Born in 1969 and raised in the rough Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, New York, Jay-Z underwent some tough times after his father left his mother before the young rapper was even a teen. Without a man in the house, he became a self-supportive youth, turning to the streets, where he soon made a name for himself as a fledging rapper. Known as "Jazzy" in his neighborhood, he soon shortened his nickname to Jay-Z and did all he could to break into the rap game. As he vividly discusses in his lyrics, Jay-Z also became a street hustler around this time, doing what needed to be done to make money. For a while, he ran around with Jaz-O, aka Big Jaz, a small-time New York rapper with a record deal but few sales. From Jaz he learned how to navigate through the rap industry and what moves to make. He also participated in the group Original Flavor for a short time. Jay-Z subsequently decided to make an untraditional decision and start his own label rather than sign with an established label as Jaz had done. Together with friends Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, he created Roc-a-Fella Records, a risky strategy for cutting out the middleman and making money for himself. Once he found a reputable distributor, Priority Records (and then later Def Jam), Jay-Z finally had everything in place, including a debut album, Reasonable Doubt (1996).
Though Reasonable Doubt only reached number 23 on Billboard's album chart, Jay-Z's debut eventually became recognized as an undisputed classic among fans, many of whom consider it his crowning achievement. Led by the hit single 'Ain't No Nigga', a duet featuring Foxy Brown, Reasonable Doubt slowly spread through New York; some listeners were drawn in because of big names like DJ Premier and the Notorious B.I.G., others by the gangsta motifs very much in style at the time, still others by Jay-Z himself. By the end of its steady run, Reasonable Doubt generated three more charting singles -- 'Can't Knock the Hustle', which featured Mary J. Blige on the hook; 'Dead Presidents', which featured a prominent sample of 'The World Is Yours', a 1994 hit by Nas, and 'Feelin' It' -- and set the stage for Jay-Z's follow-up, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997).
Peaking at number three on the Billboard album chart, In My Lifetime sold much more strongly than its predecessor. The album boasted pop-crossover producers such as Puff Daddy and Teddy Riley, and singles such as 'Sunshine' and 'The City Is Mine' indeed showcased a newfound embrace of pop crossover. Yet there were still plenty of hard-hitting songs, such as 'Streets Is Watching' and 'Rap Game/Crack Game' to lace In My Lifetime with gangsta rap as well as pop crossover. Jay-Z's next album, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (1998), released a year after In My Lifetime, was laden with hit singles: 'Can I Get A...' and 'Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)' broke the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, while 'Cash, Money, Hoes' and 'Nigga What, Nigga Who' also charted. Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life ended up winning a Grammy for Best Rap Album.
Like clockwork, Jay-Z returned a year later with another album, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter (1999), which topped the Billboard 200 and spawned two hits: 'Big Pimpin'' and 'Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)'. The album was Jay-Z's most collaborative to date, featuring ten guest vocalists and a roll call of in-demand producers such as Dr. Dre and Timbaland. Jay-Z then scaled back a bit for Dynasty Roc la Familia (2000), his fifth album in as many years. The album showcased Roc-a-Fella's in-house rappers: Beanie Sigel guests on seven of the 16 tracks, Memphis Bleek guests on six, and both Amir and Freeway also make guest appearances. On Dynasty Roc la Familia, Jay-Z also began working with a few new producers: the Neptunes, Kanye West, and Just Blaze. The Neptunes-produced 'I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)' became a particularly huge hit single this go-round.
Jay-Z's next album, The Blueprint (2001), solidified his position atop the New York rap scene upon its release in September. Prior to the album's release, the rapper had caused a stir in New York following his headlining performance at Hot 97's Summer Jam 2001, where he debuted the song 'Takeover'. The song features a harsh verse ridiculing Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and Jay-Z accentuated his verbal assault (including the lines "You's a ballerina/I seen ya") by showcasing gigantic photos of an adolescent Prodigy in a dance outfit. The version of 'Takeover' that later appeared on The Blueprint includes a third verse, this one dissing Nas, who, in response to the Summer Jam performance, had called out Jay-Z, "the fake king of New York," in a freestyle known as 'Stillmatic'. As expected, 'Takeover' ignited a sparring match with Nas, who responded with 'Ether'. Jay-Z accordingly returned with a comeback, 'Super Ugly', where he rapped over the beats to Nas' 'Get Ur Self a...' on the first verse and Dr. Dre's 'Bad Intentions' on the second. The back-and-forth bout created massive publicity for both Jay-Z and Nas. In addition to 'Takeover, The Blueprint also featured 'Izzo (H.O.V.A.)', one of the year's biggest hit songs, and the album topped many year-end best-of charts.
Jay-Z capitalized on the runaway success of The Blueprint with a number of follow-up projects. He collaborated with the Roots for the Unplugged album (2001) and with R. Kelly forBest of Both Worlds (2002). He then went on to record, over the course of the year, 40 or so new tracks, 25 of which appeared on his next record, the double album The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse (2002). Though billed as a sequel, The Blueprint 2 was considerably different from its predecessor. Whereas the first volume had been personal, considered, and focused, the second instead offered an unapologetically sprawling double-disc extravaganza showcasing remarkable scope. As usual, it spawned a stream of singles, led by his 2Pac cover '03 Bonnie & Clyde' (featuring his glamorous then-future wife, Beyoncé Knowles from Destiny's Child). Furthermore, Jay-Z guested on a pair of summer 2003 hits: Beyoncé's chart-topping 'Crazy in Love' and the Neptunes' Top Five hit 'Frontin''.
It was then that Jay-Z announced his imminent retirement after the release of one more album. That LP, The Black Album (2003), was rush-released by Def Jam and soared to the top spot in the album charts at the end of the year. As always, it spawned a couple big hits -- 'Dirt Off Your Shoulder' and '99 Problems' -- and inspired a popular mash-up bootleg, The Grey Album, by Danger Mouse. The subsequent year (2004) was a whirlwind for the retiring Jay-Z. He embarked on a farewell tour that was topped off by an extravagant Madison Square Garden performance documented on the Fade to Black DVD, and he also embarked on an ill-fated arena tour with the embattled R. Kelly that resulted in an exchange of ugly multi-million-dollar lawsuits.
With his final album behind him and his reputation bigger than ever, Jay-Z accepted an offer to assume the role of president at Def Jam Records. The seminal rap label was struggling and needed someone to guide it through a rocky transitional phase. Jay-Z accepted the challenge and took over the company begun by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin roughly 20 years earlier. (As part of its deal with Jay-Z, Def Jam's parent company, Universal, bought Roc-a-Fella, which resulted in some bitterness among certain associates upset by the buyout.) Considerable fanfare met the presidential inauguration, as Jay-Z became one of the few African-American major-label executives in the business, and he also became one of the few rappers to transition into that side of the business. Numerous rappers owned or operated their own boutique labels, but none had ever risen to such major-label heights. And the rapper-turned-president didn't take his job lightly, either, at least judging by his initial year at the helm. Within months of assuming his position, he fostered a string of newfound talents -- Young Jeezy, Teairra Marí, Rihanna, and Bobby V., all of whom enjoyed considerable commercial success -- and only had a few setbacks (disappointing returns on albums by Memphis Bleek and Young Gunz).
In 2005, Jay-Z came out of retirement for the I Declare War concert in New York City. The ambitious show featured a parade of high-profile guest stars, including Diddy, T.I., Kanye West, and in a peacemaking move, Nas. With this longstanding beef squashed, Jay-Z announced he was coming out of retirement for good. He made it official when Kingdom Come hit the shelves in late 2006. Less than a year later, Jay-Z returned with another post-retirement album, American Gangster (2007), this one inspired by the concurrent film of the same name. Two years later, after he left Def Jam and established Roc Nation -- a label, music publisher, and talent agency through Live Nation -- he released a third installment in the Blueprint series, The Blueprint 3. Announced with the single 'D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)', the album featured productions from Kanye West and Timbaland, plus guest features for West, Rihanna, Young Jeezy, and Alicia Keys. Proof of the MC's enduring relevance, the album topped the Billboard 200. The Hits Collection, Vol. 1 followed in 2010. At various points during 2010 and early 2011, Jay-Z worked on Watch the Throne with partner Kanye West and numerous producers and songwriters. After taking several shapes, the album was released in August 2011 and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.
On January 7, 2012, Beyoncé gave birth to Blue Ivy Carter. Jay-Z quickly released 'Glory', featuring his daughter as B.I.C.; she became the youngest person to appear on a Billboard-charting single. High profile television ads in June 2013 announced Jay-Z's 12th solo album, Magna Carta...Holy Grail. That July 4, the album was made available via an app downloadable through certain models of Samsung smartphones. Digital downloads, physical copies, and streams through other outlets followed days later. Most of its tracks featured production from Timbaland and partner Jerome "J. Roc" Harmon, while its lead song involved Justin Timberlake, with whom Jay-Z toured that summer.
For years Shawn Carter has been the best rapper and the most popular, a man who can strut the player lifestyle with one track and become the eloquent Hip Hop everyman with the next, an artist for whom modesty is often a sin, and yet, one who still sounds sincere when he's discussing his humble origins or his recurring doubts. After the immediate classic The Blueprint found him at the peak of his powers, and The Blueprint: The Gift & the Curse came as the most deflating sequel since Star Wars: Episode I, his follow-up (and possible siren song) impresses on the same level as the best of his career. As he has in the past, Jay-Z balances the boasting with extensive meditations on his life and his career.
The back history begins with the first song, "December 4" (his birthday), on which Carter traces his life from birth day to present day, riding a mock fanfare and the heart-tugging strings of producer Just Blaze, along with frequent remembrances from his mother in This Is Your Life fashion. The other top track, "What More Can I Say," opens with Russell Crowe's defiant "Are you not entertained!?" speech from Gladiator, then finds Jay-Z capping his career with another proof that he's one of the best of all time, and a look into what made him that way: "God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me." He also goes out with a few words for underground fans who think he's sold too many records for his own good. On "Moment of Clarity," he lays it out with an excellent rhyme: "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil, I ain't been rhyming like Common since."
The first single, "Change Clothes," is much more interesting than the lightweight club hit it sounds like, a keyboard-heavy pop sequel to the Neptunes' "Frontin'" (the anthem that rocked the summer of 2003, and his last collaboration with professional beat-maker and amateurish falsetto Pharrell Williams). And he can rock with the best as well, working with Rick Rubin on a cowbell-heavy stormer named "99 Problems" that samples Billy Squier and outrocks Kid Rock.
Words - John Bush
Magna Carta Holy Grail is the twelfth studio album by American rapper Jay-Z. On the day of its physical release in the United States, the album was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for shipments of 1,000,000 copies. It debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200, making it Jay-Z's 13th consecutive studio album to top the chart. On September 2, 2013, it was announced that Magna Carta Holy Grail was certified double Platinum by the RIAA, for shipments of two million copies in the United States. The album was nominated in six categories at the 2014 Grammy Awards winning the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration trophy for "Holy Grail" featuring Justin Timberlake.
When Jay-Z dropped "The City Is Mine" in 1997 and claimed New York's Hip Hop throne upon the Notorious B.I.G.'s demise, many smirked and some even snickered. Four years later in 2001, when he released The Blueprint, no one was smirking and no one dared snicker. At this point in time, nobody in New York could match Jay-Z rhyme for rhyme and nobody in New York had fresher beats -- and many would argue that Jigga's reign was not just confined to New York but was, in fact, national. Yes, Jay-Z had risen to the top of the rap game in the late '90s and solidified his position with gigantic hits like "Big Pimpin" and "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)." Furthermore, The Blueprint's leadoff single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," dominated urban radio numerous weeks before the album hit the streets, generating so much demand that Def Jam had to push up the album's street date because it was being so heavily bootlegged. So when Jay-Z opens The Blueprint dropping rhymes about "runnin' this rap sh*t," it's not so much arrogance as it is a matter of fact. And by the time he brutally dismisses two of his most formidable opponents, Mobb Deep and Nas, less than ten minutes into the album, there's little doubt that Jay-Z's status as the top MC in the game is justified.
But that's just one song. There are 12 other songs on The Blueprint - and they're all stunning, to the point where the album seems almost flawless. Besides rhymes that challenge those on Reasonable Doubt as the most crafted of Jay-Z's career to date in terms of not only lyrics but also flow and delivery, The Blueprint also boasts some of his most extravagant beats, courtesy of impressive newcomers Kanye West and Just Blaze. Moreover, if the rhymes and beats alone don't make The Blueprint a career highlight for Jay-Z, the minimal guest appearances surely do. For once, listeners get exactly what they want: Jay-Z and nothing but Jay-Z, over beats so loaded with marvelously flipped samples the songs don't even need big vocal hooks. Besides, when you're already the top MC in the game, there's no need for crossover attempts. Uneven albums like Hard Knock Life were the crossover attempts, and now that Jay-Z is "runnin' this rap sh*t," a fully realized masterpiece like The Blueprint is the glorious result.
Words - Jason Birchmeier
Jay-Z kept The Blueprint incredibly tight, focusing on a single sound and letting nothing interfere with some of the best raps of his career. The Blueprint: The Gift & the Curse is a radically different record, with the most respected rapper in the business trying on a range of styles, collaborating with a lot of guests (from Rakim to Lenny Kravitz to Scarface to Beyonce Knowles), and working with an army of producers (Neptunes, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Heavy D, Kanye West). No one else in Hip Hop possesses enough power of personality to carry a 110-minute double album, and if Jay-Z can't quite manage it either, he certainly delivers some solid material in the process.
The discs are split into "The Gift" and "The Curse," though there's no concept in view, just a loose collection of tracks ranging from unapologetically sexed-up party joints to theatrical epics and even taking in a Dirty South feature for Outkast's Big Boi. It's clear Jay-Z's in control even here, and though his raps can't compete with the concentrated burst on The Blueprint, there's at least as many great tracks on tap, if only listeners have enough time to find them. Good choices for highlights include the Neptunes' bounce track "Excuse Me Miss," the horn-driven blast of "The Watcher 2" produced by Dr. Dre (featuring Truth Hurts), and "I Did It My Way," which balances the trad-pop singalong of "Hard Knock Life" with the digital drumrolls of "The Takeover."
Words - John Bush
When Jay-Z first made a series out of his best album, 2001's The Blueprint, it became a game of high expectations. The Blueprint of the first volume was Jay-Z as vital as he'd ever been, storming back to the hardcore after a few years of commercial success. The Blueprint: The Gift & the Curse was a complete turn, a set of half-cocked crossovers, bloated to bursting with guest features that obscured his talents. The Blueprint 3 is somewhere between the two, closer to the vitality and energy of the original but not without the crossover bids and guest features of the latter (albeit much better this time). Kanye West is in the producer's chair for seven tracks, and it's clear he was reaching for the same energy level as the original Blueprint (which he produced).
"What We Talkin' About" begins the album with a wave of surging, oppressive synth, while Jay-Z enumerates (with an intriguing lack of detail) what he's said and what's been said about him, ending with a nod not to the past but the future (and Barack Obama). West also produced the second, "Thank You," and while it starts with typical Jay-Hova brio, the last verse piles on the unrelenting criticism of unnamed rappers doomed to weak sales. There's plenty more lyrical violence to come, but most of the targets are much safer than they were eight years earlier. (Jay doesn't sound very convincing when he claims in "D.O.A. " that it's not "politically correct" to rail against one of the most reviled trends in pop music during the 2000s.) From there, he branches out with a calculating type of finesse, drawing in certain demographics via a roster of guests, from Young Jeezy (hardcore) to Drake (teens) to Kid Cudi (the backpacker crowd).
The king of the crossovers here is "Empire State of Mind," a New York flag-waver with plenty of landmark name-dropping that turns into a great anthem with help on the chorus from Alicia Keys. The Blueprint 3 isn't a one-man tour de force like the first. Jay is upstaged once or twice by his guests, and while the productions are stellar throughout -- Timbaland appears three times, and No I.D. gets multiple credits also -- it's clear there's less on Jay's mind this time. Not tuned out like on Kingdom Come, but more content with his dominance as a rap godfather in 2009.
Words - John Bush
After the death of friend and compatriot the Notorious B.I.G. in early 1997, Jay-Z made his claim for the title of best rapper on the East Coast (or anywhere) with his sophomore shot, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Though the productions are just a bit flashier and more commercial than on his debut, Jay-Z remained the tough street rapper, and even improved a bit on his flow, already one of the best in the world of Hip Hop. Still showing his roots in the Marcy projects (he's surrounded by a group of kids in a picture on the back cover), Jay-Z struts the line between project poet and up-and-coming player, and manages to have it both ways. He slings some of the most cutting rhymes heard in Hip Hop, brushing off a legion of rappers riding his coattails on "Imaginary Player." For "Streets Is Watching," high-tension background strings and vocal samples from the gangster film Sleeper emphasize the pitfalls of a rapper everyone's gunning for ("If I shoot you, I'm brainless/But if you shoot me, then you famous"). The song leads right into "Friend or Foe '98," the sequel to a track from Reasonable Doubt that only increases the sense of paranoia.
But Jay-Z plays the ghetto celebrity equally well, and continues his slick, Cristal-sipping image with "I Know What Girls Like" (featuring Puff Daddy and Lil' Kim), "(Always Be My) Sunshine" (featuring Babyface and Foxy Brown), and "Lucky Me." Puff Daddy's Bad Boy stable is responsible for almost half the productions, and though they often verge far into pop territory, Jay-Z usually rescues them from a complete crossover. (Ironically, the most commercial production is actually from Teddy Riley on "The City Is Mine," with an unfortunate interpolation of Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City.") Having one of the toughest producers around (Premier) as well as one of the slickest (Puff Daddy) sometimes creates a disconnect between who Jay-Z really is and who he wants to become, but he balances both personas with the best rapping heard in the rap game since the deaths of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G.
Words - John Bush
Jay-Z had established himself as a savvy, street-smart rapper on those two records, but with Hard Knock Life he decides to shoot for crossover territory, for better and for worse. At his best, he shows no fear -- witness how the title track shamelessly works a Broadway showstopper from Annie into a raging ghetto cry, yet keeps it smooth enough for radio. It's a stunning single, but unfortunately, it promises more than the rest of the album can deliver. Jay-Z remains a first-rate lyricist and MC, but too often his subjects are tired, especially since he winds up with no new revelations. Unfortunately, the same could be said for his music. For every "Hard Knock Life," there are a couple of standard post-gangsta jams that don't catch hold -- and that's really too bad, because the best moments (including several tracks produced by such stars as Timbaland, Kid Capri, and Jermaine Dupri) are state-of-the-art, R&B-inflected mainstream Hip Hop. And that's the problem -- before, Jay-Z wasn't trying to play by the rules of the mainstream, but here he's trying to co-opt them. At times he does, but the times that fall flat have less strength or integrity than their predecessors, and that's what makes the entire record not quite as effective, despite its numerous high points.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
At the time of The Dynasty Roc la Familia's release, Jay-Z had already established himself as a towering figure in the rap world. His previous two albums -- Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life and Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter -- spawned numerous gigantic hits and were filled the brim with the biggest hitmakers in rap: producers like Timbaland and Swizz Beatz; rappers like Juvenile and DMX. So rather than try to one-up these albums with yet more super-producers and big-name rappers, Jay-Z took a different approach on The Dynasty. He brought in a stable of up-and-coming producers (the Neptunes, Just Blaze, Kanye West) and handed the mic to his in-house roster of Roc-a-Fella rappers (Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Freeway) with the intention of bolstering his rap "dynasty" (i.e., Roc-a-Fella).
The approach works well. The Dynasty Roc la Familia still sounds like a Jay-Z album, but it's different enough from his past work to make it exciting and unique. In particular, the productions set Jigga apart from his peers in 2000, especially "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)" by the Neptunes, a fun, playful song a world apart from the rugged Ruff Ryder beats Swizz Beatz had been offering Jay-Z a year earlier. In terms of rapping, the omnipresence of Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek spices up "Parking Lot Pimpin'," another album highlight, but is a drag on other songs, where Jay-Z seems like a guest on his own album.
Guest appearances by Snoop Dogg and Scarface are much more welcome, two of only three non-Roc-a-Fella guest features here. The Dynasty plays overall like a Roc-a-Fella mixtape rather than a Jay-Z album, which means you'll have to endure a lot of promotional posse tracks, particularly toward the end of the album. Still, the few standout tracks here are career highlights for Jay-Z and well worth wading through the occasional filler to find.
Words - Jason Birchmeier
Don’t call it a comeback… After temporarily retiring from rap after 2003’s swansong ‘The Black Album’, Jay (then hyphen) Z proved that he really couldn’t leave rap alone - the game needed him. Selling some 680,000 copies in its first week, the Brooklyn beat destroyer balanced commercial aspirations with confessional couplets as he determinedly proved his regal status of Rap God. The plaintive overtones of the Dr. Dre crafted ‘Lost Ones’ delved into Jay’s fractured Rocafella relationships, the loss of his nephew to a car accident and his now wife Beyonce Knowles.
Another longterm collaborator, Pharrell Williams featured alongside Usher on the Neptune’s produced ‘Anything’, while the Public Enemy sampling effervescent ‘Show Me What you Got’ lightened the mood and lit up the charts. Displaying S Dot’s broadening taste in music, Pavarotti samples underscored ‘Minority Report’, which examined the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while Coldplay’s Chris Martin collabed with Carter on the soul searching ‘Beach Chair’. Hitting No.1 and eventually going 3x platinum, ‘Kingdome Come’ proved that the King had reclaimed his throne.
Words - Hattie Collins
Before Jay-Z fashioned himself into Hip Hop's most notorious capitalist, he was a street hustler from the projects who rapped about what he knew -- and was very, very good at it. Skeptics who've never cared for Jigga's crossover efforts should turn to his debut, Reasonable Doubt, as the deserving source of his legend. Reasonable Doubt is often compared to another New York landmark, Nas' Illmatic: A hungry young MC with a substantial underground buzz drops an instant classic of a debut, detailing his experiences on the streets with disarming honesty, and writing some of the most acrobatic rhymes heard in quite some time. (Plus, neither artist has since approached the street cred of his debut, The Blueprint notwithstanding.)
Parts of the persona that Jay-Z would ride to superstardom are already in place: He's cocky bordering on arrogant, but playful and witty, and exudes an effortless, unaffected cool throughout. And even if he's rapping about rising to the top instead of being there, his material obsessions are already apparent. Jay-Z the hustler isn't too different from Jay-Z the rapper: Hustling is about living the high life and getting everything you can, not violence or tortured glamour or cheap thrills. In that sense, the album's defining cut might not be one of the better-known singles -- "Can't Knock the Hustle," "Dead Presidents II," "Feelin' It," or the Foxy Brown duet, "Ain't No Nigga." It just might be the brief "22 Two's," which not only demonstrates Jay-Z's extraordinary talent as a pure freestyle rapper, but also preaches a subtle message through its club hostess: Bad behavior gets in the way of making money.
Perhaps that's why Jay-Z waxes reflective, not enthusiastic, about the darker side of the streets; songs like "D'Evils" and "Regrets" are some of the most personal and philosophical he's ever recorded. It's that depth that helps Reasonable Doubt rank as one of the finest albums of New York's Hip Hop renaissance of the '90s.
Words - Steve Huey