Icon: Jay-Z

Sean Fennessey

By Sean Fennessey

on 02.02.11 in Icons

As he is fond of pointing out, by the time he released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt Shawn Carter was nearly 27 years old. For any artist, that’s a late start. For a rapper, it’s geriatric. Shawn Corey Carter lived a full life well before he’d become Jay-Z. But, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Those whom the gods love grow young.” And Jay-Z, well, he calls himself Jay-Hova, the God MC.

Before his rise, Shawn, or Jazzy – as close friends called him because he was “a cool guy for my age” – was born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Marcy Houses projects to Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves, “who made love under the sycamore tree,” which he told us on “December 4th.” A lanky child and good student who admired glamour and luxury from project windows, Shawn quickly sought wealth and escape, if not distance, from his roots. He never completed high school. His first, Eli Whitney High, closed while he was a freshman. Stints at George Westinghouse Career and Technical and Trenton Central High in New Jersey went unfinished. That one of the cleverest, and slipperiest linguists of his generation lacks a high school diploma isn’t so much damning of the education system, or his impoverished youth, as it is a testament to Jay’s maxi-sponge brain, which absorbs information, words, pictures and stories, and finds way to re-contextualize and layer them for his own mythmaking.

In his teens, Jay turned to drug-dealing – much-heralded in his scripture – and rap as outlets. He flirted with fame in the late ’80s and early ’90s, working with his mentor Jaz-O, doing touring duty with technical forbearer Big Daddy Kane, and slowly making inroads in an industry that mostly misunderstood his quick-witted, then-quick-lipped delivery. He befriended the Phoenix-rising MC the Notorious B.I.G. He partnered with a cocky Harlem aspirant named Damon Dash. He made the occasional across-state-lines trip with a package in the trunk to pay the bills. A guest appearance here. A stalled first single there. An unprofitable distribution deal way over there. Until finally, the formation of Roc-A-Fella, the independent record label he formed with Dash and silent money man Kareem “Biggs” Burke. Their entrepreneurial venture came only as a product of rejection from every single major label on the planet. No one see could the appeal of Jay-Z, imposing and bright, but not especially handsome or accessible; somehow he was not a star. By the time he finally made Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z had lived through struggles both professional and personal – his father left, he made and lost friends, saw some arrested and others killed, had doors closed in his face, and lost money in the game. It’s strange to imagine looking at a young Jay-Z and thinking, “No way. Not giving this guy my money.” But that’s what made him more ready than any of his contemporaries to orchestrate the kind of big-top iconography he’s accomplished. Now if only he could get it off the ground…

In Chronological Order

Reasonable Doubt


The cover tells the story: Eyes shaded by the brim of a black fedora, shoulders draped in a white scarf, right pinky ringed in gold, clutching a cigar, white tie perfectly knotted, with a needless umlaut above his name. The portrait, photographed by Jonathan Mannion, was meant to promote Jay-Z as a sartorially strapped hustler, a cagey aesthete with a back story and, most importantly, an adult. Because Reasonable Doubt is about grown things. Released after similarly-themed, rapturously-received East Coast rap debuts from Nas and the Notorious B.I.G., it needed to be something different. It was. Jay-Z unveiled a composed delivery, strong and smooth, rapid when necessary, but mostly just knowing about the treachery of hustling — a sort of rise to power transcribed. By the time most people would meet Jay-Z, he was already a legend in his own mind — he rarely shared the come-up, instead reveling in the seat on high. In the ad-libbed speech he delivers before the triumphal lamentation "Can I Live," Jay says, "Well, we hustle out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation. Through that desperation, we 'come addicted. Sorta like the fiends we accustomed to servin'." Persecution complexes are a dime a dozen in hip-hop, but Jay's seemed more authentic somehow. Later on the same song he raps, "Forgettin' all I ever knew, convenient amnesia/ I suggest you call my lawyer, I know the procedure/ Lock my body can't trap my mind, easily/ explain why we adapt to crime." Moral relativism, meet Jay-Z.

The bedrock of Reasonable Doubt was built by a like-minded coterie of New York-centric producers, primarily a longtime Jay-Z champion in DJ Clark Kent, future Camp Lo architect Ski, and the sage Gang Starr producer DJ Premier. What these men crafted — essentially a series of syncopated, elegant, ominous re-imaginings of Nino Rota's "Godfather" theme — give Jay's ruminations on the problems of wealth and the responsibility of a successful criminal a dramatic counterpart. There are few pop concessions here. "Ain't No Nigga," a duet with a 16-year-old Foxy Brown is a rare extension to the masses, and even that is pure angry funk. "Brooklyn's Finest," a tit-for-tat with Biggie, is the only thing that flashes — mostly it's a slow burn. Reasonable Doubt was designed like a manual, a guidebook into the mind of a cold hustler. When Jay is frustrated and sizing up a potential opponent, as on "Friend or Foe," he barely reveals tension: "You leave me no choice, I'll leave you no voice/ believe you me, son, I hate to do it just as bad as you hate to see it done." Even his banishments are ambivalent.

Jay-Z gets a lot of credit for wrapping his rhymes in double entendres and shading meaning. The Easter egg hunt, he's called it. He creates a unique rap environment that demands examination. The first listen is about feel, the second is about understanding, the third is about jokes, and the fourth is about coherence. It all starts here. Reasonable Doubt was only modestly successful when it was released; well-received, but no revelation. But it's gained a legendary reputation, aided by revisionists — The Source magazine initially rewarded it four mics upon release, and then, revisiting it years later, amended their rating with an additional mic. This album is the one people point to when they want to explain Jay's gifts. It's ultimately not his greatest accomplishment but it is his most consistent — unusual for a debut. There are no bad songs, no soft-pedaling, no cheap shots. That would come later. The drawbacks are clear — too much mythology, not enough emotionalism. But here we find the formulation of an impenetrable persona and, soon, a culture-shifting artist.

In My Lifetime Vol.1


When Reasonable Doubt failed to make Jay-Z a mega-star, he made considerable decisions to alter his course. To his mind, there was no glory in just earning respect. You had to have the money and the power, too. So In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, now officially released through Def Jam, works very hard to have it all three ways, and becomes a confusing album that hints at the missing vulnerability of his debut, as well as the pop instincts he would soon develop. But the growing pains are painful. In an effort to grab at the coattails of Puff Daddy's fading jiggy era, Jay introduces himself to Sean Combs's Hitmen production team, Virginia R&B impresario Teddy Riley, and the Trackmasters, Poke & Tone, all producers who prided themselves on accessibility. Ski and Premier are back, and their contributions are among the best songs here, but somehow they don't fit — this album is less an introduction for those who slept than a coronation for an emperor with no clothes. So we get the Alexander O'Neal-sampling "(Always Be My) Sunshine," a song so tacky and artless it sent chills down the spine of NYC diehards. Likewise for the Puff and Lil' Kim-featuring "I Know What Girls Like" and "The City Is Mine," a grim interpolation of Glen Frey's "You Belong To The City." Jay hadn't quite realized that with the approachable sample must come approachable sentiment. Floss alone would not suffice.

Beside these awkward reaches at commercialism, we get formalist Jay, like "Imaginary Player," "Rap Game/Crack Game," and the rousing "Where I'm From," perhaps the album's most lasting song — it is the only one from the album he still routinely performs live. The last song, "You Must Love Me" is a eureka moment in his catalog, the moment when he reveals himself, telling a tragic story that finds him selling crack to a person close to him to tragic ends. Soulful and remorseful, this is the best of Jay-Z — emotionally available like never before, and immersive. Rap was rarely this slow, this pained, this aware of its faults. It'd be one more year before Jay-Z solved the problem of commercial viability, but here, at least, the ice around his heart begins to thaw.

Vol.2 ... Hard Knock Life


"Nah this ain't Jigga, it's ya little nigga Bleek/ reporting to these motherfuckers live from the street." That's Memphis Bleek and those are the first rhymed words we hear on Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, from "Intro (Hand It Down)," produced by Jay-Z stalwart DJ Premier. They come after an extended intro by then-ubiquitous Roc-A-Fella hanger-on and Al Pacino impersonator Pain in Da Ass. Two people's voices, plus the album's purest rap beat, all before we hear from Jay-Z. It's a curious move for the album that would mint Jay as the most exciting rapper on the planet, and a logical successor to his since-slain friend the Notorious B.I.G., dead less than 18 months. It's a great verse from Bleek, probably the best of his career ("I go to sleep with a picture of a Porsche on my wall," he yelps.) But its presence is more indicative about Jay than anything; he'd already seen his future as an iconic MC and was ready to hand the reins over to his protégé. That may have been premature, but in the seconds between the end of "Intro (Hand It Down)" and the oscillating opening notes of "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," it's all over but the shouting. Here's Jay-Z, his voice casual and measured, with a little moaning yawp in his flow. "My plot is stick up the world and split it 50/50 — uh-huh." With turns of phrase, he became a generational mouthpiece. The 45 King's beat, which samples that now indelible snatch of kiddie chirping from the stage musical "Annie," is a simple, but not subtle proclamation, perfect for his slow raps and sloganeering couplets. It allowed Jay-Z to make a crucial transition: From untouchable don to man of the people. You wanted to be him, and by extension, you were him.

There were other important cross-pollinations that made Vol. 2 a juggernaut — at more than 5 million sold, it remains his most successful album. The intermingling of Ruff Ryders, another Def Jam subsidiary, with Roc-A-Fella allowed Jay and producer Swizz Beatz to begin a fruitful partnership, bringing his collapsing Casio presets to Jay's smooth-as-ceramic flow. Swizz's "Money, Cash, Hoes," is hardly there, built around a keyboard slide, slight scratches, and an earthquaking kettle drum. But with Jay and DMX, the Alpha and Omega of 1998 hip-hop, growling and purring at each other, it becomes emblematic of an entire era. Likewise for the brilliant Virginia artisan, Timbaland, a master of unlikely production flourishes and dead space. Timbaland's open-ended constructions let Jay reinvent his fast-rap style on "Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator '99)," a hit for the rapper and still one of the most jaw-dropping fusions of sound and voice. And the Jermaine Dupri duet, "Money Ain't A Thing," finds Jay at his most felicitous, basking in his increasing wealth, indulging his base desires to glamorous, gluttonous ends. These are quite literally genre-shifting songs; when dim, disengaged media wanted to portray moral bankruptcy, a shot of Jay and J.D. peeling around corners in a Ferrari race, money stacks in the passenger seat, was often cued up.

Still, the success of Vol. 2 is a bit surprising. Much of the album is still devoted to rough-edged New York hardcore. We meet more of his increasingly visible crew — among them kitten-voiced Amil and the brusque Broad St. bully, Beanie Sigel and, along with the Marcy projects-born Bleek, all East Coast traditionalists. With "A Week Ago," a collaboration with Bay Area legend Too$hort, Jay delicately unfurls an olive branch to the rest of the country, establishing himself as New York's favorite son, and soon the world's ambassador, too.

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


Keenly aware of his surging fame, and savvy about managing his image, Jay-Z made artistic leaps on Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter that don't immediately reveal themselves. At first this feels like that album that has "Big Pimpin'". But there's a pan-regionalism and a sneaky repositioning at work that is both risky and hugely rewarding.

Once rappers get famous, they tend to overcompensate for the completion of their narrative — rags-to-riches-to-too-many-riches. By, Vol. 3 Jay-Z was a complete MC, sly with delivery and deft at brandishing his swagger. But by reframing it as a streak of rebellion he necessarily made himself relevant until the day he dies. "Homie, I'm not into hype, trust me I'm still street," Jay raps on "Come And Get Me," one of four unconventional, breathtaking collaborations with Timbaland. And he's believable when he says it. Not lunging for cred, or saddled by new wealth; because Jay-Z makes wealth addictive, not repellant or banal. And as the South began its inevitable rise to the fore of hip-hop, Jay got out ahead of the curve, recruiting Juvenile for the arresting, oblong "Snoop Track" and beloved but little known Texas duo UGK for "Big Pimpin'," a song as wonderfully well-constructed and decadent as the day it was released. He also recorded his first song with Dr. Dre, the sinewy "Watch Me," teamed with pop queen Mariah Carey for the pat "Things That U Do," and in the Rockwilder-produced banger "Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)," gave us the first Roc Anthem, a rap sub-genre that would dominate New York radio throughout the late '90s and early aughts.

Despite all this crowd-sourcing, Jay-Z is still comfortable at home — "So Ghetto," Jay's last collaboration with DJ Premier, is a master class in confidence: "We all from the ghetto/ only difference, we go back." Whether Jay-Z maintained a verifiable connection to Marcy is immaterial. We believe him. Taken at length, Vol. 3 is diverse, but never schizophrenic. The album is off-kilter, rarely moving in the direction you're expecting — this is not to be underestimated in turn-of-the-century hip-hop, a genre that began settling on formula before moving southward for innovation. On "It's Hot (Some Like It Hot)," another suite-like Timbo creation, Jay flexes pure skill, modulating his flow to a halting rhythm and sneering, " I'm everything: the when's, why's, who's, and what." Hard to argue.

The Dynasty


Originally conceived as a posse album to spotlight Roc-A-Fella's growing ranks, Dynasty became a de facto Jay-Z project — and what a surprisingly important album it ultimately was. The writing here is among Jay's best, particularly his chilling "Intro," a snakelike, detailed-drenched maze of allusions; likewise the open-hearted confessionals like "Soon You'll Understand" and "This Can't Be Life." By this point, Jay-Z had officially become the most important rapper alive, a hit machine and also an admired innovator. But, here, it's the music that mattered most.

This marked the first time that Jay-Z worked with Just Blaze, Kanye West, The Neptunes, and the underrated Bink! — partnerships that would become vital; they're each sonic matches that emphasized high drama, soul music, and unconventional but approachable pop. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo's squelching, casually sensual "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me)" is one of Jay's best-known hits and relentless fun, a respite on an album full of grim-faced street talk and emotional downers. Bink!'s "1-900-HUSTLER" is a clever, furious treatise on the finer points of hustling, featuring Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek ("Chop it, bag it/ stash it, stack it/ get in, get out/ that's an O.G.'s classic"), and the first appearance of Roc-A-Fella's bearded Muslim firebrand Freeway, a rapper whose manic energy and wheezing voice could turn a standard rap record into pure pandemonium. Roc-A-Fella's roster of rappers had become a sort of East Coast fetishists' dream, and they're rarely in better form than on their appearances here.

The only thing that keeps this album from full-bore classic status is a simmering petulance that keeps cropping up on songs like "Guilty Until Proven Innocent." That song is thought to be a reaction to allegations that Jay-Z stabbed the executive Lance "Un" Rivera at the Kit Kat Club the previous December, after alleging that Rivera had been bootlegging copies of Jay's Vol. 3 album. Jay, ironically aided by an operatic R. Kelly chorus, raps, "Media get it fucked up," explaining the frustrations of a leaked album and the stabbing accusations. One year later, Jay-Z admitted to attacking Rivera and received three years probation. There's that pesky persecution complex again.

But it's Kanye West's "This Can't Be Life" that is the lasting note of Dynasty — a simple but savvy chop-and-flip of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "I Miss You." West, working with Jay for the first time, created the backdrop for one of his most heart-wrenching songs, beginning an indelible partnership. After detailing his misspent youth from a distance, Jay clobbers us with this closing, " It gets worse, baby momma water burst/ Baby came out stillborn, still I gotta move on/ Though my heart still torn, life gone from her womb/ Don't worry, if it was meant to be, it'll be — soon." Empathetic, impeccably laced, and surrounded by considerable allies, Dynasty finds Jay-Z settling in, and still growing, gearing up for the best to come.

The Blueprint


Conventional wisdom says that The Blueprint is the album Jay-Z was born to record, the one he'd been working toward for years, a personal reflection draped in soul samples, a "life story told through rap," as he mused on "Izzo (H.O.V.A)." Don't believe that. The Blueprint is a magnificent album and, on some days, his best. But there is no more reflection here, and no less gloss and grit, than on his previous three albums. In fact, this album is utilitarian more than anything, with Jay-Z revealing all the tools at his disposal. There's pure viscera, like Just Blaze's colossal ode to coke and wealth and power, "U Don't Know"; or international bounce music, like "Hola' Hovito," Timbaland's homage to Latin rhythms and New Orleans' second line parades. Jay's lyrics here and elsewhere — "Jigga That Nigga," "Girls, Girls, Girls," even "Izzo," — are pop and street moves, not designed for acclaim in any way. They're pictures of a confident artist, working in comfortable modes, and with producers he was born to record with, particularly Just, Kanye West, and Bink! When Jay has to be tough, he "kills you motherfucking ants with a sledgehammer," on the brilliant, no-one-spared diss song, "Takeover." "You little fuck, I got money stacks bigger than you," he seethes at Mobb Deep's Prodigy, eradicating a once-respectable career in a cinch.

Jay had reason to be angry: He was facing gun possession and assault charges during the stormy two-week period he recorded the album; throughout he had been enduring sideways barbs from Mobb Deep, Jayo Felony, and most critically, new foe Nas. So he's lashing out. Listen to "Renegade," his gothic duet with Eminem; "Motherfucker, say that I'm foolish/ I only talk about jewels/ do you fools listen to music/ or do you just skim through it?" There's an anger and resentment in The Blueprint, a latent tenacity revealed, but because the album was released on Sept. 11, 2001, the story has been reframed on the back of a quartet of Side B songs: "All I Need," "Never Change," "Song Cry" and "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)." And these songs are heartfelt, clearly delivered and deeply dependent on samples from songs by artists like David Ruffin, Natalie Cole and Al Green. They're songs for moms and girlfriends and pundits finally comfortable with Jay-Z, emotionalist, free from guest appearances, limiting his track list to just 13 songs, the way true artists do. But Jay-Z knew better than to believe his own hype: After album closer, "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)," two hidden tracks follow: the steely "Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)" and confectionary "Girls, Girls, Girls (Remix)." This is no mistake — it's Jigga, a man in full. Three sides of the same coin: player, pugilist, and poet. And this is him whole.

Jay-Z Unplugged


"Welcome to Jay-Z's poetry reading," Jay snickers at the outset of this cred-grab, a move that could have been disastrous, but eventually became a stepping stone to his emergence as hip-hop's premier live performer. In collaborating with the Roots to recreate many of his best-known hits, Jay-Z became just the second rapper, after LL Cool J's spirited but never commercially released 1991 set, to record a session for the venerable MTV program. It is both intimate and inexact, and all the better for it. The swarming diss, "Takeover," with it's stomping Doors sample, probably shouldn't be recreated with a string quartet. And yet, here, it has a raggedy charm. Likewise Timbaland's flute-looping "Big Pimpin'," which becomes something closer to a Hawaiian resort's tiki bar soundtrack. The Roots, nearly a decade before their Late Night days, stepped in amidst an interesting creative period, in between their masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, and the daring Phrenology, and they're in fine form. Vocalist Jaguar Wright — who destroys on the wrenching "Song Cry" — is in the mix and ?uestlove and co. create loose but faithful renditions of every Jay-Z era, from Reasonable Doubt to the recent The Blueprint. But what's most convincing about this endeavor is how much fun Jay-Z seems to be having playing to an intimate room full of friends, family, and a select group of fans at MTV's Total Request Live studio. Jay-Z made Unplugged an object lesson, and never toured without a live band again. And they said rappers shouldn't make live albums.

The Best Of Both Worlds

R. Kelly

Jay-Z's solo albums are often beautifully conceived projects, driven by a keen understanding of his own place in the firmament and a vision for the future. But this team-up album with R&B titan R. Kelly revealed some ill-considered thinking for an artist who had been on an undisrupted joy ride for nearly six years. Just three months after the triumph of his Unplugged album, Jay-Z spoiled good will with this shoddily written, childish album. R. Kelly is as energetic and insinuating-bordering-on-creepy as ever, but Jay-Z is on cruise control, lazily writing almost exclusively about siring women without the wit that made such vagaries forgivable and, in many cases, exciting in the past. The prime culprits: the Trackmasters, who had been absent from Jay's career for years until this fiasco. Their hollow, cut-rate, Flamenco guitar-stuffed productions sound instantly dated and Jay, who struggles to rise to the occasion when the sound isn't there, air-balled right when it seemed like he couldn't miss.

The Blueprint 2 The Gift & The Curse


Bloat. Bloat. Bloat. This rushed, jumbled sequel to Jay-Z's most acclaimed album finds the rapper at his most skilled, ambitious, and blinded by his own light. At 25 songs and nearly two hours running time, it was fated for mediocrity the day the final lineup was logged. And it's a shame, because when Jay-Z is really rolling, like the Chicago-by-way-of-ATL soul posse cut "Poppin' Tags," or the brutal diss record "Blueprint²," or "Meet the Parents," a complex story song that many Jay-neaologists call his best ever, we can see another compact and pristine composition. Instead, dependable collaborators curdle their chemistry; there's Timbaland's drab "2 Many Hoes," Kanye West's overblown opener, "A Dream," a song too reverent to his friend, Biggie Smalls, and the Neptunes' preposterous "A Ballad For The Fallen Soldier." Even Just Blaze, typically unimpeachable when working with Jay-Z, chips in the horrid "Hovi Baby," a song that is massive, and also a massive parody of itself.

In many places, The Blueprint 2 is like some prog-rock dinosaur; an overstuffed Rick Wakeman situation with 20 ideas fighting for attention, where one would suffice. Would you like a Cake-sampling, Heavy D-produced rock 'n' roll song featuring Lenny Kravitz, confusingly not playing guitar? No one in the world wants that. Or perhaps an update of Frank Sinatra's magisterial "My Way," delivered Hov-style? Too bad, because Ol' Blue Eyes' estate would not clear the sample, so Paul Anka's is used in its stead. Delightful. Or what about, a remake of 2Pac's woman-as-gun metaphorical ode, "Me and My Girlfriend"? Only this time, it features Jay-Z's future wife, Beyonce, and finds our hero rapping about watching "Sex In The City"? Well, no, we did not need "'03 Bonnie & Clyde." And the less said about the abortive "As One," a failure to recreate the Roc-A-Fella posse cut for a new generation, the better.

This album is give and take, and for every cringer, there's a hidden delight, like the bonus track, "Bitches and Sisters," a prickly celebration/excoriation/explanation of women that once again finds Jay-Z tap-dancing mischievously on the line between misogyny and exultation. Or the kinetic "The Bounce," which gives us an early look at Kanye West's charmingly peculiar regular-man rap persona ("Gingerbread Man even said 'You're a monster,'" West chirps on his verse, bizarrely referencing Shrek.) After its release, Jay seemed to recognize the error of his ways, while also identifying the opportunity for doubling up albums sales (a business opportunity never eludes Hov), when he pushed out The Blueprint 2.1 just six months after the original. It's meant to correct the indulgences of 2, but the song selection is spotty, favoring pop hits over some fan favorites. Do yourself the favor he never could: Make your own Blueprint 2.2.

The Black Album


The song that has always enchanted me on The Black Album is the last song, which is called "My 1st Song," which is meant to be the last song of Jay-Z's career. Got that? It is a beautiful, bedeviling denouement; Jay has rarely rapped better, more intricately, and with such purpose. It's because he knew exactly what he was meant to be doing: Saying goodbye. "Goodbye, this is my second major breakup/ My first was, with a pager/ With a hooptie, a cookpot, and the game/ This one's with the stool, with the stage, with the fortune/ Maybe not the fortune, but certainly the fame."

Knowing what we know now — Jay-Z would be back to full-time recording artist status in three years — makes examining the self-flagellation of The Black Album something of a fool's errand. Elizabeth Mendez Berry wrote for The Village Voice that he'd become "bored by the alter ego he'd outgrown." So how seriously do we take the musings on a half-hearted retirement? Well, maybe without that specter hanging, we can hear it for the achievement it is: a great Jay-Z album.

Originally conceived as a single-producer venture in 1998 with DJ Premier, The Black Album wouldn't come together until years later. It was later advertised with a one-producer, one-song plan, which also never panned out. Finally, it became a typical sort of Jay-Z project, featuring contributions from trusted collaborators, in-house Roc-A-Fella super-producers, Kanye West and Just Blaze, sensing the moment as much as Jay, and crucial additions from a murderer's row of sound men (Timbaland, Eminem, DJ Quik, The Neptunes twice, Rick Rubin, out of rap retirement for a spell) and a handful of then-unknowns and never-heard-from-agains (9th Wonder, The Buchanans, Aqua). Together, there are canonical songs: "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)," initially just a tossed-off one verse proclamation of pride that became a defining document for the MC, with lyrics — from "got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain" to "like Che Guevara with bling on, I'm complex" — that became rallying cries. Rubin's stomping "99 Problems" still sounds like a tank full of cowbells taking a 40-foot drop onto the pavement. Kanye's "Encore" is a convivial farewell song, though it comes early in the mix. Eminem's "Moment of Clarity" is tightly wound, but never tight-lipped, as Jay raps, "I've dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollars/ They criticize me for it yet they all yell holler." Even "Threat," the then-ascendant 9th Wonder's contribution, returns Jay to the creeping majesty of his debut, Reasonable Doubt.. And what would a pro forma Jay-Z album be without a Neptunes trifle? At the time of release, "Change Clothes" seemed a grievous error, a cold calculating move designed to ensure record sales. So many years on, it is what it was supposed to be: a palate cleanser.

"My 1st Song" still kills me. It's that "maybe not the fortune" line. Jay-Z has long been a dramatist, a self-styled orchestrator of his own mythology. And nothing could be more grand than a ceremonial retirement. Except, maybe, for the even grander comeback. But then, there is one more Easter egg worth parsing on The Black Album. From "Encore": "When I come back like Jordan, wearin' the 4-5/ It ain't to play games with you/ It's to aim at you, probably maim you." Considering said comeback, he was more right than he knew.

Unfinished Business

R. Kelly

The cutting-room floor crap from an album no one liked in the first place? And one that nominally reneged on his retirement? Whatever you say. This clearinghouse collection was so unanticipated, it somehow makes its way all the way back to charming. It's not that the quality is higher than its predecessor, The Best of Both Worlds, it's just that the stakes seem lower. And so these songs, a little slower, a touch more delicate, feel more approachable. Before they were called things like "Naked" and "Somebody's Girl" and now they're called "Pretty Girls" and "Break Up (That's All We Do)." A little humility never hurt anybody. Especially not Hov and Kells.

Bizarrely, three days after this album was released, during a dual Jay-Z and Kelly, tour, disaster struck. After an abbreviated performance that ended with him in the hospital, Jay-Z and the promoter announced R. Kelly would not continue on the tour. MTV reported that Jay-Z said that the "insecure" Kelly was jealous of the crowds' love for Jay. Kelly admitted to New York radio station Hot 97 that he panicked after witnessing two members of Jay-Z's entourage waving guns at him during his set. He said in a statement that he tried to return to the stage, only to be pepper-sprayed by a member of Jay-Z's entourage — an attack that sent him to New York's St. Vincent's Hospital. Jay-Z and R. Kelly were the twin towers of rap and R&B's unmistakable bond throughout the previous decade. After Unfinished Business, they never spoke again.

Collision Course

Jay-Z/ Linkin Park

Jay-Z has always flaunted suspicious taste in rock music, and for his first venture into a world beyond rap and R&B, predictably, he chose wrong. This six-song EP, which goofily mixes up some of his recent hits with the clattering, caterwauling songs of Linkin Park, is an unforgivable slush pile. Whether it's Mike Shinoda's dull rapping extracting the thrill from "Big Pimpin'" or Jay's ecstatic elegy "Encore" getting clumsily Photoshopped over the band's rigid "Numb," this is a transparently crass cash-in for the mash-up era, with no visible connectivity or purpose. Jay would move on to appreciating and appropriating more elegant and au courant, if equally dull, acts (Coldplay, Grizzly Bear) in the future, but this release sits lamely in his discography, an irrevocable turd.

Kingdom Come


"The fuck you gonna do except hustle?" our old friend Pain In Da Ass snarls at the outset of Jay-Z's ninth album, Kingdom Come, and then the lush strings drop and we are back to 1996, surrounded by cigar smoke and beautiful women and the flagging stress of a life lived on the edge. "Shoebox full of cash/ dealerman hand me keys/ pantries full of Arm & Hammer/ don't take Nancy Drew to see what it do/ I'm a damn G," he raps on "The Prelude," starting Kingdom Come so promisingly. Jay-Z, after a three-year quasi-retirement (never mind that he released two other music-related projects in that time), returns with what at first seems like a dramatic reflection on the surprising similarities between life on the street and his years spent in the boardroom. But he has completely misunderstood his appeal in the process, building something sonically dull and hopelessly out of touch — two things he never was before.

Initially, Jay-Z said he wanted to release the album under his government name, Shawn Carter. Realizing the potential financial pitfalls of such a decision, he relented at the eleventh hour and went with his déclassé rap name. Perhaps Shawn Carter would have been more appropriate; so many could have been spared the indignities of "30 Something" The faux-grown anthem finds Jay rapping "30's the new 20," despite being 37 at the time of release, and laughably bragging "I'm a bully with the bucks/ Don't let the patent leather shoes fool you young'n/ I got the fully in the tux." Not very corporate, Hov!

It's hard to know what rattled Jay-Z's taste so profoundly; some have argued he never recovered after this album. That's an overstatement, but the misfires here are so devastating — the silly, pandering diss "Dig A Hole," the louche Neptunes nip "Anything," the egregious and requisite Beyoncé song, "Hollywood," their worst-ever team-up — that it's difficult to find things to champion. Aside from that chilling intro, there is the underrated Hurricane Katrina tirade, "Minority Report," a rare political extension, and Just Blaze's breathtaking "Super Freak" refix for the title track, and then there's...well...that's it. Along with "30 Something," Kingdom Come's legacy sits with "Beach Chair," his first collaboration with Coldplay's Chris Martin. "I don't know why we here/ Since we gotta be here/ Life is but a beach chair," Jay raps on the song, threatening to spoil a decade of excellence in a single verse. The tin-eared privilege and groaning existential crisis of an aging rich man had plagued fading white rock stars for years; rap had never felt the wrath of flabby resignation. Jay-Z's dalliance nearly grounded him for life. Only a wayback machine could save the future.

American Gangster


Thomas Wolfe taught us that we can't go home again. Jay-Z, like any iconoclast, resists such lessons. So he went home, all the way home, back to Marcy and the dueling glory and paranoia of his dope dealing days for this companion album, made for release alongside the Ridley Scott New York drug trade drama of the same name. He made a curious decision along the way, choosing to collaborate not with DJ Premier, or Ski, or any of the producers that made his debut Reasonable Doubt the essential guide to the grandiloquent hustle. Instead, he called Sean "Diddy" Combs, the same man who nearly derailed his career on the sequel, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. But Diddy had grown as Jay had and his new team of Hitmen, primarily Sean C and LV, came prepared for this '70s-tinged album, infusing it with rich orchestration and soul samples only a rapper this monied could afford. It's not an essential album by any means, more like a recalibration after the apocalypse of Kingdom Come, with Jay back to calmly assassinating most other rappers with jabs and darts, little wounds that add up.

American Gangster isn't quite memoir — Jay seems as interested in recalling his halcyon days as he is in inhabiting the film's kingpin character, Frank Lucas. So for the swaggering "Success," a collaboration with one-time rival Nas, the bluster is hilariously big: "I don't know what the fuss is/ My career is illustrious/ My rep is impeccable/ I'm not to be fucked with." And then: "Broad daylight/ I'll off your on switch!" Where has this Jay-Z been hiding? Perhaps only visions of youth could stir his loins — either way, Jay-Z, still rickety in spots, is invigorated and in love with the details. "Blue Magic," the minimalist Neptunes production about the actual brick-n-mortar biz of crack sales, is neither nostalgia-bitten or humble: "I write my name in the history books / hustlin' in the hall." Welcome home, Hov.