The 20 Best Jay-Z Songs Of All Time, Ranked

best jay z songs of all time
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Shawn Carter. Hov. The Jiggaman.He goes by many names. But to the world at large, he’s simply Jay Z. For over 20 years, the Brooklyn native has held sway over the rap universe to a degree that’s staggering. He’s notched ten consecutive No. 1 albums, eleven if you count his collaboration with Kanye West, Watch The Throne. His shelves at home groan under the weight of twenty-one Grammy awards. He’s on the verge of becoming the first billionaire in hip-hop. Oh, and today he will become the first rapper ever inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

More than his status as a mogul and a tastemaker, it’s the music that continues to define Jay Z. His catalog is as impressive as any artist from the last sixty years of popular music, and the task to pick out even one hundred favorites leaves some impressive selections on the cutting room floor. Seriously, this was an agonizing exercise. Nevertheless, I powered through and I present the twenty best songs that Jay Z ever recorded ranked in order.

20. “Run This Town”

The sheer amount of star power on this song is actually pretty crazy to think about. Between Jay, Kanye and Rihanna, that’s 50 Grammys total, and Lord only knows how many millions of records they’ve each sold. “Run This Town” is one of the rare occasions where the superstars don’t coast on their status to make the track work either. Everyone comes through with their A-game. Rihanna delivers a soaring hook and vocal melody. Jay is at his braggadocios best, demanding you call him “Caesar.” Then Kanye pops up in the middle to diss Reebok and complain about his own fame. There’s a reason it hit No. 2 on the charts.

19. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”

Here’s a fun fact. Did you know that Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life is Jay’s best selling album? That’s right. More than The Blueprint, more than Reasonable Doubt, more than Watch The Throne, it’s his third studio album that reigns as his commercial peak. A lot of that has to do with the success of this single. Talking to Blues & Soul, Jay said that, “I wanted to represent and tell the story of everybody who’s been through what I’ve been through, or knows somebody that has. I also wanted to speak about our lifestyle to people who — though they may live, say, in the suburbs and not be part of that world — still want to know about it and understand it.” What better way to accomplish that goal than with some help from little orphan Annie?

18. “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)”

From the second you hear those first foreboding, sizzling synth notes, you know that trouble is coming. Jay Z rises to the menace of the music and commands any and all persons to put their drinks down and head to the dance floor within the next five seconds. It’s one of the better club bangers in his arsenal; a song that probably launched a million hook-ups at the dawn of the 21st century. “Roc A Fella, ya’ll know what this is!”

17. “’03 Bonnie & Clyde”

Maybe this one has a special place in my heart because it was the opening song from the first time I saw Jay Z live when he was burning down stadiums next to his wife Beyonce for the On The Run tour back in 2014. Even so, as far as duets go, this is a pretty amazing collaboration. As Jay envisioned making a song with his then-girlfriend, once Kanye came through with the track — all live instruments by the way — Jay knew he had a monster on his hands. “I brought it to Hov that night, he heard it, he thought of the video treatment before he thought of the rap,” Yeezy told MTV. “He just knew it was gonna be the one.”

16. “Can I Live”

It’s a simple question, but a powerful one. “Can I live?” That’s all Jay want to know. Over a funky, wah-wah painted guitar riff, and some minor key horns, he ruminates about the hustle and the hopelessness of the drug trade in the inner city. What it feels like to make it, to be wealthy enough to buy nice watches and expensive cars, but also carry the knowledge the it can all disappear in an instant. It’s vivid storytelling like this propelled him to the top of the rap game and cemented Reasonable Doubt as one of the most vital records in the genre’s history.

15. “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”

Long before he was lending hooks to Robin Thicke and Daft Punk, Pharrell came through with one of the most iconic song opening lines of all time. “I’m a hustler baby / I just want you to know.” It wasn’t just a small detail, it was a mission statement. It was a way of life. What makes “I Just Wanna Love U” even better is that it’s based on a true events. “I made this track with a particular Kimora Lee party in mind,” Jay later revealed. “The Carl Thomas’ song ‘I Wish’ was hot at the time, and Mary J. Blige was on the floor dancing like crazy. I captured that night in the track.” This song was Jay’s first No. 1 hit on the hip-hop charts. It also helped get the Neptunes in the studio with Britney Spears. That’s right, we never would’ve gotten “I’m A Slave 4 U” if it wasn’t for this track.

14. “Show Me What You Got”

Kingdom Come isn’t Jay Z’s finest hour. When he ranked all of his own albums a few years back he placed it on the bottom of the stack. I can’t argue with his assessment to be honest, but, “Show Me What You Got” remains a diamond glistening in the muck. That opening sax salvo alone taken from Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back standout “Show Em Whatcha Got” sends chills up and down my spine. This song screams opulence. You don’t even need to see the James Bond-themed video to hear the sound of champagne glasses clinking or feel the force of the private jet taking off on a runway.

13. “Encore”

In 2003 Jay Z claimed that the Black Album would be his curtain call. That he was going to retire. That the game had gone soft and all the competition had gone out of it. I don’t know that many people took him at face value when he made that declaration, but it certainly felt like he gave the ruse up on this Kanye-produced banger. To be sure, there’s a whole hell of a lot of looking back on “Encore,” but he’s still talking about taking over the globe and promising that “When I come back like Jordan / Wearin’ the 4-5, it ain’t to play games with you.” Either way, “Encore” functions as a thrilling denouement to the first half of Jay’s career.

12. “Public Service Announcement”

Can we just pause for a second to appreciate the greatness of Just Blaze? The man is one of the greatest producers in the history of hip-hop, and, for my money anyway, “Public Service Announcement” is one of his finest hours. The foreboding piano intro, the crescendo of organs when the beat drops, it’s so simple, but so damn effective. Have you seen him play drums by the way? He’s a monster! Oh, and yes, Jay murders this track lyrically, but you already knew that, because he’s “Hov, OH, H-to-the-O-V.”

11. “Dead Presidents II”

Okay, so he borrowed Nas’ voice on this one, no big deal right? No, it actually turned out to be a huge deal as history has shown. It got under the Queensbridge rapper’s skin something fierce, to the point that he mentioned in his song “Stillmatic Freestyle,” rapping, “You show off, I count dough off when you sample my voice.” Still, Jay put Nas’ words to good use creating an iconic hook which he used to go off with some career defining flows, like, “I’ll tell you half the story; the rest, you fill it in / Long as the villain win.” It was only fitting that when Nas and Jay reconciled at the I Declare War show in 2005, they did it by performing this song.

10. “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)”

This track might be Jay Z’s greatest flex. He knows all the young up and comers out their resent his success and you know what? He doesn’t give a sh*t. That first verse in particular is God level. “Young f*cks spittin’ at me, young rappers gettin’ at me / My n***a Big predicted this shit exactly / “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” / gotta move carefully / ‘Cause f*ckers hate when you gettin’ money like athletes.” And then the kicker. “Look, I’m on my grind, cousin, ain’t got time for frontin’ / Sensitive thugs, ya’ll all need hugs.” Game over.

9. “Can’t Knock The Hustle”

Track one, side one of Jay Z’s first album. The one that started it all, and what a way to kick it off. You can almost call this song a vision board. As Jay explained to NPR, “It sounds like I’m saying, you can’t knock my hustle. But who I was talking to was the guys on the street because rap was my hustle and like, at the time street — the streets was my job.” The Mary J. Blige feature was also a major coup that helped certify him as a real force in the rap game.

8. “Empire State Of Mind”

People have been writing songs about New York City for about as long as New York has been a city. The canon already seemed filled by all-time classics like Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and Billy Joel’s “New York State Of Mind” when Jay rolled into the studio with Alicia Keys to work on the Blueprint 3 in 2009. Once the world heard this track however, everyone knew they had to make room for one more. Jay had always repped Brooklyn in his music, but for this one, he widened his scope to the city’s other boroughs. He’s going to Tribeca, Harlem, and to the Bronx, where he can “Make a Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” The tour through the concrete jungle resonated of course. “Empire State Of Mind” became the first, and to this date remains, the only No. 1 single of his career.

7. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”

“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” was Jay’s first appearance in the Top 10 on the Hot 100 charts, and the world’s first glimpse into his masterpiece The Blueprint. For the music, Kanye reached back into the ’70s and repurposed the Jackson 5’s hit “I Want You Back.” The beat and melody are infectious enough, but then Jay adds that signature tag, “H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A,” and know it’s stuck in your head for the rest of the week. “Get your damn hands up!”

6. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”

“You’re now tuned into the muh’f*ckin’ greatest!” I actually don’t know what I enjoy more, The song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” or the clip from Fade To Black of Jay feeling the beat to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” for the first time. As soon as Timbaland hit play, he knew what he had. Beyond his skill as a superb wordsmith, Jay has an ear for music that never fails him. There’s a lot of great wordsmiths out there that just can’t seem to break simply because of their beat selection. Jay’s ears must be made of platinum.

5. “Takeover”

Before we go any further, I want to note that I think The Blueprint is Jay Z’s best album. Apologies to all you Reasonable Doubt advocates. Jay hasn’t always been the greatest album artist, but in 2001, with Kanye, Just Blaze and Bink handling most of the production, he finally put together the full-length masterpiece worthy of his legend. Now, as for the “Takeover,” I personally think it’s in the top three best diss records of all time discussion alongside Nas’ response to this song “Ether,” and Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up.” It’s not just what Jay said on this song either — though the savagery is next-level — it’s also the way he came after Prodigy and Nas at Summer Jam in 2001 that cements “Takeover’s” legacy. They haven’t wanted it with Hov ever since.

4. “N****s In Paris”

This is the only non-solo track on this entire list, but I think its plain to understand why. The ubiquity of “N****s In Paris” in 2012 was incredible. You could hardly turn on the radio without hearing Kanye rapping about fish filets or Jay comparing himself to the great Mike triumvirate of Jordan, Tyson and Jackson. Take your pick. The escalating beat captures your attention from jump. It’s been said that Kanye brought the best out of Jay on Watch The Throne, and I have to agree. Much like the aforementioned “Takeover,” this song’s reputation was forever etched in stone because of the way it was presented in a live setting. During the pair’s subsequent world tour they would run it back over and over and over, as many as 11 times during the encore. Each night, the crowd begged for more.

3. “Big Pimpin’”

“Big Pimpin'” is a great song, make no mistake, but honestly, it might pale in comparison to Jay’s assessment of the track that he made while promoting his book Decoded in 2010. “Some [lyrics] become really profound when you see them in writing,” Jay told the Wall Street Journal. “Not ‘Big Pimpin.’ That’s the exception. It was like, I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh.” Reading is harsh Jay. So is the line, “You know I –- thug ’em, f*ck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em / Cause I don’t f*ckin need ’em.”

2. “99 Problems”

It’s a godd*mn shame that it took Jay so long to link up with Rick Rubin. When they finally hit the studio together in 2003 for the Black Album, the results were pure magic. Rubin brought his signature, early-era Def Jam bombast, and Jay came equipped with some of the deepest flows of his entire career. The two match perfectly on “99 Problems.” The opening, overdriven metallic salvo captures the tone completely and raises the stakes right off the top. Then, Jay lets loose with his tale of getting pulled over by a cop looking to bust him. You hang on to every word, sweating it out with him as the cop leans in to ask, “You some type of lawyer or something?” The twist that the b*tch Jay’s referring to isn’t a female, but the drug-sniffing dog he’s trying to avoid that can blow up his whole spot is one of the most incredible revelations anyone’s ever inserted into a hip-hop song.

1. “Where I’m From”

To the more casual fan, it may seem like a contrarian move to declare a song from an album considered one of Jay’s lower lights, a cut that wasn’t even released as a single, to be the greatest piece of music he’s ever produced, but such is the power of “Where I’m From.” When you combine the grimy, industrial-sounding beat produced by D-Dot and Amen-Ra with the story Jay weaves about coming up in the the Marcy Houses, you don’t just get transported to a different time and place, you can see it, smell it, and hear it all through the eyes of the man behind the microphone. It’s an unforgiving environment. “A place where the church is the flakiest / 
And n****s been praying to God so long that they atheist / 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.'”