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In every genre, craft or practice, there is a shortlist of figures whose contributions have caused them to become synonymous with that field, affording said individuals the status of an icon. In the realm of hip-hop, JAY-Z is near—if not at—the top of that list, with a resume and track record that is as decorated as any rapper to ever pick up the mic. However, as great as JAY-Z's talent is, his intention was never to become the ruler of rap, but to release one album, become an executive and ride off into the sunset having spoken his piece. That album, Reasonable Doubt, would establish JAY-Z as a spellbinding lyricist and become a cult classic, but failed to yield the returns that would guarantee a successful foundation for him and partners Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke's fledgling label, Roc-A-Fella-Records.
Due to Reasonable Doubt's marginal success, JAY-Z's competitive nature, as well as inspiration in the wake of the death of The Notorious B.I.G., motivated him to forge forward, with the Brooklyn hustler finally cracking the code to mainstream success in 1998 via his third studio album, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life. The album, which sold more than 5 million units and yielded a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, put JAY-Z in contention of becoming the King of Rap, with the rapper seizing the throne courtesy of a succession of multi-platinum albums during the late '90s and early aughts.
In addition to success in music, JAY-Z had also expanded his business portfolio to become a budding mogul, incessantly dropping reminders that his ambitions stretched beyond rap. A growing rift with Dash, a co-founder of Roc-A-Fella, over the direction of the record label reared its head prior to the release of JAY-Z's seventh studio album, The Blueprint 2: Gift and the Curse, creating speculation that he would be stepping away from the game; it was a rumor Hov would ultimately confirm himself.
While JAY-Z's previous six albums had debuted atop the Billboard 200 and were regarded as blockbuster releases, JAY-Z's announcement that his eighth solo effort, The Black Album, would be his last made its release a cultural event. The air of suspense translated into high expectations, which both JAY-Z and the album lived up to as the LP debuted atop the Billboard 200 and sold over three million units, and JAY-Z's lyrical performance on the album was universally praised. Although Hov would later come out of retirement and released an album as recently as last year, The Black Album—which drew from his personal experiences while mixing radio smashes with cerebral rhyming clinics—is remembered as an instant classic 15 years later and regarded as rap's ultimate swan song.
To mark the album's 15th anniversary, REVOLT TV picked The Black Album apart and ranked the entirety of the album to see which song stands as its most timeless selection.
13 | "Justify My Thug"
As two of the more acclaimed and successful talents of their respective generations, JAY-Z and Madonna were a pairing that appeared to be blockbuster on paper. However, hype aside, this collaboration stands as the biggest blemish on the LP and is regarded as a rare ill-advised move on JAY-Z's part.
12 | "Change Clothes"
Released as the album's first single, this uptempo ditty marked JAY-Z's evolution from Brooklyn swagger to boardroom chic. Produced by Pharrell, this offering saw Hov attempting to coax the hip hop community to get grown and sexy, and exchange throwback jerseys for button-ups—a testament to the trendsetter's influence.
11 | "My 1st Song"
One of the keys to being great is treating your last like your first, and your first like your last, which is a method JAY-Z took to heart, according to this particular selection. With a sample of The Notorious B.I.G.'s doling out sage advice at the beginning of the track, Hov builds off that dialogue, turning in a performance that is biographical and indicative of the passion that's made him a master at his craft.
10 | "Moment of Clarity"
Eminem takes a break from rapping circles around the competition to helm the boards on this deep cut which captures JAY-Z in a cerebral zone. From recounting his strained relationship with his father, to giving props to lyrical stalwarts like Talib Kweli and Common, glimpses of Shawn Carter are revealed in pieces, resulting in this song being one of the biggest sleeper cuts from Hov's intended swan song.
9 | "Dirt Off Your Shoulder"
JAY-Z and Timbaland hook up once again on this party-hearty selection, which finds Jigga in a cocksure mood and running down his list of accolades over a jittery backdrop. The second and final single released from the album, this tune rates among its most popular and remains a fan-favorite in Hov's catalog of hits.
8 | "Threat"
Comedian Dave Chappelle makes an appearance on "Threat," a hard-boiled number on which JAY-Z turns in a trio of masterful stanzas that speak to his wizardry. Produced by 9th Wonder, this selection is one that captures Hov at his most surgical, as he resorts to violence on one his more murderous compositions to date.
7 | "What More Can I Say"
"This time, it's for the money," JAY-Z warns, preparing fans for what is simply a tour de force on this outing. With vocalist Vincent "Hum V" Bostic tackling the hook and bridge, JAY-Z wields his lyrical might over the track, resulting in a moment of triumph for the pride of the Marcy Housing Projects.
6 | "December 4th"
For much of his career, JAY-Z was accused of not letting listeners into the inner-workings of his life, but this introductory selection proves to be one of the rapper's most transparent moments. Featuring a guest spot from the rapper's mother, Gloria Carter, this selection finds Hov giving a detailed account of his childhood and beginnings as a hustler, kicking off the album on a high note.
5 | "Encore"
With JAY-Z's eighth studio album intended to be the rapper's farewell tour, it was only right that he use this song as an opportunity to take a victory lap, which he does in grand fashion. Linking up with Kanye West, JAY-Z saunters over the regal backdrop with a focused rhyme spill that finds him basking in his own greatness and leaving the listener craving for more.
4 | "Lucifer"
Often referring to himself as the "God MC" and "Hova," JAY-Z uses this cut to infuse spirituality into his lyrical miracles, resulting in a flurry of double entendres that exemplify his brilliance. Produced by Kanye West, this rollicking number continues the pair's streak of high-powered collaborations and boasts a trio of rhyme spills that are nothing short of infectious.
3 | "99 Problems"
As one of the more intriguing cuts on The Black Album tracklist, this collaboration between JAY-Z and producer and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin shook up the rap world in a big way. Crafting a guitar-heavy soundbed, Rubin draws a flawless performance from Hov, who sends shots at pundits while criticizing the criminal justice system in America, resulting in one of the rapper's biggest political statements on wax to date.
2 | "Allure"
JAY-Z's succession of hit records during the prime years of his career may have stamped him as one of the consistently bankable artists of his era, but his legend as one of the greatest emcees to ever do it has largely been built on album cuts like this one. Produced by Pharrell, who also contributes vocals to the track, this heater finds JAY-Z at the height of his powers, holding court over piano keys, percussion and synths, and turning in one of the LP's most endearing moments.
1 | "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)"
While The Black Album is considered one of the most polished rap albums of its era and an undisputed classic, this song sticks out as its signature selection. Produced by Just Blaze, who gifts JAY-Z with one of the illest instrumentals of its, this interlude doubles as one of the greatest songs of all-time from one of the greatest rappers of all-time, and is undoubtedly the most unforgettable highlight from this classic album.
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