Ranking Jay-Z albums

He kept going after 2003, releasing a 2006 comeback that’s better than I remembered, a soundtrack called American Gangster that I overrated but sounds fine, and more product, some of which, like Watch the Throne, deserves a third listen.. As he ossifies into a scion, it’s hard to remember how thin, tall, and fearsome he presented himself in 1997, the most impregnable of surfaces. He remains so, unassailable as representative of how far a black artist can go. For a while his approval ratings were higher than Barack Obama’s. 

1. Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

“Big Pimpin'” overshadows the triumph of Jay-Z’s 1999 blockbuster, on which Swizz Beats, Premier, and Just Blaze provide beats up to Jay’s increasingly plush verses. “Dope Man” and “Watch Me” rank among his freshest boasts, and “There’s Been a Murder” among his most chilling narratives. With the help of Memphis Bleek and Amil, Life and Times of S. Carter has the bluntness of a testimony. If Jay-Z were less self-assured in public, I’d think he was a sociopath. He engages nobody. His defenses are impenetrable. That’s why the Mariah Carey appearance on “Things That U Do” results in the album’s only wince-making moment: his prowess has her cooing, he doesn’t notice her; Carey is a luxury, earned after three years of effort without strain.

2. Reasonable Doubt (1996)

On his debut Sean Carter was holding his own against Biggie Smalls on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” the hip-hop equivalent of young Eric Clapton playing with Jeff Beck. Swathed in nostalgia by longtime fans who regard the last fifteen years of pseudo-comebacks and Davos-level insularity, Reasonable Doubt deserves its rep for capturing the glint of Jay-Z’s ambition when the artist looked like another comer in a Manhattan studio. “Regrets” turns out to be a joke on the audience: if he’s had a few, he keeps the emotional wringing to himself, preferring the granularity of his narrative (“I sold it all from crack to o-pium, in third person/I don’t wanna see em, so I’m rehearsin'” is one of his greatest couplets). As a point of comparison, the Stylistics sample in “Politics as Usual,” folded into the beat by Ski Beatz, doesn’t lead to the ebullient climax that the Mtume one in Biggie’s “Juicy” does; the way it loops on itself adduces the inevitability of Jay’s conquest.

3. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)

His best-selling album bangs and rattles the hardest. The obnoxious title track got the airplay, but it’s Irv Gotti and Lil’ Rob’s beats on “Can I Get A…” that suited Miami radio the best during the late Cretaceous — I mean, Clinton Period. Listen carefully informed by twenty years of boasts, ventures, and ubiquity and the likes of “Ride or Die” and “Money, Cash, Hoes” offer little but a technical command remarkable for being improvised on the mike. “Coming of Age (Da Sequel)” removes the syntactical density of one of the Wu’s stories about corners, with Memphis Bleek in the role of enthusiast and junior partner and Jay as serene sensei (weed and Hennessy, rest assured, never got Jay’s mind going). No one will remember in the streaming age, but the Jermaine Dupri track “Money Ain’t a Thang” was consigned to extra track status.

4. The Blueprint (2001)

With or without Beyonce Knowles, Jay couldn’t get away with “Girls, Girls Girls” in 2018, particularly the indignation he puts into the slur “Ms Fu-Fu” (and Q-Tip sounds like a hostage). The first of his albums I owned, The Blueprint gets by on concision and the samples interwoven by a young talent named Kanye West. “Never Change,” “Song Cry,” and the Nas civil war track “Takeover” make his best-ever list; “Renegade” is the first time a young whelp outdid him in prowess, even though this Eminem-produced track positions itself as the equivalent of a Satriani solo.

5. The Black Album (2003)I

Remember when this was supposed to be the finale? Maybe someone demanded introspection from Sean Carter; he responded with the Em-produced “Moment of Clarity,” which is a moment, sure, but not clear, except revealing that he would not have wanted to be Talib Kweli, especially if it meant sales at the level of a Talib Kweli. The depth of the self-mythology is unsurpassed; consider, only Jay-Z in 2003 could have ended a career with an album this grandiloquent and crass that earned back its advance so soon. “Justify My Thug” remains a vile peace of work, and the Neptunes hook in “Change Clothes,” coming after The Blueprint 2.0’s “Excuse Me, Miss,” sounds parched. Yet The Black Album works anyway: four years after its release, Barack Obama made “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” into slogan and meme.

6. 4:44 (2017)

Then suddenly he discovered he could notice other people: his lesbian mother, the wife he’d hurt, the child he loved. The emphases don’t deepen my responses beyond appreciating his and No I.D.’s arrangements. The succinctness of 4:44 is a breakthrough, befitting a scion whose refusal to linger on painful moments he raises to an act of courtesy. Like Bush v. Gore, no one can cite 4:44 as precedent.

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