Before Jay-Z slung apps and signed NBA All-Stars, he was simply Brooklyn’s finest. Now, he’s back with his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, which has us getting all nostalgic for his non-entrepreneur, hip-hop activities, specifically his other 11 albums. And similar to the second half of The Throne a few weeks back, it wasn’t an easy task putting together a list of Top 20 songs — far more difficult, in fact.
There’s just so much style, substance, and context at hand. Whether it’s his diamond-encrusted Rolodex of collaborations or his blank check towards royalties, there’s almost a whole library’s worth of material to pine over. That we did, though to keep us level-headed, we paired each of our favorite tracks with comparable smart phone apps. You know, in honor of Jigga’s whole Samsung deal?
Don’t ask, just listen and (possibly) download.
20. “Can I Get A…”
Whether the pairing of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker was annoying or like Martin and Lewis with karate, this song helped launch Jay-Z’s career (along with “Hard Knock Life”). And it’s no wonder that this is one of Hov’s most commercially successful singles (peaking at a respectable #19): it’s got some of his most memorable wordplay (“If I couldn’t flow futuristic would ya/ Put your two lips on my wood and kiss it – could ya”), and screaming its chorus whilst driving or at a party remains a musical highlight for this writer to this day. But its most impressive feat of all? Somehow giving us a Ja Rule verse that wasn’t totally awful. Can I get a what what?! -Chris Coplan
App to Download: Andy (Siri alternative) — or, Andy, Jay-Z Edition: It’ll help you put events in calendars and find restaurants, but will scream “Fuck you!” if you ask, “Can I get a?”
19. “Run This Town”
Hov’s love of Annie (“Hard Knock Life”, anyone?) really boils down to how he perceives himself as a kind of rap game Daddy Warbucks, using his money and influence to help out a youngster he’d become smitten with. And in Hov’s case, that little ginger orphan appeared in both Rihanna and Kanye West, each of whom he guided and helped, to paraphrase another song, “move in a room full of vultures.” As such, “Run This Town” is a kind of celebration, a declaration of their domination over some weirdly post-arena rock banger tailor-made for their flippant insults and mounds and mounds of ego. Some might argue that RiRi and ‘Ye outshined Jigga, but you can imagine he would’ve only reacted with pride about what his little family has accomplished. -Chris Coplan
App to Download: Foursquare — Why control an empire through power and greed when you can just be the mayor of every Starbucks?
18. “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)”
Go fast, go slow, go light speed. It’s baffling that “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)” followed three of Jigga’s stickiest singles to date — “Can I Get A…”, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, and “Money, Cash, Hoes” — but whereas those cuts focused on Jay’s pop athleticism, Vol. 2‘s fourth single was strictly all about stamina and aggression. In an “Oh snap” moment (remember, it was 1999), Jay matches the beat’s 32nd-note rhythm through a style that’s almost uncanny of his more free-flowin’, ha-ha charisma today. Bottom line: If you’re gonna brag, you better be ready to brawl. And on this number, he, without a doubt, proves you “can’t fuck with this Roc-a-Fella shit doe.” -Michael Roffman
App to Download: Punch Hero — “Rap niggas on Prozac get the bozack, niggas threw/ Two at me I threw fo’ back, hold that.” Get your aggression in check, digitally.
17. “Money, Cash, Hoes”
This is an underappreciated song. In fact, I would argue that most people’s initial recollections of it come from its reference in the way more popular “99 Problems” (as in, “Rap critics that say he’s ‘Money Cash Hoes’/ I’m from the hood, stupid, what type of facts are those?”). And it doesn’t help that Hard Knock Life has two ginormous singles (“Can I Get A…” and the title track). But “Money Cash Hoes” deserves loads of praise: there’s that killer synth groove courtesy of Swizz Beatz, lots of Goodfellas quotes at the end, and Jay-Z firmly letting us know who he is, what he’s about, and what we can do in response (“Fuck all y’all haters, blow dick/ I spits the game for those that throw bricks”). Maybe it wouldn’t get him a deal with, say, Samsung, but the Jay-Z on this tune would’ve told us all to take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. -Chris Coplan
App to Download: I Am Rich — What better way to prove you have an ample supply of money, cash, and hoes than with a $1,000 app that does absolutely nothing?
“Renegade”‘s legacy comes mostly at the expense of Jay-Z, the alleged victim of a brutal 32-bar beat down from Eminem that was immortalized by Nas on “Ether”. That’s not really fair, though–what makes Em’s part great is the intense satisfaction; it’s an unchained dresssing-down laden with loopy flow and dropkick comebacks. None of those things are in the nature of Jay’s storybook verse, where he instead opts for a cold tour of the ghetto, laced with numbing realities like “I had to hustle, my back to the wall, ashy knuckles.” It’s a history we’ve heard before, but much more Reasonable Doubt Hova than the boastful, aspiring Best Rapper Alive on the rest of The Blueprint. It’s brilliant in its own right, though, flourished with flips like, “Do not step to me / I’m awkward, I box lefty.” There’s a reason his rhymes are underrated here. They’re not as nice to look at. -Adam Lukach
App to Download: ShutUp Button — The phrase in 50 different languages, so you can put ’em all on blast.
15. “U Don’t Know”
If he’d never gotten the opportunity to pen his autobiography, Decoded, a decade later, “U Don’t Know” almost would have sufficed as Jay-Z’s official on-record retracing of his steps from bottom to top. The key non-single track on Jay’s career album, The Blueprint, finds him recounting his graduation from selling “so much coke that you could run the slalom” to selling clothes off his Roca Wear line and realizing he could make more from selling one rhyme than selling a kilo. Above an unwaveringly hard beat from Just Blaze, Jay flows at his most unwaveringly cocksure until he cuts himself off with one final Tony Montana-worthy boast: “I. Will. Not. Lose. Ever. Fucka.” -Steven Arroyo
App to Download: Dummies Mobile — For all your how-to on grindin’ G-packs and gettin’ cake (not the actual slogan of Dummies Mobile).