The 5 best Jay-Z songs

He calls himself the new Sinatra, rap’s Grateful Dead, and the Mike Jordan of recordin’. Jay-Z knows that in hip-hop, he’s in a category of his own–he has to go outside his own profession to find any comparison to his success, longevity, and technical proficiency. He outlived his closest peer, The Notorious B.I.G., and then proceeded to outwit and outlast every other rapper who went platinum in the 1990s.

Shawn Corey Carter’s greatness wasn’t always a foregone conclusion, though. His first recorded appearance, a split second cameo on mentor Jaz’s 1989 novelty “Hawaiian Sophie,” wasn’t exactly an auspicious debut on the level of Nas’ “Live at the Barbecue” verse. Jay didn’t release his first album until he was 26, an age by which many rappers are already washed up. “Reasonable Doubt was a classic, should’ve went triple,” but it didn’t–instead, it was his third album, 1998’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, that moved millions of units and put Jiggaman on a perch that he has scarcely budged from in the two decades since.

From the career-defining The Blueprint to the premature farewell of The Black Album, from the epic Kanye West collab project Watch The Throne to his first Album of the Year nod from the Grammys for 2017’s boldly personal 4:44, Jay-Z has become hip-hop’s premier album artist. On every new LP or densely allusive guest verse, you get a peek behind the curtain at a life that took him from the Marcy Projects and a risky stint as a street hustler to a life of arena tours, huge business ventures, and a marriage with Beyoncé. He’s got more bangers than just about anybody, but we took the time to narrow down the 5 best Jay-Z songs.

5. Jay-Z "Takeover" (2001)

Producer: Kanye West
Album: The Blueprint
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

NYC greats, Nas and Jay-Z, had been entangled in a subliminal war of words for a few years before Jay finally called out God's Son by name at Hot 97's Summer Jam in 2001: “Ask Nas, he don't want it with Hov.” This shot prompted Nasty Nas to drop his infamous “Stillmatic” freestyle which stated H to the Izzo was actually an H to the Omo. What Nas didn't know was that Jay had an extended, more intricate diss in the chamber, that set out to discredit and dismantle Nas' career once and for all.

Enter “Takeover,” a Kanye West-produced monster that was more of a well-written essay than a diss song. The cleverly crafted battle raps not only picked apart Nas' shortcomings, but also took shots at Mobb Deep's Prodigy for being, well, short. Although Jay's beef with Prodigy was greatly overshadowed by the battle with Nas, “Takeover” would ignite the greatest hip-hop feud since 2Pac vs. Biggie and fuel the eternal debate as to who won. But for us, there's no debate: “Takeover” is the greatest diss song of all time.

4. Jay-Z "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" (1998)

Producer: The 45 King
Album: Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

Jay gave us prophecy on his first joint, but it was commercially ignored (though critically acclaimed). After his follow-up, Volume 1, was panned by fans for being overly jiggy, it was becoming harder and harder for Jay to distinguish himself from the dozens of other NYC upstarts with similar content. This would change forever after Jay heard Kid Capri play a DJ Mark The 45 King-production that sampled the Broadway musical, Annie, after one of his sets in NYC.

As the story goes, Mark the 45 King was watching TV when he saw the commercial for Annie's return to Broadway and immediately picked up on the “It's The Hard Knock Life” sample. 45 later found the Annie album in a bin at the Salvation Army and bought it for a quarter.

Mark crafted the beat and gave it to Kid Capri for Capri's Soundtrack To The Streets album but when Jay heard the instrumental, he was able to persuade Capri to give it to him for his Volume 2 project.

This critical and commercial mega-hit set Jay apart from the rest of the class and sereved as the catalyst for his rise to superstardom. The song marked Jay's arrival to the mainstream masses with a global smash that analyzed life's ills and appealed to all races, ages, and cultures. Volume 2...Hard Knock Life would go on to become Jay's most commercially successful album selling over five million copies in the United States alone.

What still sticks out about the record is how the hook is so innocent and accessible, yet on the verses Jay promises to murder everything moving. “Hard Knock Life” was embraced by everyone—from street dudes to substitute teachers—and broke down yet another cultural barrier for hip-hop. One of Jay's signature records, it finds a perfect balance between hip-hop's street edge and it's pop aspirations. A delicate balance no rapper has been able to manage throughout their career quite like Jay-Z.

3. Jay-Z "Dead Presidents" (1996) / "Dead Presidents 2 (1996)" / "DP3" (2007)

Producer: Ski
Album: Reasonable Doubt
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Priority

“Dead Presidents” was Jay's coming-out party. Sure, he'd guested on Big Daddy Kane and Jaz-O records, but this was his first solo endeavor to be seen by the MTV and BET crowd. So how did represent himself? With dead presidents, that's how. Jay viciously attacked this haunting piano-heavy instrumental, effortlessly displaying his meticulous wordplay. It featured hints of the rapid-fire delivery style Jay was known for in the early 90s but slowed down a few notches to mesh with his smooth kingpin persona.

When Reasonable Doubt dropped, the album included a version different from that of the video: same beat, same hook, new lyrics, equally dope. Nas was allegedly supposed to re-record the hook for part two but he left Hova high and dry, which is rumored to have sparked the Jay-Z and Nas beef.

In 2007, Jay revisited “Dead Presidents” with “DP3” a short and sweet nod to the classic that was solid but seemed unfinished. In turn it was forever banished to mixtapes. Unfortunately, it was never confirmed if Jay was still spending money from '88.

2. Jay-Z "Public Service Announcement" (2003)

Producer: Just Blaze
Album: The Black Album
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

Who knew an album interlude could be so powerful? Jay and Just Blaze have a plethora of incredible collabs, but this one is quite possibly be the most perfect. A last second edition to The Black Album's tracklist, Hova checks cheddar and flawlessly rides Just's “Seed of Love” sample on what was to be his swan song.

He also finds time to spew some of his most quote-worthy bars of his career including, “I got the baddest chick in the game, wearing my chain,” and our personal favorite, “I'm like, Che Guevara with bling on, I'm complex!” Admit it: You've used multiple quotes from this song in real life conversations no less than twenty times. So either love it or leave us alone.

1. Jay-Z "Can I Live" (1996)

Producer: Irv Gotti
Album: Reasonable Doubt
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Priority

The centerpiece to Jay's opus, Reasonable Doubt, “Can I Live” finds Jay at the craps tables, sipping margaritas, easily explaining the plight of the hustler and the ups and downs of the game. Over a luscious, jazzy soundscape from Irv Gotti, Hov revealed why he'd rather die enormous than live dormant. He offered his life to acquire the lifestyle he'd always desired, despite the consequences he faced. This joint was a plea to those who wanted Jigga to meet his demise, when all he wanted was a taste of the good life and a minute to enjoy it. Even righteous minds go through this.
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