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Why Every JAY-Z Album Is His Best

Reasonable Doubt
His best because: 
  • 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
In 2013, Jay ranked this album as his greatest, and in countless interviews post-2003 he's named this record as his best. "Reasonable Doubt, well yeah that's the first album I made, because that's the joint I took my whole life to make." Jay was 26 years old when he dropped this album, and it is now almost objectively regarded as a hip-hop classic album. 

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.

In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
His best because: 
  • 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. 
Young Guru, on this record:
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"
Alas, it is the curse of Jay's second album. It's his best because this was the creation of the artist we'd know as Jay-Z, all the way up until he dropped the hyphen in 2013. He perfected the balancing act he'd rap about on "The Bounce" in 2002: "But no dummy, that's the shit I'm sprinklin' the album with to keep the registers ringing". He also spoke of the phenomenon in 2010's Decoded: 
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.

Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life

His best because: 
  • 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
We've never seen Jay, before or since, as negative, dismissive, and cold. This album is Jay's best, as he achieved new peaks of violence and cold-heartedness. It was his "Iceberg Slim" phase, stacked full of gritty lyrics: "Drunk ginseng with Japanese chicks & pulled the root out" "This n**** ready for war? Well where that fool at?" "She want us to end cause I fucked her friends / She gave me one more chance and I fucked her again". 

It was his first number 1 record, and while the classic Annie sample on "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" had something to do with it, it was on this album Jay figured out how to release multiple big singles, and how to market them. "Can I Get A..." was a Billboard hit, while "Money Ain't A Thang" was a cult classic.

But it's the words from Irv Gotti that still resonate in 2017:
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.

Vol. 3... Life And Times of S. Carter

His best because: 
  • 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

I've wanted to write this piece since 2003. This is the album. This signalled the continuation of Jay's reign. This is when he solidified his position as the new King of New York. He was so passionate about this body of work he almost went to prison for it. It re-introduced Jay as the master of the intro, a title he'd carry all the way up until the woeful "Holy Grail" in 2013. He had fully cast aside the shackles of mortality that tethered his first three records. Nothing was off-limits on this record. "Big Pimpin'" remains the largest, most fun, most ignorant hip-hop single to ever appear on MTV's "Making The Video". "Things That U Do" introduced Jay-Z to the R&B collaboration, a potent drug he'd use to fuel his ascension to pop royalty in the 2000s. He continued to reach out to the south through Juvenile and UGK. He provided fertile soil for his Dynasty to grow, with Amil, Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek putting in star turns. 

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
His best because: 
  • 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 greatest intro ever laid on wax, period. Hard, unflinching, lyrical, street poetry. This record was first meant to be a total collaborative project, similar to what Cash Money would do in the 2010s, or MMG did with their Self Made series. But Jay ultimately realised he was probably the biggest hip-hop star coast-to-coast in the year 2000, and once "Big Pimpin'" had hit there was no stopping him, so it became a solo record. 

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.

The Blueprint
His best because:
  • 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 Blueprint never struck me as a classic album. It took me well over a decade to work it out for myself. I love Jay-Z, so I blindly accepted the general consensus that it is one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made, but deep down I didn't believe it to be true. 

I wasn't brought up on hip-hop, I had to discover it by myself. So when The Blueprint dropped, I was glued to my TV watching the horror of the 9/11 attacks unfold. I didn't realise how much people were anticipating this record. I had no idea what it meant to New York, with Jay dismembering two of the hottest rappers from the city, Prodigy and Nas, with just 4 verses. I didn't realise Jay's legacy as a hip-hop legend was not yet solidified, and that people were still waiting for him to create something on the same level as Reasonable Doubt before they would start championing him as a legend. I didn't understand the pressure he was under to deliver yet another number 1, platinum selling record. 

I do now. The Blueprint is Jay's best album because not only is it flawless (Reasonable Doubt was flawless), the bulk of it was created in one weekend. One weekend?! Consider that Drake and Future's 2015 collaboration What A Time To Be Alive took six days, and it's not even close to the level of The Blueprint. Artists take years to craft classic albums. Jay-Z's first classic album took him 26 years to write! And here he drops The Blueprint, which is basically a 2 week project. 

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 lyricism was incredible. On "Jigga That N***", Jay slips perfectly into the pocket, and raps "Playin' guts on the cruise, Hermes boat shoes / The Izod bucket and I'm so old school". In 2017 you'd be googling guts, Hermes boat shoes, and Izod bucket. He raps "Gucci flip flops" well before Future's classic opening. How about "Hola Hovito"? "My dick game is vicious, insane at bitches / Mami keep coming back cause mami came vicious". "I rhyme sicker than every rhyme-spitter ./ Every crime-n*** that rhyme or touch a mic because my mind's quicker". This is basically off-top, when you consider Jay doesn't write his rhymes down, and recorded these songs in 3 days. The bars are a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Everyone considers this album to be a classic. Complex broke it down statistically to even try and prove it's better than Reasonable Doubt, which it is. Within 2 years he'd have released another classic. Why do you think Lil Wayne was dropping back-to-back projects in the mid-2000s? Why does Drake drop back-to-back projects now? Why does Future keep dropping a project every time he has enough songs recorded? Why was Kanye West responsible for 4 separate classic albums during this period (The Blueprint, Be, College Dropout, Late Registration)? "The Blueprint" became a catch-cry for Jay's entire life from here on out. And if you notice, post-2001, Jay-Z didn't ever lose again. "Ether" was his final loss, December 18, 2001. He predicted it all on "U Don't Know".

The Blueprint²: The Gift & The Curse
His best because: 

  • 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

Your best album doesn't need to be flawless, it doesn't need to be played front-to-back, over and over, in sequence, for it to be your best record. In 2017, this is never more obvious, with projects like More Life proving diversity sometimes trumps a coherent listen. But in 2002, sequencing mattered. People didn't grab 5 or 6 songs for a playlist, they put a record in and listened front to back, which is why The Blueprint² is looked upon less favourably.

It went number 1, it's certified triple platinum, it's a double album. Name me a mainstream double album more genre-hopping and experimental than this. This was before the backpackers took over from gangster rap, before Death Grips, before Odd Future, before Shabazz Palaces, before Kanye pushed the genre further than anyone before him in 2008 and again in 2013. Jay-Z was rapping over straight guitars, he was rapping over live horns, he created a straight hip-hop song over a beat that was primarily just a couple of piano chords and a discordant 808, he even rapped over a sample of "My Way" by Paul Anka. This album was so incredibly diverse, and while more underground artists had explored the limits (or lackthereof) of hip-hop before Jay, none of his stature, with that much to lose, had ever risked it. Think about it. He had just come off The Blueprint, regarded a classic, and dropped the follow up, with everyone expecting more looped up soul. But as Jay rapped on "Addicted To The Game": "Thoughts is sporadic, I got to unconfuse it / Sort of like a rubik's cube is / Every album's a color / But I fuck up the other color". 

Should it have been a double album? Probably not. Blame Young Guru and Kyambo "HipHop" Joshua for that. "We look at Jay's career from the outside, so we're like in order to be on the same level as Big and Pac. They both had double albums that were like perfection." Blueprint 2 is far from perfection. It's messy, it's overblown, it's discordant, and the theme of "The Gift & The Curse" is applied sporadically at best. But "03' Bonnie and Clyde" and "Excuse Me Miss" were both signs of a maturity that just 2 short years ago seemed impossible with "Big Pimpin'". "Bitches and Sisters" was the first time Jay actually sat down and refuted the charges of misogyny aimed at him. On the title track he broke one of his own rules and actually listed some of his vast philanthropy. In 12 months Jay showed more growth and maturity than a lot of artists show over their entire careers. 

The Blueprint 2 was a showcase of just how far the genre could be pushed in the mainstream setting. We've since seen platinum albums like 808's and Heartbreaks, Tha Carter 3, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy spawned directly from this desire to experiment when at the height of your career (and both Kanye and Lil Wayne speak of being inspired by Jay-Z). This is Jay's best, bravest, and technically brilliant album. And I didn't even mention Beyonce once. 

The Black Album
His best because: 
  • 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. 
There is a line at the very beginning of Jay's concert-film Fade To Black about the very beginning of the conception of this record. Paraphrased, he says "Any time you're making an album, especially if it's your last album, you want it to be perfect. In order for it to be perfect, you need everybody on the same page at the same time. You don't know how hard that is". Well, he did it. He'd later say in an interview that section of the film embarrassed him, because it certainly wasn't his last album.

There were all sorts of ideas and concepts surrounding this record. It was first going to be called The 8th Wonder, and he even shouted that title out on a number of verses pre-2003. He was going to use a different producer for every single song. He was going to pull a Beyonce and just release it with no fanfare, no marketing; it would just appear on record shelves suddenly with no warning. None of that happened. Pharrell was too good, Kanye West was too good, and Jay-Z was too big. So instead he did the exact opposite. He allowed word of mouth to spread, allowed anticipation to build, he said in multiple interviews he was retiring after this record, it would be his last. 

He even commissioned a film to chronicle the creation of the album, which eventually became Fade To Black. This film perpetuated the myth of Jay-Z. He was pictured picking the beat for "What More Can I Say", and going into the booth and spitting a verse in one take, with basically no prep. He called it his "rain-man". He's seen rapping in the home studio of Rick Rubin, the legendary producer, who fawns over his creative process. He's seen hearing a beat from Timbaland and spitting an entire verse top-to-bottom in one take, with Timbo in the background marvelling at his process. It was like Instagram before Instagram; Jay was painted in the most God-like light possible. Which wouldn't have really worked, except The Black Album became his best album.

Remember, by 2003 Jay was still an enigma. He was the largest rapper in the game, certainly the King of the East Coast, yet hardly anyone knew anything about him. We knew he'd had a miscarriage, possibly two. We knew he had a father but hadn't seen him since age 11. We thought we knew he was dating Beyonce. We knew he had a Tribeca penthouse. But in an age of tabloid media, the public were so thirsty for knowledge they devoured any and all rumours. So Jay-Z delivered his most personal album to date, a whirlwind of historical fact ("December 4th", "My First Song"), late-night musings ("Allure", "Moment of Clarity"), admissions of guilt ("Lucifer"), brushes with euphoria ("Encore"), existential crises ("What More Can I Say"), and ultra-violence ("Threat"). Not only was every single beat tight and flawless, every. single. bar. was flawless. Every single one. There are no weak bars. There are just ultra-gems, triple entendre's, verses steeped in emotion, some dripping with blood from the aggression. When Jay raps "When the gun is tucked, untucked, n*** you die it's like nunchucks held by the Jet L.I." you visibly recoil, then scream for more. This was Jay at his lyrical and thematic peak. 

And of course there are the legendary stories. Just Blaze had provided "December 4th", but Jay was still holding out hope he'd drop another gem. He did, but not until after the album had been sent for mastering. So, while Jay was also enduring an entire day of press and interviews and photo shoots, he was concocting the rhymes for "Public Service Announcement" in his head. In between interviews he'd lay bars as they came to him. By the end of the day he'd basically finished the song, while having done 12 hours of press! When he met 9th Wonder, the producer for "Threat", Jay gave him the sample and told him to work his magic. He made the beat in 25 minutes. He actually wrote down the second verse to "99 Problems", which Rick said was "the first time" he'd ever seen him write anything down.

Kingdom Come
His best because: 
  • It's Memphis Bleek's favourite Jay album
  • "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
You're wondering how in the world I'm going to frame this, aren't you? None but the most ardent Jay-Z stan could argue this is his best record. But it absolutely is. Some readers may not have been exposed to the "maturation of Jay Zeezy". When I published this article that listed every single time Jay has mentioned fatherhood on a track, it became starkly apparent that post-2004 Jay entered into a new, thus far uncharted phase of his career. He was the biggest rapper in the game (save for Eminem and 50 Cent, both of whom would fade during the next 3 years), and for the very first time the biggest rapper in the game released a conscious, mature, forward-thinking record. Gone were the flashy brags of do-rags on MTV, guns on the White House lawn, "hottest chick in the game wearing my chain"-style raps. He blasted a path for humility, maturation, and mid-life crisis rap.

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. 

American Gangster
His best because: 
  • 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 movie
Next 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.

The Blueprint 3
His best because:
  • 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

This is Jay's best album because it is, by far, his biggest, his most mainstream, and his most awarded. It charted in 19 separate countries. It spawned two multi-platinum singles ("Run This Town" and "Empire State of Mind" which was Jay's first ever solo number 1). It is his most awarded record, the most awarded rap record of all time, and the 8th most awarded record (all genres) of all time. 

And Jay-Z was 39 years old when it dropped. He was in his 14th year as a major solo artist. No other rapper had ever experienced such success so late in their career. Dr. Dre was only 2 albums in and 34 years old when The Chronic 2001 dropped. Eminem was 37 and only 11 years into his mainstream career when Recovery dropped. Somehow, Jay-Z had not only remained relevant since 1996, he had actually increased his popularity the longer he went on. 

The album was meant to be a "blueprint for the next generation of artists", and the lead single "D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)" was meant to literally be a death knell for the technology that helped Kanye create his masterpiece 808s & Heartbreaks, and that propelled T-Pain to new levels of stardom, not to mention the huge number 1 single by Lil Wayne, "Lollipop". As Jay said, the "trend" was becoming a "gimmick", and it was time to "get rid of it". This, of course, didn't happen, in fact the exact opposite happened.

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).

Magna Carta, Holy Grail

His best because: 
  • 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
Jay's best record for three distinct reasons. His deal with Samsung, which netted him $5 million and a platinum record before the album was even released. His lyrical content, which was his most in-depth, intricate, and intellectual of his entire career. And his beat selection, which straddled the line between Kanye's dark and stormy Yeezus, and Beyonce's futuristic R&B classic Beyonce

The deal with Samsung was the first of its kind. Samsung and Roc Nation entered into an epic $20m deal that directly affected Jay's new album. 1 million Samsung users would receive Jay's new album 3 days before the rest of the world. And Jay was receiving $5 per record! This deal occurred in the middle of the incredible downward spiral for record sales that had hit the industry around 2009. Artists like Nelly and 50 Cent, who both had diamond certifications, were selling less than 50,000 records first week. In 2014, RESPECT. posted this article, revealing only 8 rappers achieved platinum status between 2009 and 2014. This, in an industry in which Obie Trice and Chingy have both gone platinum. Jay's deal was such a game-changer it prompted the RIAA to change their certification rules, handing Jay a platinum plaque before he'd even sold a physical or digital copy. 

Alas, the critical community weren't too pleased with Jay's lyrical content. And a prophecy was fulfilled. When Jay rapped "do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?" he was being critical of those that make snap-judgements on music based on broad statements or messages. He'd been doing this since "Money, Cash, Hoes" in 1998, but in 2013 it came sharply into focus. He was accused of relying too heavily on his art collection and his net worth, taking the braggadocio of his early career and running it deep into the ground on tracks like "Picasso Baby" and "Holy Grail". But snatching the odd bar from each track to prove a point is shallow, and shallow is the very last thing this record should be accused of. The imagery and intricacy of "Oceans" is a great example. Frank's hook is incredible, and Jay's punchline raps require a deep read and a referral to Genius for the full meaning. "Heaven" is steeped in 5 Percent references, it may be his deepest track since "D'Evils" on Reasonable Doubt. "Meanwhile this heretic, I be out in Marrakesh / Morocco smoking hashish with my fellowship / Y'all dwell on devil shit, I'm in a Diablo / Yellow shit, color of Jell-O shit / Hello bitch, it's me again / Fresh in my Easter clothes feeling like Jesus and". It must have perplexed Jay, after rapping "I dumbed down for my audience, doubled my dollars / They criticise me for it yet they all yell 'Holla!'" on "Moment of Clarity" in 2003, to see those same critics refusing to acknowledge his most lyrical and deep piece of work. 

It's also his best simply because the beats are just incredible. At a stretch, you could accuse Jay-Z of turning his back on the bangers that littered Vol. 1, Vol. 3 and Dynasty. Nothing as hard as "So Ghetto", "Do It Again" or "Stick 2 The Script" appeared on his records between 2001 and 2010. MCHG certainly didn't suffer this. The knock of "Picasso Baby", the ominous smash of "FuckwithmeyouknowIgotit", and pure joy of "Tom Ford", Timbaland had rediscovered his "bounce" and this record is heavily stacked with huge tracks.

Bonus: MTV Unplugged
His best because: 
  • 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

Placebo's Sleeping With Ghosts is one of the Best Concept Albums of the 2000s

On the 1st of April, 2003, Placebo released their fourth studio album, Sleeping With Ghosts. It remains their tightest concept album, and likely Brian's greatest lyrical and conceptual achievement to date. It was the first time he truly nailed the difficult synergy between self-contained stories and an overall narrative, a method he used on both 2009's Battle For The Sun and 2013's Loud Like Love. Of 2013's Loud Like Love, Brian described the technique he perfected on 2003's Sleeping With Ghosts:
...this record as a collection of 10 small fictions, based on my own experience and my own feelings around relationships over the past 20 years, I feel that I’ve been able to use the device [of] storytelling, which I think I’ve become a little bit more adept at, create songs with characters.
He said something similar in an interview with Drowned In Sound prior to the release of Sleeping With Ghosts: "I write both from my own point of view and from others. Sometimes I create a character and place myself within it. I find that it's a release for me, and I think I have gotten better at storytelling."

There are three distinct narratives running through Sleeping With Ghosts, all orchestrated by Brian's lyrical content and matched seamlessly by the new electro-rock direction the band began on 2001's Black Market Music. On the surface level, the entire album details a relationship, from euphoric start to painful finish. On top of that, each individual song is a self-contained story, not always about love ("Something Rotten", "Plasticine"), and able to be viewed and enjoyed separately. The third narrative is the most meta approach the band has ever taken, as Brian, Stefan and Steve deal with the pressures of fame and celebrity, as well as the development of their unit artistically, and the acknowledgement that, as humans, they are mortal and that Placebo as an entity is mortal as well.

The Main Narrative

The album is called Sleeping With Ghosts, and as much as Brian wants to claim "There are many themes. There's never a full unity to an album we make", it's clear that the album can be viewed as a start-to-finish love story (whether intentional or not). 

"Bulletproof Cupid" is a frenetic, adrenaline-fuelled description of the moment your heart exits your chest and enters the soul of another human being, the euphoric rush of new love. It's length may be a commentary on the fleeting nature of the "honeymoon period" of a relationship, because conflict almost immediately ensues.

"English Summer Rain" tracks the perceived drudgery of a relationship of routine, maybe even a marriage, where one or both parties are stuck thinking "is this it?". A pre-breakup song, if you will, a primer for "The Bitter End". 

"This Picture" and "Sleeping With Ghosts" approach the impending breakup from different angles, the former an energetic admission that things are over ("Hang on / Though we try / It's gone"), the latter an acceptance that life will never truly be the same, the most romantic ending imaginable ("It seems it's written / but we can't read between the lines").

"The Bitter End" is the focal point of the record, and the series of events it sets off is Placebo at their absolute best. Brian said: "It's about a relationship, two people fighting, they both want to be the stronger one. A classic fuck-you song." The breakup teased in the previous two songs explodes in technicolour, with spite and malice. 

"Something Rotten" then captures the desperation and depression, the heart-wrenching loneliness that follows the loss of love. While "The Bitter End" is full of adrenalin and action, "Something Rotten" is a frank admission of pain.

Things oscillate wildly over the next 5 songs. Post-break up moods and emotions can be a confusing maelstrom of conflicted thoughts and feelings, of positive and negative behaviour. "Plasticine" tries to counter the immediate desire to change or mould yourself in order to appeal to the person you just lost. LCD Soundsystem perfectly captured this phenomenon on "I Can Change", and Brian's plea's to "Don't forget to be the way you are" are the most rational words on the entire album. 

Third single "Special Needs" could be a competing thought, and the music video is the visual expression of the title of the album. The relationship has passed, and the protagonist is, as Brian says, "worrying that they’ll be written out of their ex’s biography". As those who have experienced this thought know, it can plant delusions of reconciliation, or a desire to resume the relationship at all costs, exemplified by "I'll Be Yours", of which Brian says: "Someone who wants to engulf another person completely in the name of love." Again, he is rational enough to see logic and sense, notably in "Second Sight" and "Protect Me From What I Want", the first sung in second-person as if Brian is giving our protagonist the motivation and means to remove themselves from the situation that developed in "Special Needs", the second is the protagonist reacting to that plea, desperate to move on but unsure how to do so. 

All of this leads to "Centrefolds", the piano-based closer, and the saddest song on the record. It ties the narrative up perfectly. While the protagonist has been battling themselves internally since the start of "Something Rotten", their former partner has moved on in spectacular fashion. Brian's lyrics capture the pain and loneliness that accompany the realisation that you no longer matter at all to this person who was once your entire life. The relationship is well and truly over, and you're now forced to sleep with the ghost forever more. 

Self-Contained Stories

"Bulletproof Cupid" opens the album at a frenetic pace, and Brian explained it was used to build intrigue, to drag people into the album through the lack of vocals. The track encapsulates everything the band has been working towards since their first album: it's raw and barely controlled energy. This could be a fight song, or used to pump you up before tackling a difficult task.

"English Summer Rain" is an expression of angst at the drudgery of daily life, using the stereotypical English weather (rain even during summer) to highlight the malaise someone with untapped potential may feel when stuck in a dull daily routine.

"This Picture" is best explained by Brian: "Someone walking away from a self-destructive relationship. It recalls James Dean’s fetish of having cigarettes stubbed out on his chest during sex, only here they’re being stubbed out on mine." The music video and accompanying commentary describes someone losing their identity due to an abusive or violent relationship. 

"Sleeping With Ghosts", again explained by Brian: "Inspired by a crazy American psychologist who believes in the cliché of eternal love. He thought two of his patients were soulmates who’d been reincarnated through many previous lives." The refrain "soulmates never die" was adopted for their 2003 tour video, and addresses the idea that true love between those destined to be together never dissipates or diminishes regardless of time. 

"The Bitter End", being one of their most successful and famous songs, has a number of interviews that feature interpretations, but the simplest is taken from the title. It's about the end of a relationship, the very end, a very bitter and spiteful end. "Two people trying to come out of a relationship with the least scars. Very fuck you.

This feeds into "Something Rotten", a song that caused a minor stir when the album dropped because it was believed to be about certain scandals in the music industry that had come to light during this time. Brian said the song was "instinctual", and he didn't really have a theme or target in mind when singing the lyrics. Steve also said in that interview it was open for interpretation, and the closest we get to a full explanation is Brian hinting it may be about physical or mental abuse in a marriage, a topic explored on "This Picture" and escaped during "The Bitter End". 

"Plasticine" is straight-forward, a song about accepting yourself for who you are and not modifying your behaviour, appearance, or thought patterns based on societal norms. It's probably the song that best describes Placebo's appeal and motive during their first 5 albums, as "music for outsiders, by outsiders". 

"Special Needs" then details a protagonist's desire for recognition in the face of a world that values conformity. It also details someone being left behind, be that an ex-lover or a friend or even a family member. Seeing someone close to you excel while you tread water can be difficult to come to terms with. 

"I'll Be Yours" is a simple premise; a person becomes consumed with another person. "Someone who wants to engulf another person completely in the name of love. Something I’ve been on the receiving end of and it’s scary". Fans have long speculated it's about Brian's relationship with alcohol, fuelled by his tattoo that seemingly pays tribute to the group Alcoholics Anonymous and lines like "I'll be your liquor / bathing your soul with juice that's pure". 

"Second Sight" could be about the same topic, only from a sober and more rational perspective. Brian says it's the story of a one-night stand, and the fight for dignity after engaging in such behaviour. It could easily be your conscience calling you out for yet another perceived mistake. 

"Protect Me From What I Want" can then be applied to this theme of alcoholism again, although it's another example of a Placebo song with enough ambiguity to lend itself to endless applications. The message is simple: I know it's bad for me but I want it anyway. Brian said it's written from personal experience, stuck in a "self-destructive relationship", but it can be applied to so many different stories or personal circumstances.

Finally, "Centrefolds" acts almost like the centrepiece of the album. All of the negative self-talk, self-loathing, and self-centred voices from "Special Needs" packed into three short paragraphs. "For you to be mine" is dripping with pain and desperation, a protagonist beaten down by their own self-hatred trying one last ditch effort to attract the object of their desire. 

Each of these tales can link with each other, but they're written so well any song on this record could slot into any Placebo album before or after and not feel out of place. "Plasticine" is such a universal Placebo theme it'd fit perfectly on Loud Like Love or Battle For The Sun. Meds would easily accommodate "Something Rotten" or "I'll Be Yours", and Black Market Music could include "Second Sight" or "Bulletproof Cupid". It's the quintessential Placebo album, delivered via 12 self-contained stories. 

In the Context of the Band

Placebo do not often refer to themselves as an entity on wax. Tracks like "Happy You're Gone" and "Come Undone" are anomalies in their catalogue, and the only time Brian has sung the word "Placebo" on a recorded song was on the demo "Flesh Mechanic" way back in 1994/1995. It's unlikely Sleeping With Ghosts was written with the trajectory the band has taken in mind, but the songwriting is strong enough that it can easily be applied to the various stages the band had been going through and would go through in the not-to-distant future.

Remember that their ascension to the limelight was incredibly fast. Before they'd even recorded their first album they were touring with David Bowie, as well as supporting The Foo Fighers. NME were interviewing the band in 1995. Courted by major labels, they signed a deal quickly and finished recording Placebo in quick time. "Bulletproof Cupid" is the embodiment of this whirlwind start, thrusting the listener into the album the same way Placebo were strapped with guitars and thrown headlong at the press. By "English Summer Rain", or 1997 in Placebo history, they'd already appeared tired and bored of the drudgery of the press circuit, with Brian proclaiming in May of that year he was already tired of the narrative that the English press had cooked up about him

Along came Without You I'm Nothing, a wholly more mature and fleshed out Placebo sound. The refrain of "can't stop growing old" from "This Picture" fits perfectly, and the loss of identity that song communicates can be applied to Brian's own self-identity, which at the time seemed to be changing every interview. "Sleeping With Ghosts" and "The Bitter End" could easily be switched around, with the latter describing the break-up of the original trio (Robert Schultzberg leaving) and the former describing the bond between the new trio, a bond that would remain strong for another decade of intense writing and touring.

"Something Rotten" describes the way the band had begun to give in to the sweet embrace of illicit substances. Fans have long since speculated "My Sweet Prince" is about Brian's experience with heroin, and countless interviews speak on the excess the band engaged in during this time. By this album in 2003 the band had begun to take a step back and take stock of their indulgences, and maybe began to view those Herculean ingestions as "something rotten". 

"Plasticine" hardly needs an explanation. It's about being yourself, a concept that Brian and Stefan bravely pursued throughout their entire career. From wearing dresses on stage in Irving Plaza during heavy rock shows to writing a song like "Nancy Boy", Placebo has blazed a trail for anyone different from the norm. 

"Special Needs" could be an ode to the rock star lifestyle. "Just nineteen and sucker's dream, I guess I thought you had the flavour". Brian may be singing to the person he is below the guitar and alcohol - "remember me when you're the one you've always dreamed". Of course, he's never had to truly reconnect with the mundanity of a normal job, and in 2015 declared himself free of that shackle for eternity

"I'll Be Yours" could be about the rabid fan base that the band had amassed by this stage of their career. In 1999 he spoke of screaming teenage fans, and in subsequent years, especially during huge concerts in South America, those fans would show up in droves to their shows. The band even used death threats Brian received on their 1998 hidden track "Evil Dildo". 

"Second Sight" and "Protect Me From What I Want" can again be attributed to the excesses the band had indulged in thus far in their career. Although the band had yet to truly take stock of the toll drugs and alcohol had taken on their personal lives (this would come with Meds and Battle For The Sun), there are always numerous references to drugs on every Placebo album. As this interview explains, Brian was dragging himself slowly out of this era of substance addiction, only to be dragged straight back in during Meds.  

"Centrefolds" is a band reaching what, in the music industry, is at the very least middle-age. They exploded in 1996, and most bands by their 7th year would be well on the way out, one or two well-received albums under their belt. Rarely did Stefan and Brian comment on the mortality of the band in song, but certainly "Centrefolds" foreshadowed the breakdown that occurred post-Meds, a breakdown that may have already been in motion when this album was released. 

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