Tidal Catalog #16: Jay-Z

Introduction: For those of you that have stumbled across this website and are interested in reading about my trek through the universe of the Tidal streaming service, let me tell you a bit about what I did. Back in 2016 I thought it would be kind of cool to listen to artist’s catalog from start to finish and rank them from best to worst. After all, who doesn’t like a good list? I thought I might do a few of them and see what happened, hoping it would introduce me to records that were foreign to me in the arsenal of an artist I was familiar with. I also though that it would be pretty cool to get out of the “one off” mode of listening to a new record, years after the previous one, in order to get a true sense of how the artist matured over time. Flash forward to June of 2019 and 250 catalogs later, I have ended the trek. I posted these all on Facebook over the years as they were completed but I’m going to move them all over here, starting with #1, in order to expand them out a bit more.

As with all my catalogs, to be considered in the ranking, an album has to meet certain criteria:

  • The artist must actually perform on 80% of the tracks (soundtrack and rap provision)
  • No compilations of previous released material will be included.
  • The album must have been released officially and within the realm of the label that the artist would have been on at the time or official releases posthumously (normally applies to a slew of live records)
  • Any EPs must contain new new music and be relevant to the catalog, not be more like a single with a b-side or two.
  • Compilations of previously recorded material will be included if they are remixes, bonus tracks, outtakes… mostly music that hasn’t been part of a main release before)

Entrance Point: I had listened to every album at least once but had never really put them in any type of order before. So I was very familiar with what I was getting myself into.

Included: His two collaborations with R. Kelly, one with Linkin Park, one with Kanye and his record with Beyonce under the moniker, The Carters.

Not Included: The Blueprint 2.1 (a recut 1 disc version of 2.0); Streets is Watching soundtrack (not enough tracks feature him).

All albums ranked on a 10 point scale.

  • The Blueprint (10)

It’s been a while since you’ve seen one of these catalog posts from me, which I will admit is because this one sent me to a grinding halt. Why? Hard to say really. I mean, if you read the intro, you’ll know there are 250 of these already completed and this is just a transfer and expansion over to the blog. Now, they didn’t have much content to them other than a ranking, so that’s a bit different but at this point, they should be second nature to me. Most are easy to write up – there are some good ones to talk about and some really bad ones to talk about. With Jay-Z, there are 5(!) albums ranked 10/10 which on my scale, is pretty insane. I think trying to fully explain why these albums are so perfect is more difficult than I would have expected…but I’m going to try because I need to move on now! So…

The Blueprint was Jay-Z’s sixth album and is exactly what the title says it is – the blueprint of modern hip-hop. Among a slew of perfect records, there’s was never any doubt which one should be at the top. Jay-Z isn’t the king of hip-hop off of luck, he’s a savvy businessman and more importantly for this purpose, one of the greatest rappers of all time, that can blend a variety of styles of hip-hop to create music that’s accessible for all. Black, white, young, old, male, female, there’s something in Jigga’s catalog for everyone. And if you want to just make a nice compact package of everything, just grab the Blueprint.

Jay-Z’s flow is great and he writes lyrics like no others – shit, there’s a whole book called Jay-Z Decoded to break down what his lyrics mean for squares like me. And Jay-Z has always commissioned unique samples for his music. On “Takeover” he uses “Five to One” by the Doors, to create a gritty, tough song and then follows it up with “Izzo” which changes the pace completely using “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5 as the main basis for the tune. This is also the album where he fully established two go-to producers that could fit his sound perfectly – Just Blaze and some dude named Kanye West. The Blueprint is also the glue that brings the earlier Jay-Z albums with upbeat dancier drops (“Jigga that N*gga” “Hola Hovito”) together with the future of Hova (“U Don’t Know” “Song Cry”). Jay-Z was a superstar before this album but this launched him into the stratosphere and was good enough to not get lost in the shuffle since it was released on 9/11/01, the day the twin towers came down.

“Song Cry”
  • Watch the Throne (10)

If there’s a modern day artist that might challenge Jay-Z for the throne, it’s Kanye. Yes, he’s batshit insane but he’s another one of these rappers that don’t come along too often. He had been producing a handful of songs on every Jay-Z album (except for 2007’s American Gangster) so it made for a natural pairing to do a full album together. And so, there’s only two possible results here – either two of the greatest modern day rappers will create something mind numbingly hot or their egos will take over and throw out something that can’t possibly live up to the hype. Well, obviously I think this is the former. It’s so good that the first single from the album (“H.A.M.”) was great but not even great enough to make the fucking record (it’s only on the deluxe edition).

The entire album is great but it opens up so well with “No Church in the Wild” followed by “Lift Off” with Beyonce, “N*ggas In Paris” with a video game beat produced by Hit-Boy and then one of the best tunes in his catalog, “Otis.” On that track, Kayne gives a lesson in sampling – taking Otis Redding’s voice and chopping it down into like 5 brilliant seconds of grunts, screaming and a handful of words repeated throughout the song – something you wouldn’t think anyone would want to cut his vocals down into – but this is why Mr. West isn’t like anyone else. You also get “Gotta Have It” produced by the Neptunes. This is important because in the last two decades of Neptunes/Pharrell productions, you can immediately tell it’s from them, no matter which artist is using the beat. On this track, it sounds like a Jay-Z song. Like a track crafted for the artist and not in the studio and pitched until someone wanted it. That sticks out in my mind. Oh and yeah, Jay-Z and Kanye rap on every tune. I mean, that does it right there.

  • Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter (10)
  • MTV Unplugged (10)

So, it may seem weird to skip talking about Vol. 3… and put words to screen for the MTV Unplugged record but this performance was groundbreaking, anyway you look at it. How many of these MTV Unplugged performances do you actually remember? Mariah Carey, check. Nirvana, sure. Eric Clapton performing “Tears In Heaven,” yep. And Jay-Z? Well, of course, and why? Because it was unexpected. Just like LL Cool J’s deodorant filled armpit, having a rapper on MTV Unplugged seemed like an unlikely pairing – especially a rapper that relies so heavily on samples. But this is the type of iconic performance that makes Jigga what he is. He brought in the best live hip-hop group on the planet – The Roots – to back him up in the performance and recreated the vast majority of the samples, live. And he did this all while sitting on a fucking stool, relaxed as fuck, not missing a beat. “Takeover” is the king here. That gritty Doors sample recreated live and then supplemented by a string section that’s off the chain and the crowd chanting…It’s a flawless deconstruction of an already great song. The Roots superior recreation of the Annie theme in “Hard Knock Life” is pretty brilliant as well. And even bringing Pharrell along for a live rendition of one of Jay’s bounciest tracks, “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me)” is wonderful as the Roots break off into a little jazzy passage at the start of the song that highlights that the possibilities on tracks can be endless if you take the time to actually write a quality tune up front.

(Unfortunately, there are no videos on youtube for this album)

  • Unfinished Business (10)

It feels a bit weird to highlight Unfinished Business in 2019, one of two full collaborations with serial pisser, R. Kelly. But the album exists and it’s great – but I’m not sure that many people really know it. In 2002, Jay-Z and R. Kelly released Best of Both Worlds, an album almost produced in full by R. Kelly and Poke and Tone (Trackmasters). It got ripped by critics for being pretty lightweight but it’s fantastic as well. The album sounded like R. Kelly tracks with Jay-Z on them but like the “Ignition’s” of the world, not his ballads. With the album being a failure, it’s a bit surprising that a second disc would arrive two years later but it seems Unfinished Business were tracks recorded during the same sessions but that didn’t make the initial album, which is weird, since this is the better of the two discs. But this album got ripped in the press as well, mainly because it’s not very different than the first collaboration and in all honestly, it surely does feel like a dumbed down version of Jay-Z. So my 10/10 may very well be out of place here in the end but what this album has going for it, is that it’s fun, immensely fun from the first note to the last. It’s an album that feels like a bachlorette party soundtrack waiting to happen. And what’s wrong with that? I’ve always maintained that an album doesn’t have to be groundbreaking or intellectual to be enjoyable and Unfinished Business is a joy to my ears.

(Youtube also doesn’t have any of these videos in wake of the R. Kelly scandal)

  • Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life (10)
  • Reasonable Doubt (9.5)
  • The Carters – Everything is Love (9.5)
  • In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (9.5)
  • The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (9.5)
  • The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse (9.5)
  • The Best of Both Worlds (9)
  • The Blueprint 3 (9)
  • The Black Album (8.5)

I could have talked about so many of the albums above but I really couldn’t pass up on the Black Album. The 6th in a string of solo releases to hit #1 on the Billboard Album chart, when the average person thinks of Jay-Z, other than the Blueprint, this is the album that comes into their head. After all, we will forever hear “I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” in pop culture. But while it has great songs like “99 Problems” “Dirt Off My Shoulder” and “Encore” when you’ve got a catalog like Jay-Z’s, even a couple less than stellar songs makes a significant difference in quality. And it comes down to the end of the record. After “99 Problems” there’s five tracks that don’t do much for me including “Justify My Thug” which mixes Madonna’s “Justify My Love” with Run DMC’s “Rock Box” and ends up being one of my least favorite tunes in his catalog. People also ate this record up because it was billed as his final record and ensuing farewell tour. You know, three years later there’s a “comeback” record. Funny, J.

“Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
  • 4:44 (8)
  • American Gangster (8)
  • Kingdom Come (7)
  • S. Carter Collection (7)
  • Collision Course (6)

I also talk about this one simply because of what it is – an EP of mashups between Jay-Z and Linkin Park, of which, if nothing else, is interesting. I would have rather heard new music from the two artists than mashing them together, however, Danger Mouse opened the door to mashups getting their 15-minutes of fame when he put out the Grey Album, mashing up Hova’s Black Album with the Beatles White Album. This also came out after “99 Problems” proved that Jay-Z could rap over rock beats and that’s what this is. There’s six tunes on here and sometimes Jay-Z’s vocals are mashed up over Linkin Park songs and other times Chester Bennington’s vocals are sung over Jay’s beats. It’s not the greatest record at all but it’s an interesting snapshot of an era where only this could have happened.

  • Magna Carta Holy Grail (6)

Summary: 20 albums, average 8.8

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