Jay-Z started his career with the intention of releasing one album before retiring to become a full-time executive. Thirteen albums later, he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest hip-hop artists around. To date, he’s sold over 125 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time. In addition to his numerous awards, he’s been honored with induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, (becoming the first rapper to ever achieve the honor) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here, we take a look back at his career as we rank all the Jay-Z albums from worst to best.
13. Kingdom Come
In 2006, Jay-Z released his first solo studio album in three years. In his time away, he’d got a lot richer, a lot more famous, and a lot more powerful. Understandably, expectations were riding high. Unfortunately, Kingdom Come failed to meet them. There are a few promising numbers (Dig a Hole being the best), but the overwhelming abundance of cheap, cheesy tracks make it his least essential record to date.
12. The Blueprint 3
After the flop that was Kingdom Come, Jay-Z made a brief return to form with the excellent American Gangster. Two years later, he dropped The Blueprint 3, an album almost, but not quite, as disappointing as Kingdom Come. Commercially, it was a major success, topping the Billboard 200 to become Jay-Z’s eleventh US number-one album. But while some critics praised the album’s blend of maturity and youth, the album is confused, and much too desperate for crossover success to be a classic.
11. The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse
As hiphopgoldenage.com says, while Jay-Z might not want to admit it, The Blueprint 2 is infected by Nas’ classic diss track Ether. Almost the entire album is a response to the battle, something that sounded whiny and uninspired at the time, and hasn’t improved with age. It’s not completely without its merits – Meet the Parents and Hovi Baby are both exceptional – but the highlights are in the minority.
10. Magna Carta…Holy Grail
Magna Carta…Holy Grail is by no means a bad album. If you’re hugely into rap, you’re probably bewildered as to its low ranking. But as Far Out Magazine says, this is an album made for the hip-hop elite. If you’re a member of the club, you’ll get it. If you’re not, you’ll struggle to make sense of it. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for another rapper, but Jay Z is, and has strived to be, a crossover artist, so when he fails to make an album that’s balanced enough to appeal to his broad audience, it matters.
9. Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter
After Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life turned Jay-Z into a major crossover success, it took him just a year to return with his next album, Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter. With its catchy hooks and thundering beats, there’s a lot to love about the album, especially on standout tracks like So Ghetto, Come and Get Me and Put Your Hands Up. But combining the street-oriented style of his debut with the more pop-oriented sound of Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life was clearly a fine balancing act, and one he doesn’t entirely pull off.
8. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Even though Jay-Z doesn’t even make an appearance on two of the tracks on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, it’s one of his most personal albums to date, finding him exploring topics like growing up without a father, the tragedy of a miscarriage, and the breakdown of relationships. Released in October 2000, it debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 after selling over half a million copies in the first week alone. It’s since been certified 2x Multi-Platinum by the RIAA.
After Beyonce lifted the lid on Jay-Z’s alleged infidelities on her seminal album Lemonade, Jay-Z responded with 4:4, an immensely personal, emotional album that finds Jay-Z at his most honest. He’s said his intention was to create an album “where I talk about the things that I’ve never talked about:” given the emotional depth of the lyrics, which touch on everything from racism to family life, it’s fair to say he succeeded.
6. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
In 1997, Jay-Z proved he was no one-album wonder with his sophomore studio album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Any album with tracks like Streets Is Watching and Imaginary Player (arguably two of Jay-Z’s strongest ever songs) was destined for greatness, and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 didn’t disappoint, debuting at number three on the US Billboard 200 and achieving platinum status.
5. American Gangster
After the critical disappointment of Kingdom Come, Jay-Z made a dramatic return to form with his tenth studio album, American Gangster. Jay-Z sounds relaxed, the live instrumentation is lush, and the songs are smooth. Key tracks to revisit include American Dreamin’, Roc Boys and Falling. In addition to receiving widespread critical acclaim, the album was a commercial smash, charting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and ranking highly in numerous music publications’ end-of-year lists.
4. Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life
Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z’s third studio album, catapulted him into a whole other dimension of fame. Released on September 29, 1998, it soared to number one on both the US Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and the Billboard 200, sold over 5 million albums, and turned him into a household name internationally.
3. The Black Album
The Black Album was originally intended to be Jay-Z’s swansong. As it turned out, it was nothing of the kind. Had it been, it would have been an outstanding note to go out on. It does have a fault, but providing you skip Justify My Thug, you won’t find it. Bar that one song, the album is almost impossible to criticize. Released in November 2003, it became Jay-Z’s sixth US number one album, subsequently certifying triple platinum with the RIAA.
2. Reasonable Doubt
In 1996, Jay-Z dropped one of the most eviscerating debuts in rap history. The controlled menace, slick production, and jaw-dropping rhymes combine to create a peach of an album that deserves every bit of praise it’s received. Since debuting at No. 23 on the Billboard 200, it’s been hailed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, and unquestionably one of the finest albums in Jay-Z’s impressive catalog.
Five years after astonishing the world with his debut album, Jay-Z delivered Blueprint, an album that spells out exactly what makes Jay-Z one of the greatest artists around. At the time of its release, Jay-Z’s status was at a low. He was awaiting trial for gun possession and assault and had become one of the most dissed artists in hip hop. If he was fazed, he doesn’t show it. From the production techniques to the lyrics, everything is super tight, resulting in the strongest and most consistent album of his career. Despite its unfortunate release date of September 11, 2001, it flew off the shelves, selling nearly half a million copies in the first week alone and holding the top spot on the Billboard 200 for three weeks. It’s since been certified 2x Multi-Platinum by the RIAA.