Welcome back to Head to Head with Edd, where yours truly goes toe-to-toe with the superfans of the game’s biggest artists. We’ll take a look at the selected artist’s biggest hits and misses and see where we can find common ground.
This time we’re joined by Luke James (no, Not The Singer) MacLachlan, one of the most respected album reviewers on YouTube. Thanks to his brand of insight and humor his channel boasts 21,000 loyal subscribers. If there’s one reviewer online I cosign – besides myself, duh – it’s this guy. Go check him out and subscribe. Luke James stops by Soul In Stereo for a sparring session as we discuss one of faves, the mighty Jay Z himself. Get your hands up, it’s time to battle.
What are Jay Z’s three best albums?
1. The Blueprint
2. Reasonable Doubt
3. The Black Album
The Blueprint has to be No. 1 for me. Not only is it a snapshot of the early 2000s with all of the references and rap beefs addressed (Jay vs. Nas was like Hulk Hogan vs. Macho Man), it also changed the game by being a sample-heavy project that disrupted the bling era and introduced the world to Kanye West. Then we have the one that started it all, Reasonable Doubt, and his so-called “retirement” album The Black Album. Arrange them however you want, but those are easily his top 3 to me!
1. Reasonable Doubt
2. The Blueprint
3. Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life
Reasonable Doubt is THE definitive Jay Z album to me, one of the greatest debuts in music history. It may feel dated to younger ears – 1996 Jay Z sounds like a completely different human being to today’s Jay – but it’s truly Shawn Carter’s finest hour. The original Blueprint is a VERY close second, for all the reasons Luke James mentioned. But No. 3 has to go to Jay’s true breakout record, Vol. 2. Its impact is often overlooked today but this is the album that launched Jay Z into superstardom for good. Those are three 5 star albums, by the way – each one is incredible.
What is Jay’s worst album?
Luke James: Kingdom Come
I tend to go back and forth between Magna Carter Holy Grail and Kingdom Come when it comes to this question, but right now I gotta go with Kingdom Come. It has a handful of decent tracks (“Lost One” is an all-timer), but ultimately it was a pale follow up to The Black Album with its hit and miss production choices and songs that came across as rushed. Jay-Z on Kingdom Come is what Hakeem Olajuwon was on the Raptors.
Edd: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Magna Carter Holy Grail and Kingdom Come certainly aren’t great but they have their moments. I don’t mind them. HOWEVER, I don’t know if it’s nostalgia clouding y’all or what, but MANNNNN that Dynasty album is vastly overrated. The album intro is one of the best verses Jay has ever spit, but after that, this thing drops like a bowling ball off a building. Goofy singles and lazy concepts abound. There are a few solid tracks on the second half but it’s still Jay’s most uneven offering by far. According to rumor this wasn’t even supposed to be a Jay solo album – it was a Roc-a-Fella compilation with Jay’s name stamped on to boost sales. That explains a LOT.
The first Jay Z song that made you a fan was …
Luke James: “Feelin’ It”
The first song that really caught my attention and got me interested in Jay-Z was “Feelin’ It” back in 1997. The production is lavish, the hook is catchy and Jay sounded so effortless from start to finish. The video also helped add to that elegant feel with the fancy suits, champagne, cigars and women!
Edd: “Can’t Knock the Hustle“
The easy answer is Jay’s breakout single “Ain’t No …” but let’s be honest – Foxy Brown was the real star of that one. I’m serious, back in 96, the buzz from her feature paved the way for her solo record a year later. So I’ll go with the first track from the first Jay Z album I purchased (shout out to Camelot Music in Chesapeake Square Mall). The second the beat to this one dropped, alongside Mary J. Blige’s vocals, I knew this Jay Z guy was here to stay.
Name Jay’s best single
Luke James: “Can I Get A…”
It’s hard to pick one because Jay has so many great singles done in various styles, but in this case I wanted to pick a popular, mainstream banger that got played EVERYWHERE by EVERYONE when it dropped – I’m talking about “Can I Get A…!” The beat on that provides instant bounce (courtesy of Irv Gotti & Lil Rob), the hook is infectious (play it in a club or at a party and watch men and women start yelling it at each other), and it’s probably Amil’s best performance on a song. It also got a boost from being on the Rush Hour soundtrack and introduced most of the world to Ja Rule, who has been the butt of jokes for the past 10-15 years, but had a very strong beginning.
Edd: “Big Pimpin”
I spent WAY too much time thinking about this one. Jay has an endless array of incredible singles – and props to the homie for picking “Can I Get A,” one of my favorites from that era. But I’ll go with “Big Pimpin’.” It’s certainly not his most lyrically impressive and has about as much depth as an inflatable kiddie pool, but the beat is incredible, the quotables are endless and it introduced UGK into the mainstream. It’s the template for the perfect single.
And what’s Jay’s worst single?
Luke James: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”
I hate “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” with R. Kelly more than I hate sushi. I hate “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” with R. Kelly more than I hate the Nightmare On Elm Street remake from 2010. I hate “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” with R. Kelly more than I hate fast food employees who give you one pack of sweet n’ sour sauce for your 10 pack of nuggets. That chintzy beat with the whistles all over it is 100% dumpster juice with extra pulp and rat carcasses, and hearing R. Kelly on a song about innocence gets more and more laughable with every passing minute.
Edd: “Girl’s Best Friend”
I know the recent narrative is that Jay has never spit a bad verse in his life but trust someone who has been riding with Mr. Carter since Day One – he ain’t immune to wackness. And speaking of wack, who thought THIS was a good idea for a song? Jay Z is literally rapping INSIDE A GIANT CGI DIAMOND while sounding bored out of his mind. Well, so were we.
What is Jay Z’s most standout feature verse?
Luke James: “Seen It All” and “I Do”
Again, it’s hard to pick just one because Jay has such an extensive catalog, but he was 10/10 on “Seen It All” and “I Do” with Jeezy. Hearing those two spit dope boy tales over high quality sample-based production just feels so authentic – and of course 3 Stacks snapped on “I Do,” as well! Honorable mentions go to Jigga’s verses on Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back” and Freeway’s “What We Do.”
Edd: “Never Let Me Down”
I agree, playa, this is a nearly impossible task when you consider how many tracks Jay has ripped over the decades. I almost went with his show-stopping feature on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” but I worry that might have some recency bias there. Instead, I’ll go with his verse on Kanye West’s “Never Let Me Down,” where he absolutely Debo’d Ye’s song from him. Not only did he destroy the first verse, he popped up AGAIN before the track ended to drop this classic line: “Hov’s a living legend and I’ll tell you why/Everybody wanna be Hov and Hov’s still alive…”
Name Jay’s most quotable punchline
Luke James: One of my personal favorites comes on “All I Need,” where the first half of the second verse involves a bunch of wordplay revolving around his gun. He spits: “Wanna act out a movie, I could give you a clip/But no ad-libbin’, n****, stick to the script.” Something about that line always sticks with me!
Edd: I hate that Dynasty album like Luke James apparently hates sushi and dry chicken nuggets but I’ll forever hype its intro, which has some of the most notable bars of Jay’s career: “The theme song to The Sopranos/plays in the Key of Life on my mental piano/Got a strange way of seeing life, like/I’m Stevie Wonder with beads under the doo rag/Intuition is there, even when my vision’s impaired, yeah.” I could write a whole article on the complexities of the themes Jay dropped in those handful of lines.
What’s Jay’s most underrated album cut?
Luke James: “Soon You’ll Understand”
I’ll give you a WHOLE ALBUM and Ed is gonna hate me for this – The Dynasty: Roc La Familia! Seriously, I don’t know why this album gets downplayed so much. There’s great production all over it and the features (especially Beanie Sigel) did their damn thing too! If I had to pick one album cut though, I’d go with “Soon You’ll Understand.” The somber production on that song works as the perfect backdrop for Jay’s vivid story-telling.
THE DYNASTY ALBUM?
Anyway, back to the issue at hand. Jay doesn’t get introspective often, especially in his early years, but when he does it always hits hard. My favorite is the closing track from his debut album. There is a sorrow vulnerability that Jay rarely unveils. It shows that beneath all the bragging and bluster, he’s a real guy.
Best album cover?
Luke James: The Blueprint
I gotta go with The Blueprint. All of his covers have a minimalistic feel so there’s not much to break down, but that one in particular is iconic! It really puts off a “boss” vibe as Jay-Z is sitting back smoking a cigar like he’s ready to give out orders. He has a master plan – “The Blueprint”!
Edd: American Gangster
I feel Luke James on those boss vibes and, for me, those vibes are even stronger on the American Gangster cover. It’s both a throwback to his Reasonable Doubt mafioso roots while also flaunting his current status as a modern-day mogul. Plus, those chairs on the table remind me of the phrase, “grand opening, grand closing.”
Where does Jay Z land on your list of greatest rappers of all time?
Luke James: If we’re taking everything into account – discography, longevity, impact, consistency, versatility, etc. – Jay-Z is No. 1 for me. He’s been too good for too damn long and even his last album, 4:44, was extremely high quality and critically acclaimed. A lot of legends fall off, but after about 30 years in the game Jay has yet to do so.
Edd: It’s funny you mentioned consistency, playa, because that’s really my only knock against Jay. For the longest time he was No. 2 on my list of rap GOATs (No. 1 still belongs to Biggie, and that’s another argument for another day). But it was during the post-American Gangster years after 2007 (The Blueprint 3/Magna Carta Holy Grail/”your breasteses for breakfast” with Beyonce era) that I began to sour on the big homie until he turned things around with 4:44 in 2017. That Decade of Meh knocked him down a rung on my GOAT list, with Nas surpassing him. Still, when it comes to rap notoriety in the modern era, Jay is nearly unmatched.
Who got it right? Are you riding with Luke James or did Edd come away with the W? Share your thoughts below.