Photo: Joella Marano, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The 20 Best Jay-Z Songs

Jay-Z has set himself apart in hip-hop by making forward-looking, awe-inspiring, never-been-done-before revelatory choices. These are his best songs.

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

Cop the MTV Unplugged version if you get the chance — hearing the Roots switch grooves and melodies behind Jay is a lesson in musicality, and Jaguar Wright’s backing vocals are absolutely electric. Its original incarnation was a hit for Bobby Bland in 1974, and the core of it has been covered approximately seven trillion times by everyone from the Allman Brothers to Paul Carrack. Still, it’s this take, dreamed up by an unknown Kanye West, that has made its way into movie trailers and car commercials these days. Maybe the most soulful he has ever been on record, Jay spits with purpose here, confronting all his haters and silencing his harshest critics. If this doesn’t make your legs move and your torso gyrate, you’re going to have to call a doctor. No way in hell you have a pulse.

“I heard motherfuckers saying they made Hov / Made Hov say, ‘OK so, make another Hov’.” Granted, this might be a little high for a virtually ignored single that came from a virtually ignored comeback album, but just remember that all the way back in 2006, when this song was first released, nobody — nobody — had any insight into whatever the hell was going on between Jay-Z and Beyonce. Enter verse two, stage right. For as biting and anthemic as his now wife’s “Irreplaceable” was, this was every bit as subliminal in its confrontation. Bookend it with a verse about doubters and another about his deceased nephew, add a chorus from an at-the-time-anomaly, Chrisette Michele, along with some piano from Dr. Dre, and you have the formula for, as Jay himself put it, “not a diss song, just a real song, you know?” We certainly do.

13. “D’evils” (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)

From the title on down to the final line — “And even if Jehovah witness, bet he’ll never testify” — this deep Reasonable Doubt cut is one of a handful of coming-out wordplay parties that appear on Hov’s classic debut LP. With a little help from Snoop Dogg, the track meshes an eclectic smorgasbord of samples, all the way from Allen Toussaint’s “Go Back Home” to an old LL Cool J remix. The result, as one may imagine, is unforgettable in breadth and transcendent in execution. Working as one, big confessional, the track proved to be a clear indicator of how deep Mr. Carter could delve based entirely on his intellect alone. There is a reason why that 1996 record will forever be etched into hip-hop history as one of its best. “D’evils” is a big part of it.

12. “The Watcher 2” (The Blueprint 2, 2002)

Who says The Blueprint 2 was a disaster?! The sequel to Dr. Dre’s song of the same name, Jay-Z kills his verse so thoroughly that a lawyer should have brought charges against him for first-degree murder. Sure, the follow-up to the rapper’s second classic full-length wasn’t the critical or commercial success he may have wanted it to be, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any gems throughout any of the two CDs this release offered. “You n– ain’t know how to floss ’til I came through the door”, Hov utters during his extended first verse. “Like ‘Eric B. for Pres’, respect me in this BITCH!” What makes that the best part? Check out the track’s final third and listen as … you guessed it … Rakim steps up. A gem indeed.

11. “D.O.A. (Death of Auto Tune)” (The Blueprint 3, 2009)

This brought the man his eighth Grammy, and it’s clear why: not since Bob Dylan went electric did a guy successfully confront a stylistic trend with so much vigor and expertise that the populous’ opinion about a single medium was seemingly changed overnight. He took a little flak for it, but no matter — this was Jay-Z, remember, the one rap artist white people actually listen to consistently. No I.D.’s raw production plays perfectly into the declaration of war this tune ultimately proves to be, and Mr. Carter is, as always, up to the task. “Get back to rap, you’re T-Pain’n too much”, he utters, almost instantaneously wrecking a best-selling music artist’s career. When reached for comment, Mr. Pain ignored the question and simply asked if we would be interested in signing up for a Best Buy card.