Reasonable Doubt (Roc-A-Fella, 1996)
    In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1997)
     Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1998)
     Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1999)
     The Dynasty: Roc La Familia 2000 (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2000)
      The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2001)
     MTV Unplugged (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2001)
    The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2002)
    The Blueprint 2.1 (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2003)
      The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2003)
    Kingdom Come (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2006)
     American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2007)
     The Blueprint 3 (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2009)

Although the late Biggie Smalls used to joke about going from "ashy to classy," his Brooklyn partner in rhyme, Jay-Z, would best embody that shift in style and station. Jay's early recordings, however, were anything but promising, supporting his mentor Jaz, supplying rapidfire backup rhymes throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties. Both Jaz and Jay's mile-a-minute flows were catnip to skills-obsessed rap nerds, but ultimately had no traction on the charts, culminating in with Jay's well-constructed yet unremarkable verse on 1993's "Can I Get Open?" by Original Flavor. At the time, Jay was a small-time hustler trying to make ends meet; "Open" gave him the boost he needed to begin working on his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. After shopping it to every major record company with no success, Jay and his business partner, Damon Dash, decided to form their own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, a move that would eventually make them very rich men.

To this day, Reasonable Doubt stands as one of rap music's essential albums, not to mention one of its greatest debuts. Like Biggie's Ready to Die, released two years earlier, it profoundly captures the inner life of the above-average corner kid, especially on songs like "Dead Presidents" and "Regrets." Hints of the good life to come were revealed on "Ain't No Nigga" (featuring a then-underage Foxy Brown), and Jay's lyrical dexterity was showcased on "22 Twos." The album also featured "Brooklyn's Finest," Jay's only recorded duet with Biggie, which shows two hungry talents seemingly aware that they had no one to outduel but each other.

Biggie was gunned down eight months before the release of Jay's second album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. The album seemed like a corrective measure in the opposite direction of Reasonable Doubt, bearing all the marks of an artist with his eye on a larger pop prize, to the detriment of his art. The dark ethos of his debut was missing almost entirely. Songs like "Imaginary Player" and "Rap Game Crack Game" had heart, but they were drowned by blatant attempts at radio crossover. "I Know What Girls Like" and "(Always Be My) Sunshine" not only found Jay thinning out his dense rhymes but also employing of-the-moment R&B-inflected production (courtesy of Puffy's stable of beatmakers) that may have earned him club play at the expense of credibility.

His next move seemed like a certain coffin-nailer: He sampled the theme song from the musical Annie and turned it into an inescapable summer pop-rap crossover hit. The result, the quirkily brilliant "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," took him from the ears of the cognoscenti to the disc—changers of casual rap fans and sent Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life to the upper reaches of the charts. But where many artists—rappers, especially—would have used this as a jumping-off point to an even more preposterous success, Jay aimed lower, and wisely so. Not particularly cut out for being a true pop artist, Jay used the remainder of Vol. 2 to showcase the skills that had earned him his reputation. If the production (thanks to Swizz Beatz and Timbaland) was glossier than on albums past, it didn't stop Jay from working his tongue in nimble fashion, and the tracks—such as "Nigga What, Nigga Who," "Money, Cash, Hoes," and "Can I Get A..."—were more sonically experimental and less formulaic than his prior attempts at shine.

Life & Times of S. Carter took this combination of style and substance to its apotheosis. In addition to maintaining a strong lyrical presence, Jay also showcased his talents as a master of flow, changing cadences and rhyme patterns with impressive regularity and flexibility. "So Ghetto," "Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)," "Big Pimpin'," "Dope Man": Nearly every track on this album was sonically unique, and Jay rode each one with aplomb and skill.

By contrast, his next great album (following the merely strong Dynasty: Roc La Familia) could have been construed as a one-trick pony. Among the few albums in the era of radio-friendly rap that consciously aimed for an all, The Blueprint is one of the few true coherent masterpieces. Thanks to the soul-drenched production work of then-rookies Just Blaze and Kanye West, Jay-Z was suddenly grappling with a worldview that surpassed his previous limits. Whether he was taking on rivals ("Takeover") or lamenting lost relationships ("Song Cry"), he sounded like he was coming from the same grounded, mature place, a talent few artists of any genre can access.

In 2001, Jay's celebrity status was confirmed with the filming of an Unplugged session, making him one of only a handful of rappers to ever be featured on the MTV show. Backed for the gig by the Roots, he used the forum to continue his squabble with Nas and Mobb Deep, but he also dug into his catalogue, revisiting "Can't Knock the Hustle," from his debut album, and mid-career classics like "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "I Just Wanna Luv U (Give It 2 Me)." The Unplugged album was modest in execution but long in achievement. Surprising, then, that Jay's next effort was the bloated Blueprint 2, the first true misstep of his career. The double album had barely enough strong songs ("Meet the Parents," "Excuse Me Miss," "A Dream") for an EP. And his quickly issued revision, Blueprint 2.1, slimmed to one disc with bonus tracks, was no better.

In 2003, Jay announced his "retirement," though few close to him thought this would hold. The Black Album, he said, would be his final bow as a recording artist, and so he recruited a virtual who's-who of great hip-hop producers to see him off. Kanye West ("Lucifer"), the Neptunes ("Change Clothes"), and Timbaland ("Dirt Off Your Shoulder") contributed songs, as did Eminem and, in a thrilling move, Rick Rubin, who's contribution, the bruising "99 Problems," would prove to be the album's most potent cut, and the most fitting one for Jay to ride into the sunset with. Old-school and utterly modern, it showed Jay at the top of his game, able to reinvent himself as a rap classicist at the right time, as if to cement his place in hip-hop's legacy for generations to come.

Although his hands were more than full with his new job as president of Def Jam Records, Jay-Z's "retirement" lasted about as long as Michael Jordan's. Jay-Z knew gangsta rap was kid's stuff and wanted to come back to the game as an full-grown CEO on Kingdom Come—rapping about good credit, smoking cigars, running companies and chilling in his beach chair. "Thirty's the new twenty," he boldly insisted, although his idea of "adult" wasn't always as assuring: For every bombastic, drum-rattling, "standing on top" anthem like "Show Me What You Got," there was as something as corny and ill-advised as "Hollywood" or his collabo with Coldplay's Chris Martin.

Jay must have chalked up Kingdom Come's mixed reviews to the idea that people weren't ready for "grown man rap," and so he spent the rest of the decade playing to his constituents. American Gangster is Jay-Z's return to gangsterisms (or, as he says, "that ignorant shit you like"), but is presented as a concept album loosely based on the Ridley Scott blockbuster about drug kingpin Frank Lucas. The beats are a delirious mix of prismatic soul horns, evocative Curtis Mayfield wails and chest-caving Beastie Boys boom, and on songs like the retro club-thumper "Roc Boys," Jay's hustler's laments are delivered with renewed gusto, as if he's suddenly remembered how to have fun.

By 2009, Southern mixtape machines and R&B-tinged MySpace superstars had officially superceded Jay's status as the biggest thing in rap, so he positioned himself as something bigger than rap itself, complete with U2-styled arena shows, a timeless "new Sinatra" cool and singles like "D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)," where he brushed off hip-hip trend-hoppers like dirt from his shoulder. His corresponding album, Blueprint 3, follows a lot of trends to a tee, copping the repeated-bar structure of Atlanta trap-rapper and scoring a guest appearance by newcomer-of-the-moment Drake. But Jay's rich friends contribute head-snapping beats (Kanye West and No I.D.'s "Run this Town," Swizz Beats' "On To the Next One"), and Jay's his Rat Pack posturing works wonders in spots—especially on the booming "Empire State Of Mind," a "New York, New York"-styled anthem which gave Jay his first number one single and made the first step toward conquering older, classic rock fans.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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