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Rank & File – Jay-Z

Ever sit back and look at your record collection of a favorite artist and consider which albums are the best? So do we! Rank & File is our way of telling you which albums are great and which ones are garbage (at least in our opinion). There are really no correct answers here, it’s all just a matter of taste, but inevitably, there will be parts of the list that you will completely disagree with, so make sure to let us know how you would rank the albums. Of course, when compiling a ranking system such as this, there have to be some guidelines in place. For Rank & File, they are:

  • No E.P.’s (with rare exception)
  • No Singles
  • No live albums
  • No remix albums
  • If an artists discography is huge (i.e. Rolling Stones, Prince) only the top 5 will make the cut.



It would seem that the older Jay-Z gets, the better he gets at, well….everything. After a failed attempt at retirement from music in the early aughts, Jay-Z has come back with a vengance. His 2006 comeback album Kingdom Come, failed to live up to expectations, but he followed that with a run of stellar efforts. When he isn’t dominating music, he’s been helping the NBA’s Nets land in Brooklyn, managing top athletes and became a first time Dad.

On July 4th, Jay-Z will release his 14th studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. To celebrate the new album, we’ve gone back through his discography and selected our top 5 Jay-Z albums.


5. Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life (1998):

Back when this album was released, I didn’t really pay too much attention to Jay-Z (I’m not sure many people west of the Mississippi who weren’t really in touch with hip-hop did.) But, like everyone else, when I heard “Hard Knock Life” I knew that this guy was something special, something different. Although there’s a bunch of cuts on this album that don’t really work out, the one’s that do are fucking magic. Also, this record was my introduction to Memphis Bleek, who has gone on to become one of my favorite MC’s. Without Vol 2... I would’ve never known about Bleek, or for that matter, really cared about Jay.

Album Highlights:


4. The Blueprint 3 (2009):

I had a hard time putting this album in the top five, but every time I dropped it down, it just didn’t feel right. There’s some really solid tracks on this album, but the singles released from it really carried the entire project. After hearing those songs on repeat for a good solid 6 months (radio, internet etc.) I was sick of this album, but after taking a couple years off and going back to it, I find myself enjoying it all over again. “Empire State of Mind” could be the best track ever written about NYC, in spite of the fact that it was completely overplayed. Lyrically, The Blueprint 3 leaves a little to be desired, but nonetheless, it’s a solid effort overall.

Album Highlights:


3. Reasonable Doubt (1996):

I was really late to the party with this album. I didn’t listen to this album until years after it’s release. I don’t think Reasonable Doubt would rank so high on my list if it weren’t for what came from it. With B.I.G. passing not too long after this albums release, Jay saw the hole left in NYC’s rap game and ran with it. Reasonable Doubt doesn’t really sound like the rest of Jay’s records though. The beats are more subdued, so musically, I don’t find it as enjoyable, but Jay’s flow is top-notch. Put on this record and you can hear the fucking hunger in his voice to succeed. It was like he already knew what he would become. It’s always fun to revisit debut albums and hear the differences between an artist then and now and Reasonable Doubt is no exception.

Album Highlights:


2. The Black Album (2003):

Even though Jay-Z’s “retirement” didn’t exactly go as planned, The Black Album is still the finest example of a farewell album throughout all genres of music. In my opinion, this has always sounded like Jay’s most personal record, free (for the most part) of typical big man, showboating bullshit. And even in the few tracks that do support that mentality (“Change Clothes”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”) it’s easy to let it slide cause you know HOV has earned the right to boast a little bit. Besides, every album (even a “final” album) needs a couple of huge singles, which they were. On top of the great storytelling and flow on The Black Album, the music is amazing. This album helped re-introduce Rick Rubin to hip-hop, with what could be the meanest track of the decade (“99 Problems”) and DJ Quik took a Madonna sample and made it a fucking monster (“Justify My Thug”). Ask yourself which other rappers could pull off an album like this, and you’ll find that list to be very, very short.

Album Highlights:


1. The Blueprint (2001):

The Blueprint could be one of the finest hip-hop albums ever. This record is in my top 20 albums of all-time. In my opinion, there is nothing that could be changed on The Blueprint to make it a better, more cohesive album. Lyrically, every side of Jay is represented here, from aggressive (“Takeover”) to boasting self-reflection (“Izzo H.O.V.A”) to contemplative sorrow (“Song Cry”) to simple, but supremely effective lines like “nigga, respect the game, that should be it/what you eat don’t make me shit.” Listening to The Blueprint is like reading Jay’s journal. It’s such a personal work of art, that when the album is finished, you feel like you know a complete stranger just a little better. Musically, The Blueprint is also damn near perfect. It helped to introduce the world to Kanye West, who (love him or hate him) changed the sound of hip-hop, I would argue for the better. Not to be outdone by West, Just Blaze really came into his own on The Blueprint as well, especially on “U Don’t Know” which is still one of the most massive tracks ever produced. The first installation of Jay’s Blueprint series also turned out to be his best, fucking hands down.

Album Highlights:


Just Missed The Cut: In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997), Vol 3…Life and Times of S. Carter (1999), The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000), The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (2002), Kingdom Come (2006), American Gangster (2007).

What do you think? How would you rate Jay-Z’s albums? Let us know in the comment section below and make sure to follow Gutter Bubbles on Facebook and Twitter!

Twitter: @Gutter_Bubbles

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About the author:
Has 290 Articles

I am absolutely and unabashedly in love with music. If I could eat a huge bowl of songs for breakfast every morning, I totally would. I'm obsessive about categorization (don't mess with my chronological or alphabetical) and can't stand an unorganized iTunes library. Outside of music and writing, I love baseball (go Rockies), coffee, corgi's and going on fun trips with my girlfriend!


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