Shawn Carter, AKA Jay-Z, was born December 4, 1969. He was raised in Marcy Houses, a housing project in Brooklyn, NY. He discovered a passion for music at a young age but became heavily involved in the streets as a crack cocaine dealer.
Jay’s involvement with the drug trade would end after a near-fatal brush with death. This encounter motivated him to go legit and pursue music.
Today, Jay-Z is considered by many as the greatest rapper of all time. His various accomplishments in music and business have made him a benchmark for success in Hip-Hop. After nearly 30 years and over 20 albums credited to his name, Jay-Z’s discography is one of the most celebrated in music, but here are his best albums:
Jay-Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt. was supposed to be his only album. The original plan was for him to release an album and act as an executive of Rocafella Records alongside friends and business partners Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke.
Released in June of 1996, Reasonable Doubt is a 15 track dissection of street life through the eyes of a man with vivid insight. To this day, it is one of the genre’s most critically acclaimed debuts, with features from Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z’s proteges Foxy Brown and Memphis Bleek, and friend and fellow Brooklyn emcee, The Notorious B.I.G.
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
Jay’s Volume series saw him transition from Brooklyn street rapper to Hip-Hop superstar. Jay managed to maintain his insightful wordplay when rapping about growing up in Marcy Projects. However, he combined his narratives from his hustling days with Top 40s production, making his songs more radio-friendly.
As a result, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life became Jay’s most successful commercial album. Released in September of 1998, Vol. 2 was Jay-Z’s first number one album and sold over 5 million copies. The album even won Best Rap Album at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards.
By the 2000s, Jay-Z had solidified himself as one of rap’s top acts. Hip-Hop had become more visible than ever before, and Jay-Z and Rocafella Records were leading the charge in music and fashion with the launch of the clothing line, Rocawear.
But in 2001, Jay-Z would set the standard yet again with his sixth studio album, The Blueprint. Unfortunately, the album’s release would coincide with the tragic events of September 11. Still, The Blueprint debuted at number one, and in 2019 the album was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
From 1989 to 1999, MTV ran its series MTV Unplugged, a show where music’s biggest stars would perform stripped-down versions of their catalog. In 2000, the network announced the series was returning under the name MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.
In 2001, Jay-Z would appear on the fifth episode of the reboot. Backed by legendary Hip-Hop band The Roots, Hov performed acoustic versions of some of his biggest songs. Jay-Z Unplugged released in December of 2001. Unplugged only sold a modest 600,000 copies, but The Roots’ fresh take on classic Jay songs makes it a gem in his discography.
The Black Album
Much like how Reasonable Doubt was supposed to be his only album, The Black Album was supposed to be Jay-Z’s swan song.
In 2003, Jay announced that he was retiring from rap and The Black Album would be his last album. The album’s creation and “farewell” performances at Madison Square Garden were filmed and turned into the documentary Fade to Black.
The Black Album is one of Jay-Z’s best albums, not because it was supposed to be his final one but because of its level of perfection. The album was produced by those who were the most influential in shaping Jay-Z’s sound, including, The Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Kanye West. If this was going to be his last album, Jay made sure it was going to be his best.
The inspiration for Jay-Z’s tenth album came from an early screening of a Denzel Washington movie with the same name. American Gangster was a biopic about the life of a Harlem drug dealer named Frank Lucas. Washington’s portrayal of Lucas reminded Jay of himself back when he was a drug dealer.
American Gangster was released in November of 2007. It wasn’t Jay’s best outing in regards to sales and chart performance, but fans and critics compared the album to Jay’s debut in terms of its cohesive sound and innovative storytelling.
This album showcased Jay-Z’s growth not so much as an artist but as a man. Released in June of 2017, 4:44 is a look at who Shawn Carter — not Jay-Z — is. Jay-Z addresses Black people’s need to secure financial freedom, his battle to uphold fidelity, and his overall legacy in Hip-Hop.
Up until this point, Jay was very guarded when it came to certain aspects of his personal life. To see him be so transparent was refreshing and proof of his ability to adapt to rap’s changing climate without compromising his artistic integrity.
Any other great Jay-Z albums that we might have missed?