Before Jay-Z slung apps and signed NBA All-Stars, he was simply Brooklyn’s finest. Now, he’s back with his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, which has us getting all nostalgic for his non-entrepreneur, hip-hop activities, specifically his other 11 albums. And similar to the second half of The Throne a few weeks back, it wasn’t an easy task putting together a list of Top 20 songs — far more difficult, in fact.
There’s just so much style, substance, and context at hand. Whether it’s his diamond-encrusted Rolodex of collaborations or his blank check towards royalties, there’s almost a whole library’s worth of material to pine over. That we did, though to keep us level-headed, we paired each of our favorite tracks with comparable smart phone apps. You know, in honor of Jigga’s whole Samsung deal?
Don’t ask, just listen and (possibly) download.
20. “Can I Get A…”
Whether the pairing of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker was annoying or like Martin and Lewis with karate, this song helped launch Jay-Z’s career (along with “Hard Knock Life”). And it’s no wonder that this is one of Hov’s most commercially successful singles (peaking at a respectable #19): it’s got some of his most memorable wordplay (“If I couldn’t flow futuristic would ya/ Put your two lips on my wood and kiss it – could ya”), and screaming its chorus whilst driving or at a party remains a musical highlight for this writer to this day. But its most impressive feat of all? Somehow giving us a Ja Rule verse that wasn’t totally awful. Can I get a what what?! -Chris Coplan
App to Download: Andy (Siri alternative) — or, Andy, Jay-Z Edition: It’ll help you put events in calendars and find restaurants, but will scream “Fuck you!” if you ask, “Can I get a?”
19. “Run This Town”
Hov’s love of Annie (“Hard Knock Life”, anyone?) really boils down to how he perceives himself as a kind of rap game Daddy Warbucks, using his money and influence to help out a youngster he’d become smitten with. And in Hov’s case, that little ginger orphan appeared in both Rihanna and Kanye West, each of whom he guided and helped, to paraphrase another song, “move in a room full of vultures.” As such, “Run This Town” is a kind of celebration, a declaration of their domination over some weirdly post-arena rock banger tailor-made for their flippant insults and mounds and mounds of ego. Some might argue that RiRi and ‘Ye outshined Jigga, but you can imagine he would’ve only reacted with pride about what his little family has accomplished. -Chris Coplan
App to Download: Foursquare — Why control an empire through power and greed when you can just be the mayor of every Starbucks?
18. “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)”
Go fast, go slow, go light speed. It’s baffling that “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)” followed three of Jigga’s stickiest singles to date — “Can I Get A…”, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, and “Money, Cash, Hoes” — but whereas those cuts focused on Jay’s pop athleticism, Vol. 2‘s fourth single was strictly all about stamina and aggression. In an “Oh snap” moment (remember, it was 1999), Jay matches the beat’s 32nd-note rhythm through a style that’s almost uncanny of his more free-flowin’, ha-ha charisma today. Bottom line: If you’re gonna brag, you better be ready to brawl. And on this number, he, without a doubt, proves you “can’t fuck with this Roc-a-Fella shit doe.” -Michael Roffman
App to Download: Punch Hero — “Rap niggas on Prozac get the bozack, niggas threw/ Two at me I threw fo’ back, hold that.” Get your aggression in check, digitally.
17. “Money, Cash, Hoes”
This is an underappreciated song. In fact, I would argue that most people’s initial recollections of it come from its reference in the way more popular “99 Problems” (as in, “Rap critics that say he’s ‘Money Cash Hoes’/ I’m from the hood, stupid, what type of facts are those?”). And it doesn’t help that Hard Knock Life has two ginormous singles (“Can I Get A…” and the title track). But “Money Cash Hoes” deserves loads of praise: there’s that killer synth groove courtesy of Swizz Beatz, lots of Goodfellas quotes at the end, and Jay-Z firmly letting us know who he is, what he’s about, and what we can do in response (“Fuck all y’all haters, blow dick/ I spits the game for those that throw bricks”). Maybe it wouldn’t get him a deal with, say, Samsung, but the Jay-Z on this tune would’ve told us all to take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. -Chris Coplan
App to Download: I Am Rich — What better way to prove you have an ample supply of money, cash, and hoes than with a $1,000 app that does absolutely nothing?
“Renegade”‘s legacy comes mostly at the expense of Jay-Z, the alleged victim of a brutal 32-bar beat down from Eminem that was immortalized by Nas on “Ether”. That’s not really fair, though–what makes Em’s part great is the intense satisfaction; it’s an unchained dresssing-down laden with loopy flow and dropkick comebacks. None of those things are in the nature of Jay’s storybook verse, where he instead opts for a cold tour of the ghetto, laced with numbing realities like “I had to hustle, my back to the wall, ashy knuckles.” It’s a history we’ve heard before, but much more Reasonable Doubt Hova than the boastful, aspiring Best Rapper Alive on the rest of The Blueprint. It’s brilliant in its own right, though, flourished with flips like, “Do not step to me / I’m awkward, I box lefty.” There’s a reason his rhymes are underrated here. They’re not as nice to look at. -Adam Lukach
App to Download: ShutUp Button — The phrase in 50 different languages, so you can put ’em all on blast.
15. “U Don’t Know”
If he’d never gotten the opportunity to pen his autobiography, Decoded, a decade later, “U Don’t Know” almost would have sufficed as Jay-Z’s official on-record retracing of his steps from bottom to top. The key non-single track on Jay’s career album, The Blueprint, finds him recounting his graduation from selling “so much coke that you could run the slalom” to selling clothes off his Roca Wear line and realizing he could make more from selling one rhyme than selling a kilo. Above an unwaveringly hard beat from Just Blaze, Jay flows at his most unwaveringly cocksure until he cuts himself off with one final Tony Montana-worthy boast: “I. Will. Not. Lose. Ever. Fucka.” -Steven Arroyo
App to Download: Dummies Mobile — For all your how-to on grindin’ G-packs and gettin’ cake (not the actual slogan of Dummies Mobile).
14. “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”
When Jay wants to have fun, the balloons stay up. Credit The Neptunes for this nightlife anthem, which has soundtracked every wedding, birthday party, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, quinceaÃ±era, sloppy night, et. al. since its October 2000 release. As we’ve learned recently with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, when Pharrell Williams steps behind the mic, everyone’s shoes are going to get some work. Sexy, sleek, and funky — “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” sensationalized the high-roller lifestyle that’s now a given with Hova. “Got six model chicks, six bottles of Crist’ / Four Belvederes, got weed everywhere,” he brags, and 13 years later, we’re still drooling in jealousy. The real mindfuck? It’s all based on actual events that took place during one of Mary J. Blige’s after-party. Goddammit. -Michael Roffman
App to Download: Tinder — “Only way to roll, Jigga and two ladies”
There may not be a song that affected the New York rap landscape for as long as “Takeover” did. Before “Ether” came around a few months later, it was an actual possibility that it would have killed Nas’ career. Instead, it launched a beef second only to the tragic Biggie/Tupac antagonism in the pop culture consciousness when Nas replied with one of the greatest diss tracks of all time. The back-and-forth “Takeover” inspired would revitalize Nas’ career while giving Jay an incredibly skilled foil, someone who would force Hov to keep his game sharp.
And “Takeover” is a great track in its own right, turning the psychedelic stomp of The Doors’ “Five to One” into a militant march for Roc Nation, with Jay gleefully spitting pure venom toward not only Nas but also Mobb Deep. When performing “Takeover” for MTV, Jay called the battle “the very essence of hip-hop.” The giddy way Mr. Carter danced around this diss track illustrated his dedication to that statement. -Chris Bosman
App to Download: InsultGenerator — You may never have a back-and-forth as epic as Jay’s and Nas’, but this app will at least start you off.
12. “Where I’m From”
Jay-Z doesn’t exactly make his stomping grounds of Brooklyn sound all that cozy and/or tourist-friendly (“Where the grams is slung/ niggas vanish every summer”). But he reps it none the less, taking the really horrendous parts (“Cough up a lung, where I’m from, Marcy son, ain’t nothing nice”) in stride and keeping the borough never far from his mind. Even as he’s ascended the rap ladder and no doubt piled up frequent flyer miles, he stays repping Brooklyn, most recently adopting the Barclays Center as his unofficial home. Brooklyn may have tested Hov’s mettle with drugs, guns, and all out street warfare, but it also made him the man he is today. -Chris Coplan
App to Download: Ancestry.com App — You may rep BK, but maybe your great-great-great grandpappy was the bee’s knees back in Bavaria.
11. “On to the Next One”
Occasionally on The Blueprint III, aka Jay-Z’s Huge-Selling Post-“Retirement” LP III, “On to the Next One” is a common reaction after playing the first few seconds of certain tracks instead of the album’s second-best single. But that isn’t lost on Jay, and he has a simple response for B3 “meh”-sayers right off the bat on “Next One”: “Niggas want my old shit / Buy my old albums.” In defending his need to keep creating after prematurely calling it a career, he ends up with one of the most biting tracks ever. “On to the Next One” is B3’s anomalous moment of stripped-down directness, a page wisely borrowed from Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”, and a nice deviation from the album’s lavish, excessive production. -Steven Arroyo
App to Download: Remote — To skip over “Real as it Gets” from across the room with the push of a button.
10. “Can I Live”
Jay ends “Can I Live” by muttering, “So I keep one eye open like C-B-S/ you see me stressed, right?”, and the rest is riddled with similar sleeplessness and paranoia. Most of his problems stem from the nuisance of outsiders, though, and his refrain sounds somewhere between a plea and a threat. Here, introspective Jay-Z steps out in full: a wheezing Isaac Hayes horn sample complements his tired verses, which let you peer close enough to see the crow’s feet forming around his open eyes –an intimate look at Jigga that’s much closer to home than the Throne. -Adam Lukach
App to Download: NumberCop Phone Scanner — “Hello? Haters?” *hangs up phone*
9. “Niggas in Paris”
As the magnum opus on the nouveau black power Watch the Throne, everything about “Niggas in Paris” was supposed to be a spectacle. Its beat, an 8-bit Halloween hiccup, lauded their Parisian presence as kings of The Throne; its phrases (“Ball so hard,” “That shit cray”) turned into runaway memes. It was as much about the hundreds of times the pair rewound the song for crowds during their epic tour as it was about their recording days near the Eiffel Tower. They made all of it subversive, too, from the juxtaposition in its title to the wobbly, unexpected coda. That irony might have (cleverly) obscured its ideas about class and culture, but it also gave it the charm to work both as a straight-up hit and “high art.” -Adam Lukach
App to Download: Paris Travel Guide with Trip Planner — “Since we here/ it’s only right that we make an itinerary so we can see everything!”
8. “Empire State of Mind”
What else is there to say? It’s the reason Jay-Z has any bragging rights these days, especially when he’s critically playing second fiddle to Yeezy’s tentpole masterpieces. And why not? The Grammy-winning, five-time Billboard chart-topping single is the sort of sweeping epic one expects from a track written by seven goddamn writers. Then there’s the whole legacy thing. If Sinatra’s “New York, New York” summed up the pre-Giuliani, Scorcese-lensed Big Apple heydays, then Jigga’s Yankee stomp captures the New New York, where everyone across the world feels like they’ve snatched up the city’s overpriced American dream, even if they’re living in a shoebox underneath an Irish-Vietnamese donut shoppe for $1,400 a month. Least the lights ain’t be blindin’. -Michael Roffman
App to Download: Hail-O NYC – You’ll always need one, whether it’s a “Yellow cab, gypsy cab, dollar cab, holla back.”
7. “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”
The Blueprint only had one feature rapper, so while that meant most of the album’s spotlight was featured on Shawn Carter, it also made it a producer’s record. Everyone from Timbaland to Just Blaze brought stellar cuts to these sessions, but no one benefitted from The Blueprint more than Kanye West. And while West himself professed on The College Dropout that he hoped “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” was going to be a party Jay-Z song, it’s better that it wasn’t. Jay finds the melancholy in the “Take ’em to church”-sound of the song’s central sample and uses it to indict everyone — from fellow rappers to former friends on the corner — hating on successful rappers. “Respect the game/ That should be it,” Jigga asserts, even as West’s sample belays that possibility. -Chris Bosman
App to Download: OKCupid — Jay might not have it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find love.
6. “Brooklyn’s Finest”
This is some WWE shit goin’ on here: Two of Brooklyn’s biggest names together in the ring. Prior to his 1997 murder, Notorious B.I.G.and Jigga rocked the ring together under the guidance of Clark Kent and the power of The Ohio Players, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and DePalma’s other classic, Carlito’s Way. Creative chemicals aside, this is one of those rare occasions where the beat simply fades away, allowing the two dominant vocals to just go at it. And they do. Biggie’s stone cold imagery (“Shoot your daughter in the calf muscle / Fuck a tussle, nickel-plated / Sprinkle coke on the floor, make it drug-related”) coupled with Jay’s rookie braggadocio (“I’m from Marcy, I’m varsity, chump, you’re J.V”) make for a great arms exchange. “Stuff of legends,” your Uncle Morty might gush about Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali; consider this your retort. -Michael Roffman
App to Download: Brooklyn Nets app — Because really, they’re going to be the best thing the burrough can offer in the next year.
5. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”
Jay-Z recorded his MTV Unplugged set in late 2001, after delivering “Takeover” and the indisputably classic The Blueprint. Jay doesn’t open it with one of his old standards, nor does he open it by doubling down on his Nas diss. Instead, he opens it with the Kanye West-produced “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”. The Roots bring live strings and an slightly increased tempo to the Jackson 5 flip, giving it an increased sense of urgency to “getting your damn hands up.” Giving “Izzo” leadoff position was a comment on that song’s immediacy and timelessness. It was the song that launched Kanye West’s career and gave Jay his first top 10 single. There was no greater track to illustrate the God MC’s “life story told through rap.” -Chris Bosman
App to Download: WhoSampled — Because everyone should know what those strings are from.
4. “Big Pimpin'”
If you don’t know the song, you know the beat. In April 2000, it was everywhere: MTV, sporting events, mainstream pop radio, the MIDI ringtone for your cousin’s cell phone, hell, even Jim Carrey sung it. That Middle Eastern groove, which Timbaland extracted from Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi’s “Khosara”, was so addicting it bordered on unhealthy. And yet, it was a culturally relevant moment for the genre: Brooklyn’s finest introduced Southern hip-hop to the masses, and without pasteurizing the grease, the filth, or the histrionics. With verses by Bun B and the late Pimp C, aka UGK, Jigga kept things raw and dirty, spitting classy imagery like having his “fists in cuffs” or keeping a reserve of women “’til I need a nutt, ’til I need to beat the guts.”
It’s not that any of this is profound, but it’s hilarious to imagine (and see) American youth championing the corner. It’s since opened up a much deeper and grimier womb that’s birthed similar pop classics by Ludacris, 2 Chainz, Killer Mike, etc. Perhaps that explains Jay’s regrets, as he’s previously dismissed the track, stating: “Some [lyrics] become really profound when you see them in writing. Not ‘Big Pimpin”. That’s the exception. It was like, I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh.” Whatever, Hova. -Michael Roffman
App to Download: Pimp Hand — Pimpin’ ain’t easy and “shit, I part with nothing, y’all be fronting.”
3. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
There was a time when people weren’t entirely sure that Shawn Carter was going to separate himself from the man who made his name, Mr. Biggie Smalls. And while Reasonable Doubt and, to a lesser extent, Vol. 1 assuaged some of those doubts, it was really “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” that assured the public that Jay-Z was both his own man and the next major, chart-topping New York City rapper. Jigga’s flow plays tricks here, making hard turns, twisting around on itself, and when Hov does go straightforward, he’s delivering lines like “When my situation ain’t improvin’/ I’m tryin’ ta murder everything movin’.” The production is classic ’90s NYC rap, but instead of pulling the standard Nas trick of sampling some classic strings, Jay decides to cast himself as little orphan Annie. Only a man who knew he was going to be on top would have the stones to even try that, much less pull it off. -Chris Bosman
Download: Evernote — If your life is really that hard knock, get your shit organized.
2. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
Jay-Z wasn’t just self-choreographing when he introduced his combination megahit/resilience tutorial “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” to the world; he was planting a seed right in the heart of pop music’s symbolism garden. For years, the significance of that double-wrist-flick germinated on basketball and racquetball courts worldwide, eventually growing full bloom during a certain presidential campaign speech in 2008. Still, the gesture is a convenient shorthand for the track itself, the sheer essence of nonchalance. Whether through the single-bar rhyming concision of “Like a wrestler/ Yessir” or its ultra-punctuated, ultra-muted Timbaland beat, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” embodies the art of silencing the enemy with as little energy as possible. -Steven Arroyo
App to Download: FarmVille — For turning that ripe soil on your shoulder into some profitable produce.
1. “99 Problems”
“You crazy for this one, Rick!” Jay-Z shouts somewhere on the backend of “99 Problems”. And Jigga wasn’t lying. The centerpiece of Jay-Z’s faux retirement record, The Black Album, “99 Problems” was every immaculately spaced, aggressively produced blast of old-school hip-hop minimalism given the Spinal Tap treatment: turned up to 11. The hits scream out of car speakers. The percussion cures Bruce Dickinson’s cowbell fever. And Jay-Z smiles through the entire song, confidently navigating the enormous blasts of guitar noises.
Jigga himself is just as crazy. He’s telling critics to “kiss his whole asshole,” burns bridges with rap magazines, denies being with Beyoncé even while “Crazy in Love” was on the radio, mocks the NYPD, takes on DAs and the paparazzi, and actually says the line “This is not a ho in the sense of havin’ a pussy/ But a pussy havin’ no God damn sense.” “99 Problems” is Hov’s best song because of the audacity of both its players pushed to the extreme, all in the service of a truly great radio hit. -Chris Bosman
App to Download: White Noise — Stress relief for at least 97 of those problems.