Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has single-handedly become one of the best-selling musicians of our time, selling more than 100 million records worldwide. With a career spanning more than two decades, Carter was a true “rags to riches” tale, going from living in a housing project in Brooklyn, New York, to being a multimillionaire Hip-Hop mogul.
Following the release of his most recent visual album, 4:44, editors at Salute Magazine decided it was time to take a look and rank all 13 of his solo albums.
#13 Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)
Hov’s twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail may have been one of his worst musically. Despite getting such noteworthy artists and producers, including Justin Timberlake, Nas, Rick Ross, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, Travis Scott, and Mike WiLL Made-It, the album was overly focused on promoting Samsung products.
The album was released for free on July 4th, 2013, for the first one million Samsung customers to download the app, and wasn’t made available for retail until three days after.
Key Track: “Tom Ford”
#12 In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)
The sophomore album from Jay-Z was really one of the few moments, outside of his 2004 collaboration album with R. Kelly, Unfinished Business, when the rapper focused on blending R&B and hip-hop together. Although DJ Premier and Ski also contribute to the production, the album is really one that doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere in Jay’s discography.
Key Track: “(Always Be My) Sunshine” feat. Babyface and Foxy Brown
#11 The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (2002)
Recording a double album is never easy. There are a lot of classics on this one… but they’re so spread out that listeners tend to fall off at a certain point. Everyone has their favorite tracks off The Blueprint 2, but it’s so much better when you get to cherry-pick instead of listening straight through.
Key Track: “Diamond Is Forever”
#10 The Blueprint 3 (2009)
This was a difficult pick, but based on the sheer number of hit singles—not to mention the fact that it gave Hov the edge over Elvis Presley‘s record for most No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 charts—The Blueprint 3 ranks higher on our list than its predecessor.
Key Track: “Empire State of Mind”
#9 Kingdom Come (2006)
Hov’s 2006 “comeback” album received generally mixed reviews from the mainstream media, as many were quick to brand it as one of Jay-Z’s “worst.” However, upon further exploration, the album was not really that bad at all. Although tracks, such as “Beach Chair” featuring Chris Martin of Coldplay, came across as “out of ordinary” for the Brooklyn-born rapper, he really dived deep into thought with his single, “Lost One” featuring Chrisette Michele, in which he opens up about his split with Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash, the death of his nephew and his relationship with Beyoncé. Not to mention the fact that the production is incredible, with Dr. Dre and Just Blaze at the helm.
Key Track: “Trouble”
#8 Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
The album that brought us such hits as “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)” and “Big Pimpin'” comes in at No. 8 on our list. Jay-Z’s Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter marked his return to his original, more hardcore, hip-hop sound, with various club bangers that have become considered classics among fans. Since its release, on Dec. 28, 1999, the album has sold more than three million copies, earning it a triple platinum certification by the RIAA.
Key Track: “Hova Song (Outro)”
#7 The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
Originally intended to be released as a Roc-A-Fella family album, The Dynasty was subsequently released as a Jay-Z solo album in an effort to boost sales. Featuring Roc family members, Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Amil, and Freeway, the album received generally positive reviews. The lead single, “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” was produced by The Neptunes and went on to become one of Hov’s most successful singles of his career, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Key Track: “1-900-Hustler” feat. Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and Freeway
#6 Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)
Nearing the Top 5 albums of Jay-Z’s career, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was the most commercially successful album of his career, selling more than 5 million copies since 1998. The third studio album from Jay-Z is a timeless classic and was his first to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts.
Key Track: “Money, Cash, Hoes” feat. DMX
#5 American Gangster (2007)
Inspired by the 2007 film starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, American Gangster was Hov’s first crack at recording a concept album. Based on the story of Frank Lucas, an early ’70s heroin smuggler, Jay-Z said he based every song on the album on a specific scene in the film. Def Jam Senior VP of Marketing, Tracey Waples, told Hip-Hop DX in 2007, that Washington even lobbied for Hov to create the official motion picture soundtrack, but was turned away by the film’s producer, Brian Grazer.
Key Track: “Blue Magic”
#4 4:44 (2017)
Coincidentally, the 2017 visual album, 4:44, clocks in at No. 4 on our list of Jay-Z’s Top 5 albums. The album was first released as an exclusive for Sprint and Tidal streaming music service customers, before being released for retail on July 7th. Produced by No I.D. the concept album, while similar in some regards to Beyonce’s Lemonade, received widespread acclaim for its emotional and inspired lyrics. 4:44 would receive widespread acclaim from critics and became the fastest selling album to achieve Platinum certification from the RIAA for streams equivalent to selling more than one million copies.
Key Track: “Moonlight”
#3 The Black Album (2003)
A fan-favorite, The Black Album was released in 2003 and was said to be Jay-Z’s final record. Hov originally said that following his tour, he would retire… of course, that later changed in 2006 with the release of Kingdom Come. The album was also Jay-Z’s first to have every track feature a different producer. It became an instant classic and would prompt Jay-Z’s 2004 collaboration with Linkin Park, Collision Course. Featured producers included Kanye West, Eminem, Timbaland, 9th Wonder, and Rick Rubin, to name a few.
Key Track: “99 Problems”
#2 The Blueprint (2001)
Jay-Z’s epic ‘Blueprint’ trilogy all started on a very tragic day for New York and the country as a whole. The Blueprint was primarily recorded at Manhattan Center Studios and released the same day as the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The album would go on to receive universal acclaim from music critics for its soulful samples and featured guests. The Blueprint also featured the diss track, “Takeover,” which was aimed to throw shade at Queensbridge rappers Nas, and the late-Prodigy of Mobb Deep, among several other 2000s-era hip-hop classics.
Key Track: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”
#1 Reasonable Doubt (1996)
The debut album from Shawn Carter, Reasonable Doubt, is our No. 1 pick… not just because it was what first introduced us to Hov, but purely on the fact that it is quite possibly one of the most well-rounded hip-hop albums of all-time. Before breaking off on his own, Jay-Z first caught the attention of legendary rapper and fellow Brooklyn-native, Big Daddy Kane, who invited him to perform on the posse cut “Show & Prove,” along with Old Dirty Bastard, Sauce Money, Scoob Lover, and Shyheim. Without a record deal, Hov began by pushing mixtapes from his car with the help of Damon Dash. It wasn’t long after landing a deal, that he decided to split from his contract to start his own label with Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. Reasonable Doubt was recorded at the famous D&D Studios in Manhattan and features Mary J. Blige, The Notorious B.I.G., Foxy Brown, Memphis Bleek, Big Jaz and Sauce Money on what would become his most definitive album to date.
Key Track: “Can’t Knock the Hustle” feat. Mary J. Blige