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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

Is Jay-Z the greatest rapper of all time? “I’ve got this Elvis thing going on right here,” Jay-Z told Rolling Stone in 2007 shortly before tying the King’s record of 10 albums debuting at Number One (and well before notching four more in the following decade). Indeed, Jay-Z’s feats are many: 21 Grammys, toasted by Barack Obama as the first rapper in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and represented in countless rappers’ Top Fives (Kendrick Lamar, T.I., J. Cole among them; and Lil Wayne has a Jay-Z verse tattooed on his leg). He looms large in skills, impact, business acumen: the cool yet distant image of a former street hustler, a flow that’s both technically advanced and pop savvy and an unimaginable wealth that Forbes and other publications struggle to calculate. Yet even among the musical largess that comprises Jay, some of his classic songs rise above others. Here’s our list of his 50 greatest.

22

“Friend or Foe” (1996)

“Getting on a Primo beat at the time Jay-Z got on a Primo beat for the first time was the equivalent of driving a Ferrari or something like that,” Elizabeth Mendez Berry told Zach O’Malley Greenburg for the 2011 biography Empire State of Mind. “It was a moment of arriving.” Premier may have not dominated the Billboard charts like Puff Daddy and Dr. Dre, but he was the most respected among NYC hip-hop producers, and his three contributions to Reasonable Doubt were a sign of Jay’s rising stock. Unlike “D’Evils” and its mordant tale of a friend’s betrayal, Premier’s beat for “Friend or Foe” was buoyant with Blaxploitation funk, and Jay-Z responded with a short, off-the-cuff verse that sounds strikingly humorous by comparison. “I need those keys/And a promise that you’ll never/No matter the weather/Ever-ever-ever-ever-ever-ever come around here no mo’,” he ends with a smirk as he repurposes a Chris Tucker line from the 1995 classic Friday.    

21

“D’Evils” (1996)

Unlike some of the other tracks on Reasonable Doubt, “D’Evils” is clearly a work of fiction, one both inspired by Snoop Dogg’s 1994 gem “Murder Was the Case” – Snoop’s “Dear God, I wonder can you save me” forms part of producer DJ Premier’s scratched-out chorus – as well as the Mafioso trend overtaking NYC rap. Over three increasingly bleak verses, Jay observes coldly how “none of my friends speak,” then kidnaps the baby mother of his closest pal. He seduces her with sex and money and then, after extracting enough information to betray his homie, kills her in cold blood. “My soul is possessed by D’Evils in the form of diamonds and Lexuses,” he raps. The horrorcore vibes of “D’Evils” serves as metaphor for Jay’s years spent hustling in the streets. In Decoded, he writes, “The first defense of a lot of people who take the criminal route is that they had no choice, which is almost true: Most of us had choices, but the choices were bleak.” He adds, “This reflects the way I actually thought: I ignored my God-given ability, never believing that someone from where I came from could make it out.”

20

“Money, Cash, Hoes” feat. DMX (1999)

Kaseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean was just the teenage nephew of the founders of Ruff Ryders Entertainment when he got the chance to work on chart-topping albums by DMX in 1998. By the end of the year, artists outside the label wanted Swizz’s simplistic but hard-hitting beats. And his first collaboration with Jay-Z was the result of the young producer just kidding around with the beat’s outlandish riff. “The song started as a joke with me sliding my hand across a keyboard, just bugging,” Swizz told Complex. But Jay took the beat seriously enough to elevate the track with suave wordplay like “Only wife of mines is a life of crime/And since life’s a bitch in miniskirts and big chest/How can I not flirt with death?” 

19

“Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (2004)

By this time, producer’s Timbaland’s rhythms were still so avant-garde, he jokingly asked Jay-Z in Fade to Black whether the rapper was “confused” by his beats. What came out of their Black Album sessions, though, was immediate enough to resonate for years. “I think when Tim played the track early on, it had like a brushing sound on it. I started messing with lyrics about brushing off haters,” Jay said in The Hits Collection Vol. 1 liner notes. An actual radio takeover played out in the song’s video. In reality, not only did “Dirt” become one of his biggest hits, but it even had Barack Obama following his lead during the 2008 Democratic primaries. 

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?”

17

Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Otis” (2011)

“Otis” began as a direct challenge from Kanye West’s longtime collaborator No I.D, according to XXL. “I get the co-productions, but how you gon’ do an album and you don’t go to the machine and do one beat by yourself?” the producer told West upon arriving at New York’s Mercer Hotel where he and Jay had set up a makeshift studio to record Watch the Throne. West bolted to his MPC, began chopping up a slow refrain from Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” and flipped an iconic soul song into something stabbing, brash and gruff. The song introduced the world to the term “luxury rap” and Jay opened it by declaring, “I invented swag.” But for a onetime hustler who’d run with a broke crew who “wanted to pretend we weren’t,” flaunting his wealth was always a more nuanced proposition. “It’s not, like, ‘We’re here! We’re balling harder than everybody,'” Jay told GQ of his and Kanye’s lyrics on “Otis” “When you’re accustomed to wealth, you don’t show it, right?” he’d later explain to Vanity Fair. “That’s why the white kids in school could wear bummy sneakers; it’s almost like, Don’t show wealth – that’s crass.”

16

“I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” (2000)

“I [had] ‘Parking Lot [Pimpin’]’ up and running [as the first single],” Jay-Z told MTV in 2000. “I was all ready to go with it but the next day I made this song and it was just the vibe. The vibe of everyone in the studio … the immediate reaction, people were singing it by the time the second hook came on.” With Pharrell operating as a Curtis Mayfield for a hip-hop era of radio dominance, “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” was a brighter, cheerier Jay than the rapper was previously known for – and became his biggest pop hit to that point. The Neptunes production had a slick bounce, its scraping percussion, skipping bass and trademark guitar accents a spare, understated canvas for Jay’s in-the-moment lyrics of partying in a carefree context, singing along to Carl Thomas at karaoke and indulging in a new world of appreciation for designer labels – all helping usher in a new kind of jet-setting lifestyle music.

15

“4:44” (2017)

In the wake of Jay-Z being called out for his infidelities on wife Beyoncé’s instant-classic Lemonade, he approached them head-on with the title track to his 13th album. “I went and made a piece of music that would box him in to telling that story,” album producer No I.D told Rolling Stone. “I remember [Jay-Z] just looking at me, sighing. ‘O.K., I’m going home.'” Exhibiting a weakness and vulnerability long lurking but never revealed in such a deliberate fashion, Jay rapped of his misdeeds, “And if my children knew/I don’t even know what I would do/If they ain’t look at me the same/I would probably die with all the shame.” He’d awakened at 4:44 a.m. to write the song. “It’s the title track because it’s such a powerful song, and I just believe one of the best songs I’ve ever written,” he told iHeartRadio.

14

“Intro/A Million and One Questions/Rhyme No More” (1997)

Two years before his debut album, Jay linked up with DJ Premier on Big Daddy Kane’s 1994 posse cut “Show and Prove” and ever since, the Gang Starr producer has created some of the rapper’s most indelible tracks. Primo speeds up Aaliyah’s “One in a Million” and R&B singer Latimore’s infectious piano groove on “Let Me Go” to anchor Jay’s ruminations on intrusiveness (“A Million and One Questions”) before flipping the song into the mellow arrogance of “Rhyme No More.” “Back then, to edit it we had to splice the tape and put it together,” Premier told Complex of the medley in 2011. “You mess up on a punch and you have to re-cut it. On Pro Tools, you just press undo. But Jay-Z trusts me. He’ll just lay his vocals, and says, ‘Do the Premier thing.'”

13

“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” (2001)

“Diamond D, Pete Rock, RZA and Primo were doing [soul samples] since a long time ago – we just helped bring that style back,” Kanye West told Vibe in 2004. His beat for “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” uses a chunk of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s plush 1974 funk ballad “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” which Jay dialogues with when he snaps, “Where’s the love?” after the hook. The beat came from a pivotal period for the still-emerging West: The beat CD he gave Jay for The Blueprint not only had this, but the beat for the album’s “Never Change,’ the beat that became the basis for State Property’s “Got Nowhere” and the beat that became Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name.'” Jay’s process for laying down the song’s acid-tipped verses was simple and quick: “In the studio, the ‘Fiesta (Remix)’ video came on TV,” West recalls, “and Jay walked into the booth, started recording, finished the entire song all the way to the outro, and came back in the studio. The video was still on.”

12

“Takeover” (2001)

Jay-Z’s third year headlining Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam would have made headlines anyway: Besides Missy Elliott and Beanie Sigel performing snippets of signature tracks, Jay brought out none other than Michael Jackson to say hi. However the preview of “Takeover,” a diss track aimed at the hardcore New York rap crew Mobb Deep and Jay’s longtime foil Nas, had the longest-lasting effects in the hip-hop world. Jay’s poison-pen takedown hovers over Kanye West’s sinister beat, which uses a stew of samples from the Doors, KRS-One and David Bowie to create an ominous atmosphere for Jay’s meticulous dissection of why, exactly, he’s the superior man to Nas in particular. Jay even goes so far as to claim that his samples of Nas on two previous works weren’t done as an homage; but as a corrective: “So yeah I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong/You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song,” The Jay/Nas beef became one of rap’s most famous, resulting in more back-and-forth potshots (including Nas’ 2001 milestone “Ether”) until a 2005 concert at Continental Airlines Arena (then the home of the partially Jay-owned New Jersey Nets). While the show had been dubbed “I Declare War,” Jay had other intentions: “All that beef shit is done, we had our fun,” Jay told the crowd. “Let’s get this money.” He later brought Nas on stage, where the two embraced and performed “Dead Presidents” – one of the Nas-sampling songs Jay referenced in 2001.

11

Freeway feat. Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, “What We Do” (2003)

“Jay-Z was so impressed with [Freeway],” wrote Rolling Stone of the rapper in 2003, “he told listeners of Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 radio show in New York that he’d match money with anyone willing to make a wager on Freeway’s rapping skills should they be foolish enough to want to battle him. Of course, nobody was.” Freeway joined the Roc-A-Fella roster after fellow Philadelphian Beanie Sigel. For his breakout single, Freeway’s new boss set him up for success. The rapper’s original plan was for Jay to repeat “Keep goin’,” as heard about 30 seconds into “What We Do.” Instead he got more than he bargained for, as Hov paused his pool game to record his endorsement of a verse. “He actually wasn’t finished. He dapped me up and said, ‘I’mma come back and finish the rest of the verse later,'” Freeway said to HipHopSince1987

10

Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris” (2011)

On its face, Watch the Throne‘s most ubiquitous stadium anthem, and the song Jay-Z and Kanye performed a record setting 12 times in a row during a single concert, is pure camp. Call it the platinum rappers’ brass-balled toast to over-the-top opulence like, say, camping out for six days at the five-star Le Merurice hotel in Paris to create it. But amid West’s goofy “hah?!,” and all the Audemars and the Margiela jackets, this Top 10 single is really a deep sigh of relief. “If you escaped what I’ve escaped/You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too,” Jay intones with palpable glee. “It’s like, ‘I’m shocked that we’re here.’ Still being amazed, still not being jaded,” Jay would tell GQ of the inspiration behind the Hitboy-produced banger. “I’ve known so many people that didn’t make it. Most people can look at a picture of the kids they grew up with and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah – Adam went away to Harvard.’ This is a whole different conversation.”

9

“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” (1998)

For Jay-Z’s first single to break into the Top 15 of the pop charts, producer Mark “The 45 King” famously flipped an indelible tune from the Annie Broadway soundtrack – he copped the record from the Salvation Army for a quarter after seeing an ad on TV. He gave a dubplate to Kid Capri, who was DJing Puff Daddy’s No Way Out Tour. “Fans were running up saying, ‘How did you get the Annie song behind the drums?’ It was mostly white people coming up to me,” Capri told Grantland. “I knew from the reaction I was getting that it was really working.” Eventually Jay asked too, and thus began this monster hit, a vivid, melancholy look at his rise from “from lukewarm to hot; sleepin’ on futons and cots/to king size.” “I wasn’t worried about the clash between the hard lyrics and the image of redheaded Annie,” Jay wrote in Decoded. “Instead, I found the mirror between the two stories – that Annie’s story was mine, and mine was hers, and the song was the place where our experiences weren’t contradictions, just different dimensions of the same reality.”