46. Jay-Z, 'Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life'
Jay-Z took the pay cut from big-time hustler to MC in stride, spitting his smooth-criminal genius in a string of dense poetics about dealing the stuff, escaping the feds and dripping in diamonds all the way to the bank. It makes no difference whether he samples Annie or Talking Heads — Jigga makes every track his own with massive boasts, state-of-the-art flows, vivid underworld portraits drawn in a handful of words — "On the run-by/Gun-high/One eye closed/Left holes/Through some guy clothes...." With one album, he released more classics than most MCs release in a career. The case for best MC in the post-B.I.G. era was closed.