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.

5. “Moment of Clarity” (The Black Album, 2003)

This is the one that nobody wants to think about when these lists pop up. A relatively unknown track off The Black Album, this Eminem-produced confessional is easily one of the most impressive tomes in the rapper’s lengthy library. Just check the hook: “Thank God for granting me / This moment of clarity / This moment of honesty / The world’ll feel my truths / Through my hard knock life time / My gift and the curse / I gave you volume after volume of my work / So you can feel my truths / I built the Dynasty by being one of the realest n—s out / Way beyond a reasonable doubt / From my blueprint beginnings / To that black album ending / Listen close you hear what I’m about / N— feel my truths”.

See what he did there? Oh, wait. You’re still not sold? How about this: “If skills sold / Truth be told / I’d probably be / Lyrically / Talib Kweli / Truthfully / I wanna rhyme like Common Sense (But I did five Mil) / I ain’t been rhyming like Common since / When your sense got that much in common / And you been hosteling since / Your inception / Fuck perception / Go with what makes sense / Since I know what I’m up against / We as rappers must decide what’s most important.” The defense rests.

4. “Takeover” (The Blueprint, 2001)

Quite possibly the most hostile Jay-Z has ever been on one of his own albums, “Takeover” is a class in retribution without anybody even asking Hov if he had bothered trying to obtain a teaching certificate. Set to the Doors’ “Five to One”, this Blueprint standout caused waves in hip-hop circles everywhere as the beef between Nas and Jay went from “Hot” to “Torching”. A lot of people still claim that “Ether” is the superior of the tracks traded between the two artists, though lest we be reminded that it was Mr. Carter who fired the first on-an-official-record shot in this war of words, and sometimes being the originator can warrant a few bonus points for balls.

Also, Nasir wasn’t Jay’s only target here, remember, as the Brooklyn native famously devoted a portion of his words to Mobb Deep and “all you other cats throwin’ shots at Jigga” right before that final half-bar became the single most affecting half-bar in the history of rap music. Enthusiasts can debate who won the battle for centuries to come, but if nothing else, the “Takeover” proved this: it’s unwise to fuck with Jay-Z.

3. “Brooklyn’s Finest” (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)

To think that Jay-Z has been around long enough to warrant a real, in-the-flesh collaboration with B.I.G. is a testament to both his influence and his durability. Here, the two greatest wordsmiths any of the five boroughs have ever cultivated go back and forth like two life-long friends conversing on a back porch somewhere in the middle of Kansas. Hov leans on B.I.G., the much more recognizable and popular name at the time, but listening to it 15 years after the fact will reveal a newfound appreciation for how well the dueling giants worked with one another.

You thought Jay would have had him during the track’s latter half when it spits, “For nine six, the only MC with a flu / Yeah I rhyme sick, I be what you’re tryin to do / Made a fortune off Peru, extradite, china white heron / N– please, like short sleeves I bear arms / Stay out my way from here on”. Au contraire, Mr. Wallace noted as he responded, “Me and Gutter had two spots / The two for five dollar hits, the blue tops / Gotta go, Coolio mean it’s gettin’ too hot / If Fay had twins, she’d probably have two Pac’s / Get it? Tu-pac’s.” The teacher gone too soon schooling a student who would become a master. Priceless.

2. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” (Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, 1998)

People can argue until they are blue in the face about how much impact Jay-Z has had on the hip-hop industry. Some can say other rappers are more technically sound, wittier, or more clever. Others can make the case that he’s sold out, that he’s a shell of himself, that he’s gone pop, or that he’s not nearly as imperative to the fabric of the rap game as some people believe. That’s fine, of course. But all those people would be outlandishly wrong and this transcendent, brilliantly constructed single submersed in subversion is Exhibit A when considering precisely how wrong those blow-hards would be.

There’s not much to it — just a simple beat that crawls along like a turtle wearing an oversized white T. The guy has certainly offered more intellectual rhymes before, opting here for overtly accessible short verses and a chorus ripped off directly from Annie, as we all know by now. But — and this is important but — the message behind this tiny, little four-minute ditty took an entire subculture that had been bubbling on the streets of inner-city America for decades and threw it in the faces of people who insisted the medium never had a future. The song wasn’t a statement any more than it was a white flag — an admission that everybody on the streets knew how much they were being ignored and everybody on the streets were heretofore content with just sitting back and watching as the circle of drugs, crime, corruption, and every other ugly thing this world offers continued while the tune of voices barely old enough to know right from wrong filled the air.

The song is underestimated in its relevance and outright neglected in its intellect. Jay-Z set himself apart here, standing in front of popular culture and displaying one gigantic wink, informing everyone else that his vision reaches far beyond bitches and blunts. It would be the single most telling moment within an artist eager to explore and quick to evolve. “Hip-hop has to thank God for Jay-Z”, Nas once said. And this song proves why.

1. “Renegade” (The Blueprint, 2001)

All right. Here it is. Predictable as it may be, you would be hard-pressed to find a heavier collaboration in hip-hop over the course of the last decade-and-a-half. Some claim Eminem got at Jay-Z on this one, but those who believe as much aren’t listening. “See”, Jay began, “I’m influenced by the ghetto you ruined / That same dude you gave nothing, I made something doing / What I do, through and through and / I gave you the news with a twist / It’s just his ghetto point of view / The renegade you been afraid / I penetrate pop culture / Bring ’em a lot closer to the block where they / Pop toasters and they live with they moms / Got dropped roasters, from botched robberies n– crotched over / Knocked down by some clown when child support knocked / No, he’s not around / Now how that sound to ya, jot it down / I’ll bring you through the ghetto without riding round / Hiding down ducking strays from frustrated youths stuck in their ways / Just read a magazine that fucked up my day.”

If “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” was Mr. Carter’s 63-point game against the 1985-86 Boston Celtics in the early rounds of the playoffs, “Renegade” was his title-winning series against the 1990-91 Lakers, the moment when he could look back on what he had achieved to that point in his career and essentially say the following to everyone who doubted him: “I told you so.” Pieced together over a menacing beat that instantly sets a palpably defiant tone, “Renegade” is an all-time classic not just in Jay-Z’s catalog, but in the entire song list of hip-hop’s history.

He had hits before it. He had sold millions of records. Shoot, he was rich, if not wealthy, by the time both the song and the album hit the streets. He had credibility. He had a loyal fan base. He had won awards. He had established himself as a major player. And to think, this was all in … 2001. Again: 2001. Since then, he’s gone on to become the elder statesmen within a genre of music that has almost completely taken over contemporary popular music. The assurance and iconic status of “Renegade” have helped him achieve his place among the most important people hip-hop has ever seen. This song didn’t announce his arrival at the party — it merely announced the fact that he had no plans to leave.

And thank God for that.

This article was originally published on 2 July 2013.