Jay-Z: 50 Greatest Songs

With a rhyme career going since the late Eighties, Jay-Z's songs have been reflective, pop, confessional, hard-edged and indelible. Here are his best

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18. "Can I Live" (1996)

In 1996, it seemed as if Isaac Hayes' early Seventies masterworks were everywhere, whether powering the Platinum soundtrack to the movie Dead Presidents, or informing much of the electronic-oriented hip-hop experiments known as "trip-hop." On "Can I Live," Hayes' sensual reimagining of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "The Look of Love" serves as an elegiac counterpoint for Jay-Z's anguished comparisons of a hustler's lust to a drug addict's paranoia. "The pain of a drug addict is visible," wrote Jay when he explained the "Can I Live" lyrics in his book Decoded. "The hustler has armor – money, ambition – that makes his pain less visible, less 'quick to see.' But just like a drug addict's 'brain on drugs' the hustler's brain is similarly fried, preparing for inevitable rainy days (precipitation), planning takeovers, stacking and climbing." As the penultimate Brooklyn hustler, Jay's stress over street politics manifests in fears of getting "toasted" by rivals, catching "amnesia" over the crimes he has committed and meditating "like a Buddhist" akin to Dr. Dre on N.W.A.'s "Express Yourself." "I'd rather die enormous than live dormant," he raps. It culminates in one of the most haunting choruses of the rapper's career: "Can I Live?"

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