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Worst To Best: Every JAY-Z Album Ranked

(By: BoomBox Staff for

JAY-Z drops his first album in four years on June 30 and as fans clamor for the Brooklyn rapper’s latest, it’s the perfect time to revisit his lengthy catalog.

From Reasonable Doubt to The Black Album, Jay has delivered some truly classic LPs over the course of a 20+ year career. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything he ever put his name on was gold. But the beauty of longevity is following the ups and downs–everybody is hit and miss. The intriguing thing about Jay’s discography is even his “misses” are relatively interesting, but his best stuff is what truly cements his status as one of the greatest of all time.

In anticipation for the release of 4:44, Jay has been hosting listening parties across the country. Not much is known about Jay’s album other than veteran hitmaker No I.D. produced the entire project. Jay reportedly is working on a music video for the album as well, which was shot near the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, N.Y. In addition, JAY-Z will embark on a tour in support of the album in the fall.

In the meantime, here’s our look at the discography of Shawn Carter. He’s been telling us about his life and times for a generation. And it’s obvious we still can’t get enough of listening.

Watch DJ Khaled’s Video for “I Got the Keys” with JAY-Z, Future:

No. 18 Collision Course w/Linkin Park (2004)

2004 was a strange time. Rap-rock’s popularity had rapidly declined, and Jay was supposedly in retirement following success of The Black Album and Fade To Black Tour. Nonetheless, he released this clunky mashup EP with nu metal heroes Linkin Park. Jointly produced by Jay and LP’s Mike Shinoda, the project was commercially successful but was also almost immediately irrelevant. The “Numb/Encore” single won a Grammy, but this remains the most inessential official release of Jay’s career.

No. 17 Unfinished Businessw/R. Kelly (2004)

We may never truly understand why anyone thought this was necessary. The follow-up album to Jay’s hamstrung 2002 collaboration with Kellz, this project was both artists’ attempt to reclaim the momentum from their previous outing–which had been dampened by Kelly’s pending child pornography case. They would have been better letting sleeping dogs lie, as this follow-up led to a very public falling out between the two that was never truly repaired. As for the music, it’s predictably uninspired; the two never actually recorded together and Jay sounds bored.

No. 16 Kingdom Come (2006)

Ending his “retirement” after three years, Jay dropped his ninth official studio album to a tremendous amount of hype and fanfare. Unfortunately, fans were left lukewarm with this comeback effort, which sported strong singles like “Show Me What You Got” and “Lost One,” but also presented an aging Hov who seemed to be out of touch with a base that was slightly younger than the one he’d left. Half of the album felt like Jay was trying too hard–the rest like he wasn’t trying anywhere near hard enough. Bad combination.

No. 15 Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

Heavily influenced by the “luxury rap” mantras of Watch the Throne, Jay’s successful 2011 collaboration with Kanye West, Magna Carta Holy Grail arrived with a wave of fanfare as Jay’s first official solo album in almost three years. Unfortunately the ad campaign surrounding the album was more inspired than the music on it, as fans complained about Jay’s opulence-driven raps, uninspired guest stars and lackluster production from vets like Timbaland.

No. 14 The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2003)

Following the home run that was 2001s The Blueprint proved to be a heady task–but one can’t fault JAY-Z for going in an altogether different direction. This double LP turned out to be one of the most ambitious albums Jay attempted–it’s a shame that his reach exceeds his grasp for the majority of the album. Like so many rap double albums, there’s an overabundance of mediocrity here–despite the inclusion of undeniable high points like “Meet the Parents” and “The Watcher, Pt. 2.” It was later reissues as The Blueprint 2.1, a trimmed version of the album. It almost felt like an apology.

No. 13 Best of Both Worlds w/R. Kelly (2002)

In the early 2000s, JAY-Z and R. Kelly were two of the most consistent hitmakers in urban music. They’d collaborated on smashes like “Fiesta” and “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” and Kellz believed the two recording an album together would be a world-changer. Things obviously got messy once Kelly was charged with 13 counts of child pornography around the same time promotion for the album began. The album itself isn’t bad–but it is mostly uninspired–especially when compared to Jay’s own solo efforts.

No. 12 The Blueprint 3 (2009)

The third (final?) installment in Jay’s “Blueprint” series was intended as a glorious statement as Hov headed into the 2010s, Unfortunately, the results are scattered; the front half of the album stands with some of the best music Jay made post-2003, but the second half gets mired in cliches and lukewarm ideas–most notably the half-baked and corny “Young Forever.” The overabundance of guest stars didn’t do much to help the album, either.

No. 11 Streets Is Watching (Sdtk) (1998)

The soundtrack to the straight-to-video musical mini-movie served two purposes: introduce the world to the vision of Roc-A-Fella Records circa 1998, and reaffirm Jay’s street cred after the pop-driven singles of 1997s In My Lifetime. In the latter, the album and movie were especially successful. “It’s Alright” became a radio hit, while tracks like “You’re A Customer” and the DMX and Ja Rule-assisted “Murdergram” made the “Sunshine” era of Jay Z a faint memory.

No. 10 Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

Billed alternately as an official JAY-Z album and as a compilation featuring the Roc-A-Fella roster of artists, the best songs here tend to be the ones that mostly function as Jay tracks. The only “outsiders” featured are Snoop Dogg, Scarface and R. Kelly; with most of the disc dedicated to Roc stars like Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek and Freeway. But most notably, this became the first showcase for up-and-coming producers, as Jay decided not to go back to hitmakers like Swizz Beatz and Timbaland–instead providing a platform for Just Blaze, Bink! and a then-unknown Kanye West.

No. 9 MTV Unplugged (2001)

Jay teamed up with the Roots for this well-received 2001 live album. Reimagining many of his hits (mostly tracks from the then-recently released Blueprint album) with Philly collective’s instrumental prowess as backing, Jay sounds invigorated by the change in format–and invites some scene-stealing guest performances from Mary J. Blige and Jaguar Wright.

No. 8 Vol. 3 The Life & Times of S. Carter (1999)

Following the blockbuster success of …Hard Knock Life, JAY-Z seemed to finally understand his formula: slick-but-street commercial singles coupled with hustler tales. He followed it to the letter on this 1999 follow-up, and the results were the same: monster singles like “Do It Again” and “Big Pimpin'” were inescapable, as album cuts like “So Ghetto” and “There’s Been A Murder” affirmed him as the mainstream’s most affecting street poet. But it wasn’t anything new–and despite the album’s reception, it seemed to indicate that Jay was content to play things safe to sustain his run of hits.

No. 7 In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)

Despite critical acclaim, Jay’s debut album Reasonable Doubt was not a commercial success, and in the wake of the 1997 murder of the Notorious B.I.G., there seemed to be a void at the top of New York rap. Jay clumsily announced himself as the heir to the throne, and released an album carried by singles that were more Ma$e than Marcy. Songs like “Sunshine” and “The City Is Mine” may have come to define the album for many, but this also features some of Jay’s most inspired street rap. But it all got lost in the gloss of the times, as fans wondered whether JAY-Z would ever truly get it “right” and deliver the kind of album that would cement his status.

No. 6 Watch the Throne w/Kanye West (2011)

What happens when the two biggest rappers in the world make an album together? Watch the Throne with Jay Z solidified Kanye as a rap superstar and next in line after his “Big Brother.” The collaborative album became a worldwide phenomenon, spearheaded by the massive international hit “N—-s in Paris,” and it galvanized Jay and Ye’s “luxury rap” ethos. Despite it’s unevenness, it became another commercial smash and sounded like two guys enjoying the fact that they’re on top of the game.

No. 5 American Gangster (2007)

After the underwhelming Kingdom Come, Jay needed to deliver something more inspired to cement his return to recording. He found his muse in the 2007 crime drama starring Denzel Washington as famed Harlem drug dealer Frank Lucas. Taking cues from the movie, JAY-Z would return to drug tales–albiet this time with a different conceit. Billed as a concept album inspired by the film, American Gangster featured some of Jay’s most engaging verses since his self-imposed retirement and some of the best production of his latter-day career.

No. 4 Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life (1998)

By 1998, Jay had become one of hip-hop’s most notable stars, but he hadn’t exactly vaulted to rap’s forefront. With DMX holding court as the game’s most exciting and omnipresent newcomer, and with the “Shiny Suit” trappings of 1997s In My Lifetime… still lingering, Jay revamped and refocused, delivering an album packed with enough hits for the radio and enough street stories to silence anyone who thought he was turning into Puff Daddy. This was the album that made JAY-Z a rap superstar and started him on the path to hip-hop domination.

No. 3 The Black Album (2003)

Hyped as his final album before his “retirement,” Jay made sure that this would be victory lap befitting hip-hop’s most high-profile hitmaker. He recruited a laundry list of the best producers: from Timbaland to Pharrell to DJ Quik to Just Blaze to Kanye West and 9th Wonder. He bypassed guest stars to focus on championing his own history and legacy. And the result was one of the most inspired and ambitious albums of his career. What could have been a scattershot salute to egotism turned into a sterling tribute to what makes JAY-Z who he is–and one of the most consistently listenable albums of the 2000s.

No. 2 Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Jay Z’s debut highlighted the ambitions of a young man born of struggle and raised in the crack era. Jay wasn’t fueled with the kind of rage that informed a 2Pac; nor was he wallowing in the kind of self-loathing that had defined Biggie; he could be angry, but Jay Z wasn’t hopeless. Reasonable Doubt is prophetic because Jay Z declared that he was going to win. He made it plain that he was one of the most unflinchingly capitalist artists in rap, and he made it clear that he wasn’t going to stop until he had New York City’s throne.

No. 1 The Blueprint (2001)

By 2001, Jay had amassed an enviable run of hits and platinum albums. But naysayers had picked apart his rise, taking shots at his commercial leanings and floss-obsessed image. Nas and Mobb Deep wound up galvanizing Jay, who fired back at both during a now-infamous set at Summer Jam that year. With his hit single “H.O.V.A. (Izzo)” burning up radio for months, Jay would release his sixth studio album on Sept. 11, 2001. Despite the tragedy of that day, it would become a smash hit and one of the year’s most critically-acclaimed releases. The album cemented Jay Z as 2000s rap’s alpha dog; announced both Just Blaze and a young Kanye West as hitmaking producers, became a touchstone for early 00s NYC rap and reinvigorated Nas, who would respond to Jay’s missives on his fiery single “Takeover” with his own acclaimed album, Stillmatic. The Blueprint stands as the most epochal album in Jay’s catalog and a watershed moment in his career; and it charted the course for mainstream hip-hop in the new millennium.

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