The 8 Ball 08.31.13: The Top 8 Jay Z Tracks
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.31.2013
From "Hard Knock Life" and "Empire State of Mind" to "Big Pimpin'," "Brooklyn's Finest" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 Jay Z tracks of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Welcome to the one column this week where you can be sure there will be no mention to twerking, tongues or "Blurred Lines!" Well, besides those mentions, anyway. It was an eventful week this week but I'm having nothing to do with that nonsense. Instead, I'd rather focus on a music video. Jay Z released the video for his latest single to some hoopla this week, which is as good a reason for a list as any. It's hard to imagine for those of us who have seen his whole career, but the current king of Brooklyn hip-hop (hell, practically the current king of Brooklyn period) has had a recording career spanning almost twenty years at this point. In that time he's helped change the face of hip-hop and risen to be one of the undisputed masters of the genre. This week I thought I would take a look at the best tracks of the man's career.
Caveat: As usual with my single-act top songs list, I was looking specifically at original songs performed by the band/artist as opposed to covers. In addition, I only included songs that were on Jay Z's solo releases. That means nothing from Watch the Throne, none of his featured work on other artist's songs, et cetera. Pretty straight-forward!
Just Missing The Cut
• "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)" (2001)
• "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" (2004)
• "Dead Presidents II" (1996)
• "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" (2001)
• "Renegade" (2002)
#8: "Brooklyn's Finest" (1996)
First on our list is a collaborative effort from two of the East Coast's greatest. Jay Z's debut album may have been named Reasonable Doubt, but there wasn't even an unreasonable doubt upon its release that a new star in hip-hop was on the rise. Nowhere was that more evident than this track, where Jay went head-to-head with Notorious B.I.G. for a back-and-forth that gave the (at the time) lesser name an instant boost. What's amazing is that when you listen to this track now seventeen years after the fact, you see how impressively Jay was able to hang with the hip-hop heavyweight. The two have a chemistry together that is drawn from their mutual respect and friendship and it comes across beautifully in this track. It's not just a battle of skills or (if you're looking at it in hindsight) a passing of the torch though; it's a hell of a track that sees Biggie take a couple shots at people (Faith Evans, Tupac) while their competitive spirit allows them to bring their best imagery to bear. "Brooklyn's Finest" may very well have the most appropriate song title in music history.
#7: "Takeover" (2002)
We move right from one of Jay's best friendships into his most heated feud, and what is in my estimation the second greatest rap feud of all time. Nas and Jay had one of the longest-running and most vehement feuds in hip-hop history as they battled to claim the East Coast throne vacated by Biggie's death. This was the first song on an LP that directly addressed the simmering feud between them and it's the greatest diss track of Jay's career. To be fair, the song isn't just about slamming his rival; Jay continues his feud with Prodigy here as well but it will always be remembered as the track where the Nas/Hova feud spilled out into the open. Jay holds nothing back as he takes the gloves off and directly nails Nas over a sample from the Doors' " Five to One." The two would go back and forth for years and the winner of the feud will be forever debated among Jay and Nas fans. Either way, for my money this was easily the best track directly related to the beef (with Nas' "Ether" a close second). Kanye West's production is fantastic and the song proved that even though Mr. Carter was on his way up the social and financial ladder, he was still someone that you really didn't want to mess with.
#6: "Where I'm From" (1997)
Jay-Z's second LP, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, is a good album but indisputably not one of his best. The highlight though is undoubtedly "Where I'm From," which may not exactly paint Marcy Houses, where Jay grew up, as what many people would consider the highlight of America. What it does do however is paint a very vivid picture of where he came from and thus where he's coming from. What's more, he makes it clear that even though it wasn't the greatest place to grow up in ("Where you can't put your vest away and say you'll wear it tomorrow/Cause the day after we'll be saying, 'Damn I was just with him yesterday"), it's not a place he's ashamed of being from. Jay represents Marcy and Brooklyn and vividly shows how he became the man we came to know here. On an album that was too much flash and glamour for the rapper we knew at the time, "Where I'm From" featured a thuggish beat and sound thanks to the production work of D-Dot and Amen-Ra; it stood out as a result. More to the point it reminded us that Jay was no pushover who had gotten blinded by the bright lights of fame.
#5: "Empire State of Mind" (2009)
Here we have a much different ode to his hometown. The only song on my list that is post-The Black Album, "Empire State of Mind" is perhaps the greatest song about the Big Apple in hip-hop history. As shocking as it may seem, this was Jay's first #1 single as a lead artist on Billboard's Hot 100; it still boggles my mind that he hadn't accomplished that feat until four years ago. Anyway, where "Where I'm From" showed the fire through which Jay's skills were forged, "Empire State of Mind" was his love letter to his hometown. With vocals from Alicia Keys that soar as high as any skyscraper anchoring the chorus, Jay throws out references to the city in rapid-fire form using his ever-present wit. And it's not a whitewash either; as much as Hova is throwing his shout-outs to the Knicks and Nets, the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade, he has no problem looking at the bad parts two. Sure, he brushes over it a bit but when he flows in with "Mommy took a bus trip, now she got her bust out/Everybody ride her just like a bus route" you can't deny that he's letting loose on the way New York takes girls with stars in their eyes and chews them up in the meat grinder. That's what's so striking about Jay Z; look at these last two songs. In one he is hard on but proud of the Marcy Projects; in the other he declares his love for a city without trying to sweep his problems under the rug. Jay has a lot of clever lines and production skills, but what always shines the most about him is his authenticity and that's what makes "Empire State of Mind" one of his greatest works.
#4: "Song Cry" (2002)
One of the things I've always felt like Jay doesn't get enough respect for his storytelling ability. Sure, the guy can do some great wordplay and he's delivered disses the best of them, but it seems like people tend to focus on those more than his ability to lay out a story and display his poetic skills. "Song Cry" is a great example of that ability, as he takes three stories about failed relationships in his life and weaves them into a singular narrative with the unforgettable hook "I can't see it coming down my eyes, so I gotta make this song cry." Mr. Carter shows his vulnerability here as he lays out a rap ballad with a sample of "Sounds Like a Love Song" guiding the way. It's difficult to understand in retrospect how significant of a song this was for Jay's career; it showed an entirely new side to him. It wasn't an easy move to be sentimental and vulnerable during the early 00s in hip-hop but he took a chance here and it paid off in spades. In terms of rap balladry this is one of my absolute favorites for any rapper.
#3: "Big Pimpin" (2000)
We're into the real heavyweights here; the ones that I can't really imagine being left off anyone's potential list. And "Big Pimpin'" is very clearly a track that belongs in that category. Everyone knew this song when it was released in 2000 as the last track off of Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter. Seriously, this thing was pretty much everywhere; you couldn't get away from it. With some seriously inspired rhyming contributions from Southern hip hop group UGK complimenting his own work, Jay delivered one of the biggest hits of his career. He has since said that he regrets some of the lyrics which is fair enough to say; it is hardly the most gender-respecting song out there. Truth be told, it's far from my personal favorite song of his. But it's pure swagger in lyrical form and Timbaland's Middle Eastern-sounding production work, taken from Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi's "Khosara," was absolutely unforgettable. Is it lyrically profound? Of course not. But the impact of this song on Hova's career cannot be overestimated and it showed that Jay was the best around in any aspect of hip-hop he delved into…yes, even pimpin'.
#2: "Hard Knock Life" (2003)
These days it's passé to use samples that defy the idea of what works in a hip-hop track, but in 2003 it wasn't so much the situation. This isn't to say that it didn't happen, but it certainly never happened on this scale. Seriously, this is the kind of thing that only Mr. Carter could come up with. Who listens to the soundtrack to Annie and thinks "wow, this would work great in a rap song"? Just one person that I know of (okay, it was actually Mark the 45 King, but not the point), but damn was he right. The sample works brilliantly and the otherwise-minimalist production just makes the impact that much stronger. Meanwhile Jay delivers one of the more inspired rags-to-riches rap songs ever penned. Is this hardcore and gritty? No, but it's still very badass. Jay's flow is as good as it's ever been here and he managed to find a track that resonated with pretty much everyone no matter where they were. It's one of his signature tracks for a very good reason.
#1: "99 Problems" (2004)
The best track from one of the best. Fusing rock and rap wasn't a new concept before "99 Problems," but arguably Jay did it better than anyone else short of the Beastie Boys up to that point. With Rick Rubin guiding the production, Jay let loose with another song that was destined to be a huge hit. The lyrics are very potent and take shots at crooked cops, rap critics and many more. Jay's delivery is changed up here from his usual laid-back flow and he takes more of an aggressive route and goes on full attack against any and every target within his scope. The guitar riffs that serve as the background track keep the tension spiking to match Jay's lyrics. This was off the album that was in theory supposed to be his last and had that stayed the case (c'mon, we all knew it wouldn't be), it would have been one hell of a way to go out on top.. It's safe to say that he hasn't topped this one in the last nine years, but that's about as high a bar to set as you can imagine. Among all of Jay's tracks, this is my clear choice for the topper.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Before we depart, I leave you with this week's Music Video A-Go-Go. I didn't consider anything off Jay's current album Magna Carta Holy Grail because it's too soon and I haven't decided if any could quality, but here's the brand new video for his latest single, "Holy Grail" with Timberlake. Do not adjust your computer; the weird slow-downs are part of the video:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.