At 12 a.m. ET this morning, JAY-Z released his highly anticipated thirteen studio album 4:44 as a Tidal/Sprint-subscriber exclusive. Despite many fans denouncing his streaming service, Hovito has already set the internet ablaze as only one of hip hop’s true legends could. Beyoncé and JAY maintain such a curated, positive public image that it took Bey’s groundbreaking Lemonade to share with fans that there was trouble in paradise. On this project, the Brooklyn rapper and business mogul pulls back the curtain—delivering some of his most vulnerable, personal work to date.
Unguarded, JAY wrestles with pertinent subject matter such as black masculinity, sexual identity, generational poverty, and his own infidelity on one of this year’s most important albums. Twitter conversation around 4:44 has already ranged from Beyhive threats to Kanye West beef speculation to premature whispers that this might be his best work. Over the past 21 years, the drug dealer-turned-rapper-turned-exec has amassed arguably the greatest catalog in hip-hop. Although it’s too early to say where this one ranks among them, let’s check out how JAY-Z’s 12 previous studio albums (all platinum-certified) stack up against each other.
12 | Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)
Before he was pictured in the studio with many frequent collaborators last year, public consensus was that this album would serve as JAY’s (second) farewell tour. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Although one of JAY-Z’s greatest strengths is his ability to make complex wordplay seem effortless, his least effective music results from sounding uninspired. With a multimillion-dollar empire at his feet and a new fixation on priceless contemporary art, Carter sounds out of touch with the common man. After combing through flat production and questionable feature choices, the listener’s reward is vintage Hov on the final track ("Nickels and Dimes"). Magna Carta's lasting legacy will be the keen business acumen needed to guide an album to platinum status ahead of its release. However, Carter himself has proven in the past that financial power moves don’t need to come at the cost of music quality. That’s just bad for business.
Standout Tracks: "Nickels and Dimes," "F.U.T.W.," "Heaven"
11 | Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (1998)
Depending upon your stance on hip-hop, Hard Knock Life was either a massive success or an utter failure. In the title track, JAY famously raps over a sample of the lead song from the 1977 musical Annie. This album was White America’s introduction to the hood—forcing anyone who watched MTV to witness inner city poverty firsthand. His first attempt at achieving Tupac, Biggie, and Snoop-level pop success, this album is loaded with A-list features and summertime bangers. When the dust settles though, JAY’s rhymes are perhaps the least fulfilling aspect of this listen. His most commercially successful offering at this point, this album deserves credit for putting Carter on the map and creating a formula used by DJ Khaled. As you finish nodding your head to rugged beats and R&B production, you feel like you’ve eaten a platter with all of your favorite foods—but not enough seasoning.
Standout Tracks: "Hard Knock Life," "Nigga What, Nigga Who"
10 | The Blueprint 3 (2009)
Most hip-hop fans would agree that the original installment of the Blueprint series was the dopest. Nonetheless, JAY’s choice to reach back to that legendary legacy seven years later is curious—unless you consider context. After making limited impact with American Gangster, due to its lack of radio hits, Carter stood on the shoulders of the Blueprint as a last ditch effort to bridge the gap between hardcore fans and millennials. The result is a product that’s not in the same stratosphere as the first two installments, but has many commercial singles and a few epic moments. The world gets an introduction to a young, hungry J. Cole, Kanye kicks down the door with his “Run This Town” verse, and Alicia Keys offers strong vocals on “Empire State of Mind.” Although JAY isn’t the focal point of this project, he does offer a few flashes of his signature, smooth braggadocio. Blueprint 3 would be a promising effort for a lesser emcee, but it doesn’t quite meet the mark for Brooklyn’s Finest.
Standout Tracks: "Thank You," "Run This Town," "Empire State of Mind"
9 | Kingdom Come (2007)
Throughout his career, JAY-Z has often compared himself to Michael Jordan. After taking four years off from rap, he returned with a project that likened him even more to His Airness. As Carter himself has admitted, this was equivalent to Jordan’s forgettable stint with the Wizards. When JAY first steps back up to the mic, the most noticeable differences are a more relaxed flow and smoother production. No longer the hardened drug dealer from the Marcy projects, Carter shows his age on Kingdom Come. While being a seasoned veteran isn’t inherently negative, the Brooklyn rapper is missing the edge and urgency that defined his career to this point. Although most tracks fall flat, the Chrisette Michelle-assisted “Lost Ones” is a bonafide classic. JAY dives deep into his conscience, struggling to reconcile the guilt and sacrifices associated with his road to riches. To be the best, you’ve got to learn to live with regrets.
Standout Tracks: "Lost Ones," "Oh My God," "Kingdom Come"
8 | The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse (2002)
To be viewed as the best any field, there are often boxes you must fill out to cement your legacy. Like Biggie ("Life After Death") and Tupac ("All Eyez On Me") before him, JAY-Z’s confidence in his ability led him to release a double disc album. Boasting 25 tracks and a runtime of one hour and 48 minutes, The Gift and The Curse was bound to have too much filler. Despite taking on such an ambitious task, JAY introduces new flows and adds more layers to his sound—experimenting with flutes and more soul samples. Still in the midst of his storied beef with Queensbridge rapper Nas, JAY sounds as if the whispers are finally getting to him. There are enough great tracks here to make a classic album. You just have to find them.
Standout Tracks: "Hovi Baby," "Blueprint 2," "Somehow Some Way"
7 | Roc La Familia: The Dynasty (2000)
Entering the new millennium, Roc La Familia was on a mission to secure the title of rap’s elite group. Memphis Bleek and Beanie Siegel were underground, street rappers who had yet to achieve mainstream success. Although known as a street dude himself, JAY now sported a refined image and tight grip on the radio. Ultimately, the album sounds a bit crowded. Carter saves the album with some of the best bars of his career, but Siegel and Memphis Bleek probably didn’t gain many fans with this one. The former does, however, spit some of his most moving bars to date in the closing track “Where Have You Been.” Snoop and R. Kelly also offer great changes of pace on a project that does more to solidify JAY’s legacy than anything else.
Standout Tracks: "The Intro," "Soon You’ll Understand," "This Can’t Be Life"
6 | Vol. 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
Believe it or not, there were whispers that Carter might have sold out or gone soft after the pop-heavy Vol. 2. For the first time, we hear JAY with his back against the wall—resulting in the hardest album of his career. The Life and Times is backed by bass heavy, head knocking beats and his rawest, most violent rhymes. He offs competitor 50 Cent with a scathing one-liner he premiered at Summer Jam ("I’m about a dollar / what the f*ck is 50 cents") and deters anyone else who wants beef. With tracks like the rugged “So Ghetto”, the gospel-inspired “Hova Song”, and surprisingly dope collab with Mariah Carey “Things That U Do,” this album has something for every fan of hip hop. Timbaland and Just Blaze provide the perfect backdrop for The People’s Champ. Do you believe?
Standout Tracks: "Big Pimpin," "Come and Get Me," "Dope Man"
5 | Vol. 1: In My Lifetime (1997)
After the rap game lost its two most influential artists in a span of six months, the world awaited someone to take the reigns as the face of hip hop. You can probably count on one hand the amount of people who predicted that that someone would be JAY-Z. After bolting from Priority Records, which didn’t believe in his talent, Carter proved that Nas might not be the heir to New York’s throne. He moves from the underground sound that defined his debut release, getting silky production on many tracks from DJ Premier. On this album, JAY transitions from exclusively bragging about hustling to flexing his newfound riches. He even tops off the album with the ominous “You Must Love Me,” which features some of his most vivid imagery. Jigga didn’t snatch the crown with this album, but he damn sure put it within his reach.
Standout Tracks: "Medley: Intro," "You Must Love Me," "Imaginary Players"
4 | American Gangster (2008)
During his stint with the Miami Heat, LeBron James put up the best stats of his career and was visibly more athletic than now. If Reasonable Doubt is the Miami Heat version of James, American Gangster is the older, wiser version that dominated in a losing effort in this year’s NBA Finals. On the heels of a disappointing return to hip-hop, JAY once again had something to prove. After attending an early screening of the film American Gangster, in which Denzel Washington portrayed 1970’s drug kingpin Frank Lucas, Carter found renewed inspiration. On his most soulful album, JAY explores religion, poverty, police corruption, and the “two sides” of substance abuse (dealer and addict). We should thank Diddy, considering he allowed Carter use of the stash of beats intended for Biggie’s third studio album.
Standout Tracks: "No Hook," "American Gangster," "Success," "Ignorant Sh*t"
3 | The Black Album (2003)
As he eyed retirement to focus more on his executive roles, JAY crafted every bar on this album as if it were his last. He commissions all star producers Just Blaze, Kanye West, Rick Rubin, and Timbaland and takes it back to his roots. With his most vulnerable music to date, including commentary on his absent father, JAY gives fans an unfiltered view of how he sees himself and the world. This album has earth-shaking bangers (“Change Clothes” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulders”) as well as deep, introspective tracks (“December 4" and “What More Can I Say”) for days. After this victory lap, JAY truly could’ve ridden off into the sunset with his middle fingers erected—and there’d be no question in anyone’s mind who was the greatest. But that wouldn’t be quite fitting for the Jordan of rap.
Standout Tracks: "December 4," "Dirt Off Your Shoulders," "99 Problems"
2 | The Blueprint (2001)
JAY’s fifth studio album was released on one of the scariest days in America’s modern history: 9/11. However, Hov has never sounded more sure of himself or his status in hip hop. Kanye used soul samples to create a soundscape that would shift the culture for decades to come. The Blueprint introduced the fully formed version of Sean Carter the exec, but without sacrificing realness or content. He addresses his legal issues and humble beginnings, only as a reminder that despite it all he’s still standing. On “Takeover”, JAY ignites one of the most legendary beefs in rap history by taking aim at Nas, Mobb Deep, and whoever else looked his way. On the sole feature, Renegade, Hov is outshined by Eminem—but delivers a respectable verse in his own right. For the first time, JAY sounds sure he’s surpassed Biggie Smalls on the Blueprint.
Standout Tracks: "Takeover," "Renegade," "U Don’t Know," "Song Cry"
1 | Reasonable Doubt (1996)
During the Golden Age of hip hop, there was no shortage of talented emcees releasing quality bodies of work. In 1996 alone, there was “All Eyez On Me”, “The Score”, “Atliens”, “It Was Written”, and more. It’s no wonder that we almost missed JAY’s magnum opus. Reasonable Doubt was an underground album in which ill rhymes and metaphors were the main event. Carter brings listeners on a ride along, showing us the slums that forced him into dealing drugs through his Mafioso raps. He explores the intricacies of hood politics (“Politics As Usual”), the struggle to save one’s soul (“D’evils”), distrust for the system (“Dead Presidents II”), and materialism (“Cashmere Thoughts”). We’re treated to JAY trading bars with BIG on “Brooklyn’s Finest” as well as other moments that display his elite lyricism. What also sets this album apart is the hunger in JAY-Z’s voice—eager to prove his mic skills to the world. Reasonable Doubt was almost shamelessly slept on, but now sits as one of hip hop’s greatest masterpieces. Thank God for the Internet.
Standout Tracks: "Dead Presidents II," "D'Evils," "Regrets," "Brooklyn's Finest"