As Jay-Z declared in 2001's "Breathe Easy," few rappers stack up when it comes to his flow, consistency, stories, charisma, and trendsetting powers — and he's backed up his claims for three decades on.
The Brooklyn rapper has cranked out chart-topping hits and street anthems across classic albums like The Blueprint and The Black Album, and he's inspired generations of rappers to take on his pen-free approach to music. But long before becoming a hip-hop icon, the young Shawn Carter first honed his musical gifts by rapping over a boombox in his childhood home in Bed-Stuy's Marcy Projects.
Nicknamed "Jazzy" for his love of music, Jay-Z split his time between exploring his newfound passion and dealing crack cocaine as a teenager. After linking with childhood friend and then-mentor Jaz-O, he adopted the moniker "Jay-Z" in the late 1980s, and eventually captivated hip-hop fans on the posse cut "Show and Prove" from Big Daddy Kane's 1994 album Daddy's Home. That moment led to the eventual release of his own single, 1995's "In My Lifetime," and the years that followed served as the coronation of one of rap's biggest stars.
After being rejected from major record labels, Jay linked with fellow New Yorkers Damon "Dame" Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke to establish Roc-A-Fella Records in 1996. He soon went from being an up-and-coming artist selling burned CDs out of his car to producing multi-platinum singles and No. 1 albums.
His greatness has earned him 24 GRAMMYs to date — tied with Kanye West for the most of any rapper — and a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And with a billion-dollar business empire to match his acclaimed discography, Jay-Z has long been declared one of the greatest MCs ever.
As he continues his rap reign, revisit some of Hov's most illustrious career moments, from memorable performances to groundbreaking album releases and legacy-defining accolades.
Listen to GRAMMY.com's official Songbook: An Essential Guide To Jay-Z playlist on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Pandora. Playlist powered by GRAMMY U.
"Hawaiian Sophie" (1989)
A fresh-faced, hi-top faded Jay made one of his earliest appearances on wax with "Hawaiian Sophie." The 1989 record was a modest and playful hit by childhood friend Jaz-O, who let Jay contribute a few lines on the island-themed track.
Though Jay's presence was minor, he put a face to a relatively unknown name by popping up throughout the song's luau-style video. Years later, he gained the attention of legendary Brooklyn rapper Big Daddy Kane, who brought Jay on as a hype man before he broke out as a solo act and formed a more calculated, sharp-tongued lyrical style.
Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Taking inspiration from classic films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, Jay-Z showcased his lyrical potency and storytelling ability on his critically acclaimed debut, Reasonable Doubt, in mafioso fashion. The album was the manifesto of a 26-year-old street hustler, who looked to shed the deadly perils of the drug underworld to bask in the caviar and champagne lifestyle.
He shifted from the colorful, bombastic rap style of his early career to a snappier and grounded delivery on "Coming of Age," and the Biggie Smalls-assisted "Brooklyn's Finest," while still offering a slice of mainstream appeal on "Ain't No N—" featuring Foxy Brown. Legendary producers DJ Premier ("Fried or Foe"), DJ Clark Kent ("Cashmere Thoughts"), and Ski ("Dead Presidents II") helped lay the canvas for Jay-Z to illustrate his past experiences and impending accolades and riches.
The album was among his best releases in the '90s, and helped establish his foothold in the industry through the new millennium. While Reasonable Doubt didn't reach platinum status until six years after its 1996 release, the project elevated Jay's profile as an emerging MC with a penchant for vivid street tales and mainstream edge.
Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life (1998)
Jay-Z's third album is possibly the most impactful in his career. Not only did it notch his first GRAMMY (for Best Rap Album at the 1999 GRAMMYs), but it remains his best-selling album with more than 5 million copies sold. It also started an 11-album streak of No. 1 releases.
The project was a medley of pop-oriented singles such as "Can I Get A…" and club records like the piano-laced hit "Money, Cash, Hoes." It also offered street classics like "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," which showcased his musical versatility and mainstream appeal.
Aside from the Stevie J-produced "Ride Or Die," Jay veered away from the Bad Boy production style of Vol. 2's predecessor, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. He enlisted Ruff Ryders producer Swizz Beatz for "Coming of Age (Da Sequel)," and producers Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri, Irv Gotti, and Kid Capri were also tapped for the project, creating a lush palette of club bangers and records indicative of the shiny-suit era of late '90s hip-hop.
"Imaginary Players" (1997)
If it wasn't for Hov, rappers may still be drinking beer over champagne, rocking silver charms over platinum, and driving Range Rover 4.0 SEs instead of 4.6 HSEs. Not only did Jay shift the motor and champagne industry with his second album, but he altered the rap game, too. And "Imaginary Players" was proof.
The In My Life, Vol. 1 cut was a collective side-eye to frauds masked as street hustlers, and signaled Jay-Z's early trendsetting powers. The song didn't graze the Billboard charts as high as singles "Who You Wit," "The City Is Mine" and "(Always Be My) Sunshine," but it grew into a street anthem and blueprint for the real go-getters to shine among the fakes.
"Big Pimpin'" (1999)
For years, "Big Pimpin'" was the ultimate summer anthem. The single from Vol 3… Life and Times of S. Carter showcased Jay's ability to produce hit records with artists from other regions. It also laid the ground for future collaborations between Jay-Z and Timbaland, who went on to produce tracks like "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "The Bounce," "Tom Ford," and others.
Music aside, the song's video is reflective of the flashy, big-budget era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Shot during the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, the video's yacht views, sand-filled beaches, and cigar smoke complimented the song's tropical sound and inspired listeners to wrap themselves in linen garments, kick back and enjoy the Caribbean breeze.
The Blueprint (2001)
Regarded as the best album in his catalog, 2001's The Blueprint encapsulated all of the elements that made Jay-Z a lyrical titan and fixture in music. Between the boundless braggadocio on "The Rules Back," the tales of chaotic romance on "Girls. Girls, Girls," and a snapshot of his uprising on "Blueprint ("Momma Loves Me"), the album captured it all.
While "The Takeover" sparked one of the era's most contentious rap beefs, and forced Queens rapper Nas to snap back with a poignant blow of his own in "Ether," the album was riddled with some of Jay's biggest records during the 2000s. Street anthems like "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" had rap fans of all ages spelling out the song's title, and soul-stirring album cuts like "Song Cry" had listeners barely holding onto their tears.
The Black Album (2003)
Jay's eighth studio effort was pegged as the final one by the Brooklyn MC. And while he eventually returned for Kingdom Come three years later, 2003's The Black Album would've been the perfect end to an already historic rap career.
On "December 4th," Jay kicked off the album with a call back to his origins. "They say they never really miss you 'til you dead or you gone/ So on that note I'm leaving after this song/ See you ain't got to feel no way about Jay so long/ At least let me tell you why I'm this way, hold on."
Jay goes on to outline his successes on "What More Can I Say," then incites fans to level up their sexy on "Change Clothes." Between experimental records like the DJ Quik-produced "Justify My Thug" and the soulful "Lucifer," The Black Album is also filled with stadium-rocking anthems.
On "99 Problems," Jay raps over zingy guitar riffs for a bold track that's reminiscent of Run DMC and Aerosmith's 1986 smash "Walk This Way." Both songs were produced by Rick Rubin, who provided the rock-induced, bare-bones beat for Hov to unleash on snarky law enforcers and uninformed rap critics.
The Timbaland-produced "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" is a middle finger to the dream killers envious of others' success. The platinum-selling record even inspired Barack Obama to use a shoulder-brushing motion when running against then-rival Hillary Clinton during his 2008 Democratic nomination campaign.
After dropping a live album with The Roots and releasing two critically panned collaborations with R. Kelly, Jay made a creative pivot with Collision Course (EP). The rapper teamed up with Linkin Park for a hip-rock project that was inspired by Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, and mashed hits like "Jigga What, Jigga Who," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Big Pimpin'" and with songs from Linkin Park's Meteora and Hybrid Theory releases.
The album received mixed reviews, but the project's lone single "Numb/Encore" won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 48th GRAMMY Awards and helped the EP land a No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200.
"Empire State of Mind" (2009)
Fifteen years after Nas' "N.Y. State of Mind," Jay made his own dedication to New York City with "Empire State of Mind." The record is an ode to the city that shaped him, and the millions of other natives who, like him, hustled in various boroughs to get by (and have a closet full of New York Yankees hats).
The Alicia Keys-assisted track touched the hearts of New Yorkers everywhere, including Harlem and Brooklyn native Lil Mama, who notoriously hopped on stage with Keys and Jay during their performance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. The Blueprint 3 single took home two gramophones at the 53rd GRAMMY Awards for Best Rap-Sung Collaboration and Best Rap Song.
Watch the Throne (2011)
After teaming up on classic songs like "Never Let Me Down" and "Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)," Jay and Kanye West came together for a full-length project in 2011. The two rap giants combined their musical genius for Watch the Throne, an explorative and enthralling body of work filled with genre-melding hits coated with top-tier production and memorable features.
Watch the Throne was an exercise in musical cohesion and set the bar for collab projects to follow, given the commercial success and critical reception it received upon its release. Jay served as the lyrical orator, while West was the sonic architect and more animated showman.
Between glossy trap songs like "H.A.M." and "N—s In Paris, and the pop-extravagance of "Lift Off," Jay and Kanye tell fervent tales of their ghetto origins on "Murder To Excellence," visions of their children's lives on "New Day," and give listeners soul-stirring jams like "The Joy" and "Otis." Each track was nourished from the well of Jay and Kanye's artistry, and done without either rapper leaving the other to dry.
"Holy Grail" (2013)
The same year Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake came together for the hit "Suit & Tie," the pair delivered another smash with "Holy Grail." The song's origins began in the sessions for Watch the Throne, but Hov feared it would get lost in the shuffle — so he decided to build 2013's Magna Carta… Holy Grail around the enthralling record.
An explosive track about the allure and destruction of fame, it became the lead single for MCHG, selling over 3 million copies and winning Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2014 GRAMMYs. A year after its release, Billboard placed the record at No. 25 on the publication's Top 100 Hot Rap Songs of all-time list.
EVERYTHING IS LOVE (2018)
Prior to 2018, Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, blessed fans with culture-shifting collaborations like "Crazy in Love," "03 Bonnie and Clyde," and "Drunk in Love." These songs prompted fans to call for a full-length project from the power duo, and after years of anticipation, the power couple delivered 2018's EVERYTHING IS LOVE.
The album came as a surprise to fans, with many jarred by the rumors surrounding Jay and Beyoncé's marriage following the release of Bey's searing 2016 project Lemonade (as well as Jay's honest response with 4:44 — more on that later). While the speculations and alleged drama continue to swirl online, the two stars came together for a nine-track album that gave listeners a behind-the-scenes look at life at the Carter residence.
Announced in the middle of their second On The Run stadium tour, EVERYTHING IS LOVE celebrated the power of black love and family life while exploring unadulterated extravagance. Like their past collaborations, Beyoncé's soothing, high-powered vocals helped elevate Jay's bars and artistry.
Together, they combined their collective powers for stories about rowdy tour stops and endless shopping sprees on "APES—" and "BOSS," and Beyoncé adorned the album with emotion-filled love ballads like "SUMMER." The couple even exchanged braggadocious rhymes about the strength of their union on "LOVEHAPPY," and the fun they have together outside the lines of celebrity on "HEARD ABOUT US" — proving they had not only weathered the storm, but came out stronger together.
Arguably one of Jay's most complete and honest bodies of work, 4:44 is a vivid look at the artist's triumphs and failures as Shawn Carter the man. On the opening track "Kill Jay Z," he sheds his ego-fueled moniker to reveal his early upbringing in Bed-Stuy on "Marcy Me," the discovery of his mother's sexuality on "Smile" and the issues surrounding his marriage on the title track.
While the late-career album was largely viewed as a response to Beyoncé's Lemonade album, 4:44 also painted a portrait of Black America, unveiled the pathway to generational wealth on "The Story of O.J.," and the value of shared successes on "Family Feud" and "Legacy."
The rapper veered from the commercial sound of Blueprint 3, and the gumbo of trap and luxury-soaked beats on Magna Carta… Holy Grail, to deliver deeply personal messages over No I.D.'s grounded, sample-heavy production.
The artist hasn't released another solo project since 4:44, but if it is in fact his last album, it's certainly a stellar way to close the door on a legendary music career. The 2017 release was praised by critics and garnered three nominations at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, including Song Of The Year and Album Of The Year.
"GOD DID" (2022)
The GRAMMY-nominated song had plenty of star power thanks to John Legend, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Fridayy and producer DJ Khaled — but Jay-Z's verse tilted the hip-hop world on its axis.
On "GOD DID," Jay spit one of the best verses in his catalog. "I be speaking to the souls of men/ Those of them willing to die for the existence that this cold world has chose for them/ Kicking snow off a frozen Timb (woo)/ Back and forth on this turnpike, really took a toll on them." The MC detailed his journey across state lines to live out his street dreams, the drama and misfortunes that followed his tracks, and how he leveraged his powers to become one of the first rappers to reach billionaire status.
He encapsulated it all within a four-minute verse, closing out the track touching on his legacy — and proclaiming that he is in fact one of rap's all-time greats. "I just got a million off a sync/ Without risking a million years tryna get it out the sink (woo)/ Hov big/ They said they don't know me internationally, n—s on the road did/ I see a lot of Hov in Giggs/ Me and Meek could never beef, I freed that n—a from a whole bid/ Hov did/ Next time we have a discussion who the GOAT, you donkeys know this."
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