The Best Jay-Z Albums

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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, or your brain has disintegrated after listening to Kanye’s latest album, you know that Jay-Z plans to release his 12th studio album July 4.

One million Samsung cell-phone owners will get the new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, 72 hours before anyone else. Think about it – Jay’s album has ALREADY gone platinum before any of us even knew it existed.

Man, y’all might be on to something with this Illuminati business….

Anyway, forget sales, here’s the real question: Will the album be any good? For once in my life I’m actually, gasp, optimistic. I think the album will be decent. Be honest with yourself: Most of Jay’s recent work has been mediocre at best and now’s his chance to prove that he’s still the best rapper alive. It’s yet another opportunity for him to add a certified classic to his catalog.

And speaking of his impressive catalog, which Hov albums truly tower above the rest?

In anticipation of Jay’s big release, I’ve ranked Jay’s entire discography from the dreadfully worst to the absolute best. This list does not include his greatest hits collections or collaborative albums, which range from pretty good (Watch the Throne) to downright embarrassing (those R. Kelly joints).

Take a look back at Jay’s highs and lows. It’s the Roc.

11. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3 stars out of 5

Edd said: Ugh. You know those Mayback Music Self Made compilations Rick Rawse drops every year for tax write-off purposes? Yeah, that’s this album. It’s basically a Roc-A-Fella compilation disguised as a Jay-Z album. And it’s not even a good compilation. Sure, it spawned a few hits but it was very rushed, very lazy and very unlike Jay. But props to Jay for crafting arguably the best intro verse in the history of rap albums. It’s truly a diamond in the rough. (See what I did there?)

Forgotten treasures: “Intro,” “You, Me, Him, Her,” “1-900-Hustler”

10. The Blueprint 3 (2009)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5 (read the review here)

Edd said: For me, Jay’s last solo album was a one-track effort. That one track? “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune).” Hov’s first single lyrically powerbombed dozens of lazy rappers who were coasting to radio success by singing like Starscream. You’d think that would pave the way for Jay to return to his rugged roots. Nope, Jigga just breezed by with a largely unremarkable release.

Forgotten treasures: “Star is Born,” “Venus vs Mars,” “Thank You”

9. Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: This was the first time I saw cracks in Jigga’s seemingly impenetrable platinum armor. This was Jay’s fourth consecutive album in as many years and his creative juices were clearly drying up. It yielded a handful of memorable singles but the overall body of work floundered a bit. Much better days were to come, obviously.

Forgotten treasures: “Dope Man,” “There’s Been A Murder,” “Come And Get Me”

8. Kingdom Come (2006)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Ah yes, the much-hyped comeback album. For some reason, Jay Stans convinced themselves that this album would be the second coming of Jigga’s debut masterpiece, Reasonable Doubt. Playa please. Boy, were they disappointed. Actually, I think it was the heavy real-world topics and somber mode (“hey, I’m getting old!” “Man, did Hurricane Katrina suck” “I gave my nephew a car and he died in a crash”) that turned listeners off. Although light on memorable cuts, this album was much more cohesive than those featured earlier on our list. And I applauded the maturity. The album was a mild disappointment, but by no means a tragedy.

Forgotten treasures: “Anything,” “Minority Report,” “Kingdom Come”

7. The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse (2002)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: I contend that this is a five-star album hidden buried amongst a bunch of mixtape throwaways. It’s like Jay said, “Biggie has a two-disc album, Pac has a two-disc album, Wu-Tang has a two-disc album, I should have a two-disc album.” Then he did that weird little giggle thing he does. Anyway, there are some absolutely stellar tracks to be found here, they’re just often overshadowed by the mediocre ones. At TWENTY-FIVE songs, this album needs Hydroxycut but you can’t overlook the heat that’s spread over those two discs.

Forgotten treasures: “As One,” “Blueprint 2,” “Poppin Tags”

6. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd says: Oddly, this album has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Yeah, that song with Puffy and Lil Kim is practically unlistenable and there are some blatant attempts to gain radio play, but so what? This is still a rock-solid release. It’s a careful balancing act of mainstream appeal and street sensibilities – an art he’d perfect on the next year’s release. Haters, go back and listen to the whole album. I dare you to find three albums released this year that can measure up to it.

Forgotten treasures: “Imaginary Player,” “You Must Love Me,” “Who You Wit II”

5. The Black Album (2003)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: This is likely the ranking that will piss off readers the most but I stand by it. First, let me say this is an air-tight release. Even the most critical listeners (i.e., me) need the Hubble telescope to spot flaws in this collection. Still, it’s always been slightly overrated since it was billed as the “last” Jay-Z album. We really wanted Jay to go out with a classic, so we christened this as one. I wouldn’t go that far, though, thanks to a few uneven verses here and there. It’s no classic, but it’s still amazing.

Forgotten treasures: “Threat,” “Lucifer,” “What More Can I Say”

4. American Gangster (2007)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: By far Jigga’s most underrated piece of work. While not an official soundtrack to the titular film, Jay basically retells the story using his own life experiences. What results is worthy of the big screen. No it’s not just an album about drugs, it’s about the pressures of fame and the plight of excess. It’s outlines the rise and fall from grace, a story told almost as well as the movie. Add some of the most lush production Jay has ever spit over and you have a near-classic album.

Forgotten treasures: “No Hook,” “Sweet,” “Say Hello”

3. Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life (1998)

Soul In Stereo rating: 5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Now we’re in rarefied air. If you listen to Jigga fans, they’d swear he arrived on the scene and immediately became the greatest of all time after one song. They’re wrong because they were probably born in 1992. It wasn’t until this album, Jay’s third solo release, that he went from respected rapper to hip hop megastar. And he deserved the honor. Using the formula from Vol. 1, Jay expertly reached out to the radio and the streets, captivating both audiences. Some fans deride this album’s mainstream hits but that’s ridiculous – this set contains many of the best songs of the late 90s. It has style AND substance and, for better or worse, influenced a generation of rappers to claw for mainstream success. It’s a true classic.

Forgotten treasures: “A Week Ago,” “If I Should Die,” “Coming of Age (Da Sequel)”

2. The Blueprint (2001)

Soul In Stereo rating: 5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Around the time this album dropped, rumor around the Internetz was that Jay recorded this set in seven days. I don’t know if I buy that. It’s probably just Jay doing his weird god complex thing. No matter how long it took, The Blueprint wound up being a bonafide classic, an album that still holds up today. Lyrically, Jay may have been at his peak here, throwing around lines that are still being quoted a decade later. The only thing that keeps it from being his all-time best album is track No. 12, where he’s TOTALLY upstaged by guest Eminem. But who cares? It became another classic track on a undeniably classic album.

Forgotten treasures: “Renegade,” “All I Need,” “Girls Girls Girls 2”

1. Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Soul In Stereo rating: 5 stars out of 5

Edd said: I’ll never forget one of my best friends saying “I think I need to go get that Jay-Z album. I think it might be pretty good.” Yeah playa, it was pretty good all right. From top to bottom, I can’t find a single fault with this debut album. Every verse is a gem, every bit of production is iconic. I rocked this album on the bus during field trips, while playing video games and even while doing chores. His vivid storytelling was captivating. And best of all, amongst my friends, this album seemed to be our own little secret. While Rap City was just obsessed with Jay’s track with Foxy Brown, we knew that Jay-Z had so much more to offer. We knew he was destined to be a star. We were right. And it all started with this album.

Forgotten treasures: “Regrets,” “Can I Live,” “Bring It On”

Is this list ranked flawlessly or did I shortchange your favorites? Speak out in the comments.

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3 Comments

  1. I agree with you except the ranking of The Black album, that cd was and still is a banger! I’ve been down with Jay Z since Reasonable Doubt and I have every album, I guess you could call me a fan 😉

    • Black Album is an excellent album but I just love AG and the trio of classics slightly more. It’s hard to go wrong with any of those top tier Hov albums.

  2. Sorry to say that but how can you rank Dynasty below KD??

    Did you hear :
    – Where Have You Been
    – Soon you’ll Understand
    – This Can’t Be Life
    – Squeeze First
    – Guilty until proven innocent

    Please, do you listen to music or do you just skimmed through it??

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