Jay-Z released The Black Album in 2003, his supposedly final album before he went into retirement. But no one in hip-hop truly stays retired, especially not Jay, who still has plenty of bars and plenty of money to make. Last Friday, Jay released his 13th solo album (and fifth since “retiring”), 4:44, and while his output has been uneven since The Black Album, Jay is still dropping gems on us.
While we marinate on 4:44, here’s a look at some of his Jay’s best lyrics since his first retirement:
Key Line: “Christie’s with my missy, live at the MoMA, bacons and turkey bacons, smell the aroma.”
I’ve yet to meet another person who actually enjoys listening to Magna Carta… Holy Grail on a regular basis, so I’m on my own here. While the 2013 release doesn’t hold up against Jay’s earlier classics, the Timbaland-produced “Picasso Baby” was arthouse Hov at his peak. Find me another Jay song where he tells you “I want a Rothko, no, I want a brothel. By the time Jay finishes his second verse telling Blue to lean on the Yellow Basquiat in his kitchen corner, I’m already trying to figure out how to commission a personal painting of Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel.
Key Line: “I felt so inspired by what my teacher said, said I’d either be dead or be a reefer head, not sure if that’s how adults should speak to kids, especially when the only thing I did was speak in class.”
I’m not sure much needs to be said about this Blueprint 3 tune. Jay and Pharrell make beautiful music, and “So Ambitious” feels like an unofficial follow-up to “Allure” off The Black Album. Also, it made Barack Obama’s 2016 summer playlist.
“Murder to Excellence”
Key Line: “All black everything, n—- you know my fresh code, I’m out here fighting for you, don’t increase my stress load.”
Jay has never been shy about tackling political issues, and on one of the best tracks from Watch the Throne, he gives us his take on the American system that stands to punish black people through racism and police discrimination. Hov dedicates the first verse of the song to Danroy Henry, who will killed in a police shooting in 2010 and shouts out Fred Hampton—a Black Panther activist who was shot dead by the Chicago police in 1969, incidentally on the same day Jay was born—in his second verse. On an album dedicated mostly to celebrating the life of the black and famous, “Murder to Excellence” was a great interlude of sorts for Jay to keenly acknowledge the black American experience, and why that makes appreciating the finer things even more worthwhile.
“Why I Love You”
Key Line: “I tried to teach n—– how to be kings, and all they ever wanted to be was soldiers, so the love is gone ‘til blood is drawn, so we no longer wear the same uniform, fuck you squares, the circle got smaller, the castle got bigger, the walls got taller, and truth be told after all that said, n—- still got love for you.”
You don’t get to Jay’s spot without making plenty of enemies along the way. More than just the high-profile beefs with Mobb Deep and Nas, this song addresses the fraying of relationships amongst close associates, namely the Roc-A-Fella records fallout with Dame Dash. It’s perfect to run this track back now, especially with the news this weekend that Kanye West is suing TIDAL and leaving Jay’s streaming service.
Key Line: “But time don’t go back, it goes forward, can’t run from the pain, go towards it, some things can’t be explained, what caused it, such a beautiful soul, so pure, shit, gonna see you again, I’m sure of it, ‘til that time, little man, I’m nauseous.”
Similar to “Why I Love You,” one of the best tracks off Kingdom Come sees Jay tackling three different types of loss over three verses. The first verse is dedicated to his business partnership with Dame falling apart. The second verse is about losing a relationship over career ambitions. But it’s the third verse, where Jay speaks openly about the death of his nephew Colleek D. Luckie, who passed away in car accident driving a vehicle that Jay gifted to him, that is the standout.
Key Line: “Feds still lurking, they see I’m still putting work in, cause somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’”
Opening a track with “Shout out to old Jews and old rules, new blacks with new stacks, I already been the king, retro act, I’m just bringing it back like Jordan Packs” is some throwback braggadocious Hov shit. This is Jay just going into the booth and having a grand ol’ time. Hov is just having fun here, straight up disrespecting the concept of math (“You ain’t gotta count it my n—- I can add, 1 million, 2 million, 3 million, 20 million, oh, I’m so good at math”) and not-so-subtly calling out Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of hip-hop culture (see above).
Key Line: “So tall and lanky, my suit, it should thank me, I make it look good to be this hood, Meyer Lansky, mixed with Lucky Lefty, gangster effortlessly.”
American Gangster remains one of Jay’s most cohesive albums, and he’s never sounded more comfortable and in his element than on “Party Life” where Hov slows down his flow and gives us a glimpse into a life that makes him shout out grandiose statements like “when you’re used to filet mignon, it’s kinda hard to go back to Hamburger Helper.” By the time Jay wraps the song with “Your boy’s Off The Wall these other n—- is Tito” he’s already in another time zone waiting for the rest of his competition to catch up.
“Show Me What You Got”
Key Line: “Shots of Patron, now she in the zone, I ain’t talking ‘bout the 2-3, Mami in the zone like the homie two-three, Jordan or James, makes no difference, we all ballin’ the same.”
This song probably won’t top the list of Jay-Just Blaze collaboration rankings, but it’s up there with “Do It Again (Put Your Hands Up)” as the most underrated club banger from Jay. “Show Me What You Got” has always felt like a B-Side to “Hovi Baby,” one of my favorite all-time Jay-Just Blaze collaborations. This track is more muted and less stadium-sounding than its predecessor, but it knocks just the same.
“A Star Is Born”
Key Line: “50 came through like hurricanes do, I thought I’d finish his ass at Summer Jam too, I had the Illmatic on bootleg, the shit was so ahead, thought we was all dead.”
As Jay has aged throughout the years, he’s sometimes taken a pause to reflect on his career and has done so by name-dropping at a staggering volume that would make The Game blush. Recently, after he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Hov made a pitstop on Twitter to thank over 90 rappers in a mini tweetstorm. He did something similar on “A Star Is Born,” basically running through the list of rappers who grew up with him, and inadvertently (actually, it was probably on purpose) illustrated his own longevity and how he’s outlast most of his peers and competitors. From Wu-Tang, to Nelly, to Ja Rule, to Lauryn Hill, this track was a trip down memory lane.
Key Line: “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya, cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya.”
The speaking to your unborn son on a song concept has been done, most notably by 2Pac on “Letter To My Unborn Child,” but Jay and Kanye took the concept and elevated it on “New Day.” It doesn’t get realer than Jay opening his verse with “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya, cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya.” Watch the Throne was hailed as a project where Kanye pushed Jay to many different places with his music. This song was a prime example.
Key Line: “They’re all actors, lookin’ at themselves in the mirror backwards, can’t even face themselves, don’t fear no rappers, they’re all weirdos, DeNiros in practice, so don’t believe everything your earlobe captures, it’s mostly backwards, unless it happens to be as accurate as me, and everything said in song you happen to see, then actually, believe half of what you see, none of what you hear, even if it’s spat by me.”
I mean… shit.