Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter is widely known as the best rapper alive. Back in 2003, on what was supposed to be his retirement album, the Brooklyn-born emcee rapped, “Never been a n**ga this good for this long,” and over 20 years later, he’s still relevant. Today, the highly touted rapper is known just as much for his work as a philanthropist and entrepreneur. With 13 studio albums spanning almost 30 years, it’s safe to say there’s nothing left for the dynamic wordsmith to prove.
It’s hard to believe that the “99 Problems” emcee had difficulty securing a record deal for his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. The lack of suitors for his classic project helped Carter and his team build Roc-A-Fella Records into one of Hip Hop’s most storied independent labels.
Fast forward to today, his music has allowed him to open doors to create a successful spirits company, sports agency, music label and much more. In 2023, The Brooklyn Library dedicated a tribute exhibition titled “The Book Of Hov” that was set to recognize his journey from a street hustler in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects to a global icon. The exhibit was open from July 14 to Dec. 4, 2023, the extraordinary emcee’s 54th birthday.
Ranking albums from one of the greatest of all time is no small task, but this list tries to do the impossible. Check out the ranking of JAY-Z’s 13 solo albums below.
13. Kingdom Come
Lead singles like “Kingdom Come” and the commercial leaning “Show Me What You Got” proved that the “Heart of the City” emcee could still go bar for bar with the best of them, but most of the album cuts left fans yearning for more.
Outside of his Chrisette Michelle-assisted drop “Lost Ones,” there were not many records that could bring the replay value that Hov is known for. Even features with legends like Pharrell, John Legend, Beyoncé and Usher fell short compared to their other collaborations. If JAY-Z is Hip Hop’s Michael Jordan, Kingdom Come is akin to Jordan’s Washington Wizards era. Flashes of greatness were there, but it was nothing like his other runs.
12. The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse
Clocking in at a whopping 25 tracks, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed LP, Blueprint, features a star-studded cast including Lenny Kravitz, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Rakim, Faith Evans and even The Notorious B.I.G. The main critique of this album is that it is too long and that the lows are pretty forgettable in comparison with the exceptional highs. Many fans thought that there needed to be more hits to justify keeping so many records.
“Excuse Me Miss” and “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” featuring Beyoncé provided classic smashes that helped secure countless radio plays and support on all of the major video networks — coming off the heels of what is widely considered one of his best bodies of work.
11. The Blueprint 3
The Blueprint 3 is one of the most exciting projects in his career for more reason than one. BP3 was the only time he allowed his album to be a springboard for upcoming talent while attempting to establish himself as an elder statesman on multiple tracks. His declaratory song “Death of Autotune” was a good idea in theory, but the digital voice enhancement tool only grew in popularity following his project.
BP3 is also Hov’s only album where his collaborator outshined his contributions on multiple records. Whether it be Rihanna and Kanye’s phenomenal performance on “Run This Town,” Alicia Keys‘ instant classic hook on “Empire State of Mind,” or even Mr. Hudson on “Forever Young,” each artist seemingly carried their respective tracks.
10. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
The Dynasty features JAY-Z’s best album intro track. The ominous production and lyrical exercises throughout the project helped create an exciting project for fans of Roc-A-Fella to get something from each act. Memphis Bleek, Beanie Siegel, Scarface, R. Kelly and Freeway all joined in on the 16-track album. The Dynasty is the dream scenario for a group project in school where everyone brings their A-game. The feature-heavy project showcased Hov’s ability to recognize talent and feel confident that he still shines through the brightest even when he shares his spotlight.
9. Magna Carta… Holy Grail
Magna Carta… Holy Grail was one of JAY-Z’s best-executed rollouts. To circumvent the failing physical music space, the “Picasso Baby” rapper paired with Samsung to deliver his album for free to one million users through their phones. This genius move allowed his innovative project to go platinum on the first day.
The 16-song album featured his Justin Timberlake-assisted “Holy Grail,” “Oceans” with Frank Ocean, “F**kWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” featuring Rick Ross, a rare collaboration with Nas and one of the best songs he’s ever made with his wife: “Part II (On The Run).” While some of the records lacked relatability and seemed out of touch with his day one fans, it kept up with what his life was becoming as he continued to rise to the top of society’s social classes.
8. Vol. 3… Life and Times Of S. Carter
Vol. 3 is unique because JAY-Z was steadfast within a world of shiny suits and flashy videos. Although the project felt like a continuation of the foundation he set before, his growth as a certified hitmaker and willing collaborator helped him bridge the gap from New York City to the south. Album standouts like “Big Pimpin’” featuring UGK and “Snoopy Track” felt like reaches at the time, but helped fans of the fast-growing genre accept the reality that southern rappers were joining the party. JAY-Z maintained his signature flow while experimenting with different productions, which helped his album stand tall amongst heavyweights like Juvenile, Lauryn Hill and DMX, who dropped the same year.
7. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
The sample-heavy, triumphant-sounding project heavily influenced by the sound of his fallen friend and collaborator Biggie, established alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs. The cocky flows and intense bravado paired well with the dialed-back production that featured samples from his childhood. Vol. 1 dove deeper into Hov’s war stories as a young hustler from Marcy Projects than his famous debut. “You Must Love Me,” “Where I’m From” and “The City Is Mine” paid homage to his beloved home while also helping the talented rapper come into his own as not only an emcee but an entrepreneur.
4:44 is JAY-Z’s most stripped-back album as far as bells and whistles. The lyrical therapy session was an in-depth look at the mindset of a man who has it all, but was dealing with the pain of almost losing what means the most to him due to flying too close to the sun. While many details of JAY-Z and Bey’s relationship have been kept close to the chest, Beyonce’s Lemonade bared all to the public, seemingly forcing Hov to recount the experience on wax for the world to piece together.
Everything around the project was focused on transparency and growth. Sometimes, it takes almost losing something to understand how much it meant to you. His allusions to certain rumors are the closest fans will ever get to the full story of what happened. The reflective project became a safe space for fans maturing with their favorite artist over 20 years after Reasonable Doubt.
5. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
“Hard Knock Life” may be one of JAY-Z’s most impactful songs. Even the story of how he got the Annie sample cleared perfectly illustrates exactly who he is: A charming creative who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. Cult classics like “Reservoir Dogs,” “Can I Get A” and “Money Ain’t A Thang” with Jermaine Dupri separated him as one of the greatest songwriters of his class.
“A Week Ago” featuring Too Short was a rare collaboration with the West Coast while tensions were thick between the two sides. Lastly, “Money, Cash, H**s” with DMX showed him going toe-to-toe with the most considerable force in Hip Hop at the time. Vol. 2 further proves that the third time is a charm in all aspects of life.
4. American Gangster
JAY-Z’s first attempt at a concept album with American Gangster was gold from start to finish. The unofficial movie soundtrack to the classic Denzel Washington film shows Hov putting himself in the shoes of the legendary drug dealer Frank Lucas.
The project discusses the highs and lows experienced by a high-level kingpin who loses it all after feeling like nothing in life could ever stop them. “Roc Boys,” “Ignorant S**t” and “Say Hello” are highlights of the smooth, easy-to-digest product. With lush production and classy verses, Hov could fully immerse himself in Lucas’ character and produce one of his best bodies of work. “I Know” and “Party Life” are regarded as some of his best work to this day.
3. The Black Album
Can you imagine if The Black Album was JAY-Z’s last album? Well, that was initially the goal after the instant classic was released. The rapper-turned-entrepreneur felt he had given everything he could to Hip Hop and was excited to lean deeper into his dreams of conquering the corporate world. “What More Can Say” and “Encore” felt final, but no one wanted to accept that this was the end. Not even him.
With top-tier production and intricate bars, tracks like “Lucifer’,” “99 Problems” and “Public Service Announcement” are tracks that only the Brooklyn bar spitter could create. The Black Album was a concise 14-track LP with no skips.
2. The Blueprint
The Blueprint may be JAY-Z’s most significant album. The project dropped on Sept. 11, 2001 and sold almost 500,000 copies in its first week. Starting off with “The Rule’s Back” and “Takeover,” JAY-Z addressed all of his detractors in one single swoop.
Clocking in just above an hour, Hov solidified his stance as the greatest rapper in the world with a bevy of sample flips courtesy of Kanye West. “Heart of the City,” “Song Cry” and “Renegade” featuring Eminem are standouts, but the album is strong throughout. Since LL Cool J, Hip Hop hadn’t seen one of it’s best lyricists also be it’s best song maker. The Blueprint coincidentally established Hov as the best at what he does. Songs for the backpack rap fans, songs for the ladies and songs for the fans of radio friendly bops were all fed with his 2001 masterpiece.
1. Reasonable Doubt
Reasonable Doubt is JAY-Z’s best album because it is the one he had the most time to create. Everything in his 26 years of life prior to the project’s release served as content to discuss in his street coded debut album. Oddly enough, the project was not critically acclaimed upon release, but as his career progressed, fans grew an appreciation for the 1996 release.
In the late ’90s, it was clear what character every rapper wanted to be. For that reason, JAY-Z stood out because it was unclear if he wanted to accept the role of the villain or the hero. He decided to choose neither, but only be himself.
His street tales and regional lingo still found a way to pierce the hearts and minds of hustlers across the country. He had the lyricism of Nas but the ability to make hits like Biggie Smalls. He could make radio friendly records while also getting introspective on tracks like “Can I Live” and “Regrets.”
Reasonable Doubt is the purest form of JAY-Z that fans will ever get because this was the album he had to make on his own without any outside influences. It was intended to be Hov’s first and only album. Therefore, he put everything he had in the 16-track LP. Thankfully for us, he decided that it was just the beginning.