One of Jay-Z's most prolific lyrics is, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man," and his career in the entertainment world has proven it. Jay-Z has been in the game for well over two decades, a feat that many artists can only dream about. Throughout his tenure, he built a record label, launched a clothing line, became part owner with the Brooklyn Nets, started his own sports agency, and became a music streaming giant with his acquisition of TIDAL. However, all of these accomplishments came to fruition once he became a rising star in the hip-hop game. Since his start in the mid-90s, he's released 13 solo albums, a couple of joint albums, and countless feature collaborations. With that all in mind, let's take a look back at some of his best songs.
On “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” Jay-Z helped give producer Knobody the chance of a lifetime, as this song earned Knobody a huge cosign into working with other artists. Jay teamed up with Mary J. Blige on the hook and worked with the legendary director Hype Williams on the video.
On Jay’s third album “Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life,” the rapper made sure to enlist of number of producers that he hadn’t worked with before. Produced by former Murder Inc. executive Irv Gotti, “Can I Get A” also helped introduce rappers Amil and Ja Rule to mainstream audiences.
At this point in his career, Jay-Z showed his fans how one can live a lavish life on his hit single “Big Pimpin.'” Once again, he recruited Timbaland for the song production and featured one of rap’s most iconic groups UGK. Hype Williams directed the video that showcases scenes of parties on yachts and mansions.
Any real Jay-Z fan knows the rapper has a number of aliases. On his 2002 hit, “Jigga That N****,” fans are well aware of calling the rapper either "Jigga," "HOV" or "Hova."
Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” featured songs with some of the rapper’s most used lyrics including the hit “99 Problems.” The Rick Rubin-produced track features the lyric “99 problems but a b***h ain’t one.”
The lead single from Jay-Z's album “Kingdom Come” is the Just Blaze-produced “Show Me What You Got.” The song became a top ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100. It was known as his comeback single, since Jay announced he would retire from rap a few years prior.
To some people, it may be heard to believe that Jay-Z released his debut album 23 years ago. The album’s first single “Dead Presidents” was produced by Ski, who is also known for working with artists like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Mos Def. The single helped earn Jay a platinum-selling album.
Over the course of his career, Jay-Z has had a number of hit songs, however one of his most prolific is “Hard Knock Life.” Using an interpolation of "It's the Hard Knock Life" from the musical “Annie," Jay's version may sound kid-friendly, but the rapper has no problem telling about the ups and downs in his life. The song was nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 1999 Grammy Awards.
Jay-Z worked with Bay Area-bred producer Rick Rock on his single “Change the Game.” It was one of the songs that helped put Rick Rock into high demand for other artists like Fabolous, Busta Rhymes, and Beanie Sigel. “Change The Game” peaked at number ten on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart.
Jay-Z gave a more mature sound that was favored among some R&B fans with his single “Excuse Me Miss.” Between the samples of artists like Luther Vandross and the Notorious B.I.G., along with the falsetto vocals from Pharrell Williams, “Excuse Me Miss” became a number one hit on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart.
The second single from Jay-Z's "Reasonable Doubt" album was the Foxy Brown-assisted track “Ain’t No N****.” Jay is no stranger to showing his appreciation for old school music, which is evident in his early discography. This track samples the hit “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got)” by The Four Tops.
There was once a time in which production duo The Neptunes were behind the boards of nearly half the songs on the radio. Jay-Z played a role in that as the Neptunes produced his hit single “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me).” The Neptunes frontman Pharrell Williams shows off some of his vocal skills on the hook, an added touch to a song that became a top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
A huge collaboration between the music’s industry’s biggest artists was “Run This Town” that featured Kanye West and Rihanna. As the three each give their stance about being individuals who run their own life, the track was produced by West and No I.D. The song became a number one Billboard hit and won for Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the Grammys.
One of the things that makes Jay-Z’s music stand out is the producers he’s worked with. He recruited The Hitmen and Skyz Muzik on the hit track “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)…” which showcases a big band sound and eventually reached number eight on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs.
Jay-Z didn’t waste any time on releasing his sophomore album “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1” a year after his debut. The album’s first single “(Always Be My) Sunshine” gave Jay’s sound more of a commercial appeal with Foxy Brown and Babyface singing on the hook.
Fans typically enjoy a solid collaboration, especially it involves two of the most popular rappers. In the late '90s, Jay-Z teamed up with DMX on his hit single, “Money, Cash, H**s." The song also showcased an early work relationship between Jay and producer Swizz Beatz.
On Jay-Z’s 11th album “The Blueprint 3,” the rapper continued to work with producers who he’s made hits with over the years. The album’s first single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" was produced by No I.D. and showcased Jay-Z's stance on artists using auto-tune.
Jay-Z worked with Just Blaze on his hit single “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Besides the lyrics about Jay's admiration for different women, he also made sure to showcase women of different ethnicities in the music video.
One of Jay’s most recognizable songs is the 2004 hit, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Thanks are in order to producer Timbaland, for giving Jay a prolific track that hit the top five on the Billboard Hot 100.
In the late ‘90s, producer Timbaland was known for helping to craft the sound of artists like Missy Elliott, Ginuwine, and Aaliyah. Timbaland knows how to push the envelope of a futuristic sound and he did just that on Jay-Z's "Jigga What, Jigga Who." The two have continued to collaborate throughout their careers two decades later.
Jay-Z’s sixth album “The Blueprint” helped spark the careers of Kanye West and Just Blaze. West produced the album’s first single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" that uses a sample of the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back.” The single went on to become a top ten hit on the Billboard charts.
On his 2002 hit “Song Cry,” Jay-Z worked with Just Blaze to show a slower and melodic side to his sound. The MC showcases a bit of vulnerability as he raps about going through a breakup, he puts his pride to the side and rather put the emotions in a song than show them publicly.
Jay Z has always represented his hometown of New York to the fullest by telling about his life in the Marcy Projects. People have often said that if one can make it in New York, one can make it anywhere. That’s a similar attitude that Jay Z and Alicia Keys take in their single “Empire State of Mind.”
On Jay-Z’s tenth album “American Gangster,” the rapper was inspired by the Denzel Washington film of the same name as its concept. The Neptunes-produced track “I Know” became a Billboard top 20 hit.
In the early 2000s, Beyonce broke away from her group Destiny’s Child and ventured into what has become an astronomical solo career. One of her earliest songs as a solo artist was when Jay-Z featured her on his hit single “03 Bonnie & Clyde.” In addition to the two artists portraying a modern day Bonnie and Clyde in the music video, the song went on to become a top ten single.
On the “Black Album,” Jay-Z continued to work with The Neptunes for different sounds. On “Change Clothes,” the video features scenes from what appears to be a New York Fashion Week show with A-List celebrities sitting in the front row. The song was an anthem for models hitting the runway.
Jay-Z’s “30 Something" is a track that helps fans put the rapper’s career in perspective. In the song’s opening line he says, “30’s the new 20, I’m so hot still,” it makes fans wonder that even 13 years later, he’s still known as one of the hottest rappers in the game, even at 50-years-old.
“Watch The Throne” is a peak brotherhood between Jay-Z and Kanye West. The album’s second single “Otis” not only featured vocals from the late Otis Redding, but the two traded verses about wealth and fame.
The music relationship between Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz is a match made in heaven. The two teamed up again on their hit single “On the Next One.” The single went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, a first Grammy win for Swizz.
On “A Star Is Born,” Jay Z introduced his protégé and first Roc Nation signee J. Cole to mainstream audiences. Although Cole was already known among the mixtape scene, it was a collaboration between a rookie and a veteran, showcasing how much Jay knows a star when he sees it.
Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake have grown their music relationship from collaborations to joint tours. Timberlake joined Jay-Z on his 2013 hit single, “Holy Grail.” Co-production from The-Dream, Timbaland, J-Roc, and No ID added how the song became a top five hit and Grammy Award-winning single.
On Jay-Z’s 13th album “4:44,” the rapper worked exclusively with No ID on the production. In 2016, Beyonce released her album “Lemonade” which alleged to Jay’s infidelity, as a response, Jay used “4:44” to tell his take on relationships, along with stereotypes, life upbringing and racism. The album’s first single was “Family Feud” featuring wife Beyonce.
Jay-Z and Kanye West have both used their music to send different messages. The visual for "No Church in the Wild" caught some people by surprise, as each rapper isn't present in it. Instead, there are scenes of protestors and rioters going head-to-head with police, a wild visual indeed.
Throughout their careers, Jay-Z and Beyonce would collaborate on each other’s songs. It was no different in 2014 when they decided to record “Part II (On the Run),” a sequel to their 2003 hit “03 Bonnie & Clyde.” Timbaland’s production helped the track give them a rap love song with a mid-tempo vibe.
Jay-Z and Kanye West have collaborated on singles throughout their career, but they didn't release their first joint album “Watch the Throne" until 2011. The album’s first single “H.A.M.” became a top 25 hit on the Billboard charts.
Kanye West is known for blending different music genres and he continued to do that as the producer for Jay-Z’s “Young Forever.” British singer Mr. Hudson, who’s worked with West in the past handles the vocals on the hook. The song went on to become a top ten hit.
Kanye West has always been very vocal about his art and creativity. On "N****s in Paris," West and Jay-Z trade bars about being inspired by their Paris travels and bringing their hip hop culture to different audiences.
“Tom Ford” was the second single from Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” album. A hit track as an ode to the famous fashion designer, produced by J-Roc and Timbaland.
On “The Story of O.J.,” Jay references O.J. Simpson on the lyric “I’m not black I’m O.J.” to touch on subjects of Black culture and stereotypes.
Jay-Z and Beyonce have collaborated on singles for almost two decades, but in 2018, it was the first time they dropped a joint project. Their “Everything Is Love” album seemed to be a conclusion to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and Jay’s “4:44.” The music video was famously known for being shot at the Louvre in Paris.
Mya Singleton is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. Her work has also been featured on The Sports Fan Journal and AXS. Feel free to follow her talking all things music on Twitter @MyaMelody7.