and neither ended their career as street-level hustlers. Plus, Frank's nephews want to be just like him, eerily reminiscent of Jay's nephew Ramel, who apparently wants to rap as well.
It may also be the tightest blend of every Jay-Z attribute we know and love. His flow is impressive, but on "Blue Magic" it's downright perplexing how he managed to find a pocket in the weird Pharrell production. His lyricism is less dense than his last 3 studio records, aligning more with The Blueprint in terms of the straight-forward punchlines and vivid storytelling. And that storytelling is on-point with extended metaphors like "Hello Brooklyn" and "I Know". The production is a more mature version of the sped up soul; as Jay said it's the music of his youth. Some incredible samples and huge instrumentation, the like of which Jay hadn't before utilised, and orchestrated by Puff for the first time since Vol. 1. In fact it was Diddy who helped inspire Jay to make this record:
I get there and he’s playing all these lush samples and all this 70s soul music – which relates straight to the movieNext time you question why American Gangster is his best album, try peeing at a crowded urinal. That's the pressure Jay was under, and he unleashed a mighty stream.
- His biggest album
- His most mainstream
- His most awarded
- The first time a rapper had displayed such longevity
- A true "world" album, on the back of his pioneering Glastonbury set
- Proof that you could still sell records without resorting to gimmicks
So, if Jay failed in his quest to bring the culture back into line, why is this album his best? The late-2000s was a transition period for rap, as traditional artists like 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg, and Busta Rhymes experienced a steep decline, artists like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, J. Cole and Drake began to rise. Jay employed his relatively old-school method to a new school and a new sound. That he could "penetrate pop culture" in such a manner, so long after the peak of his form of rap, was telling, and proof that, regardless of trend, he could still find success simply being Jay-Z.
And let's not forget that both J. Cole and Drake appeared on this record. Drake appeared on the strength of his mixtape So Far Gone, and J. Cole was newly signed by Jay-Z, 2 years before he'd truly blow up with his first album. Roc-A-Fella Records wasn't just luck of circumstance, it was apparent that Jay had a distinct talent for seeking out the next big thing (let's not forget Rihanna on "Run This Town" either).
- Pioneering deal with Samsung that made him $5 million, changed the RIAA rules, and gave him a platinum plaque before the album even dropped
- His lyricism and depth reached new levels
- The beats slapped, his hardest project since Dynasty
- He revolutionized not only his own live show, but lifted the bar for live hip-hop in general with the organic, live instrumentation and crowd interaction