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Top 20 Best Jay Z Songs

Photograph of the blog post author, Annika Hope

Annika Hope


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best jay z songs

Jay Z is an American rapper, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur, and record executive who has produced some of the best songs in music history. He is one of the most successful and influential rappers of all time. He has sold over 100 million records worldwide and has earned 21 Grammy Awards for his work.

Jay Z has also established himself as a successful entrepreneur, launching the clothing line Rocawear, the sports agency Roc Nation Sports, and the entertainment company Roc Nation. Jay z is considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, and his influence on hip-hop culture is undeniable. Here are the top 20 best songs from Jay z:

20. Jay-Z and Linkin Park, “Numb/Encore” (2004)

Jay-Z was known as hip-hop’s Grateful Dead, as he could not bear to leave the game even after “retiring”. In 2003, Jay and Linkin Park joined forces to capitalize on the growing MP3 “mashup” culture with an MTV special and a six song EP titled ‘Collision Course’.

This project was seen as more than just a money grab; it felt sincere. The single “Numb/Encore” particularly resonated with fans due to how well their music blended together. Jay said to Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington on MTV that he was not trying to be him, and Bennington agreed. 

19. “Ain’t No Nigga” feat. Foxy Brown (1996)

The single “Ain’t No Nigga” from Jay-Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt, was the springboard to his future pop stardom. Initially released as the B-side to “Dead Presidents,” its popularity grew when Roc-A-Fella shifted distribution from Freeze/Priority Records to Def Jam and it was chosen for Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor soundtrack.

Jay-Z spits out some impressive bars like “They say sex is a weapon/So when I shoot, meet your death in less than eight seconds,” but he is met with an equally impressive response from Foxy Brown who was only a teenager then.

18.“Politics As Usual” (1996)

On Jay-Z’s album Reasonable Doubt, there is a blend of pride and regret concerning his street exploits. This combination of emotions was likely what caused some critics to overlook the record as an above-average gangsta rap album when it first came out.

Ski Beatz’ production on the track “Politics As Usual” captures this dilemma perfectly; Jay-Z raps about cursing God while simultaneously trying to achieve wealth and success.

In an interview with BBC for their 2008 Classic Albums series, he commented on how reviewers failed to understand what he was saying in his music. Although inner conflict about the hustler lifestyle has been present in hip-hop since Ice-T, Jay’s use of language elevates songs like “Politics As Usual”.

17. Kanye West feat. Jay-Z, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)” (2005)

Kanye West was highly impressed with Jay-Z’s verse on the 2007 song “Big Brother”: “On that ‘Diamonds’ remix I swore I spazzed/Then my big brother came through and kicked my ass.”

Since their collaboration at the start of the 2000s, the friendship and rivalry between Jay-Z and West have been an incredible source of music.

One of the best jay z songs is “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)” which features an old-school sample from Shirley Bassey’s James Bond theme combined with a modern synth-pop sound. West raps skillfully before passing it off to Jay-Z for a memorable verse that includes his famous line: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”

16. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (2001)

Jay’s early commercial success was “I Want You Back”, crafted by Kanye West and reaching Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross in 2010, Jay discussed his upbringing in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, and how his parents had a large record collection that exposed him to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Motown, and other soulful sounds.

When Kanye presented him with the sample from the Jackson 5’s track of the same name, Jay was instantly captivated by its new take on it.

15. Beyoncé feat Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love” (2003)

The night before her 2003 debut album Dangerously in Love dropped, Beyoncé asked Jay-Z for a favor. He was instantly captivated by the hit single with its Chi-Lites horns and Rich Harrison’s go-go percussion. Indeed, the song was Bey’s breakthrough hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks. Part of its success was likely due to their rumored relationship; her sultry vibes contrasting his rhymes about chinchilla furs as he tried to stay composed.

14. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” feat. Mary J. Blige (1996)

The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 album Ready to Die was a revolutionary combination of rap and club-oriented beats. Jay-Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt continued this tradition with its opening track “Can’t Knock the Hustle”.

In the song, Jay-Z expresses his defiance against those who would judge him for his street hustling while also warning critics of his impending dominance. His lyrics are further highlighted by Mary J. Blige’s chorus which is inspired by Meli’sa Morgan’s 1985 hit “Fool’s Paradise”. 

13.“Can I Get A…” feat. Amil, Ja Rule (1998)

The release of “Can I Get A…” was a major milestone for Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. label, which would go on to dominate rap in the following years, as well as a great tie-in with Rush Hour, the number one movie in the country at the time. It also marked Jay-Z’s first Top 20 hit for one of his own songs.

However, Ja Rule originally intended it to be his record; he told Rolling Stone in 2001 that Jay-Z wanted to use it and, luckily for them both, it proved to be very profitable. The video for “Can I Get A…” helped launch Ja Rule’s career and cemented his image.

12. “Money, Cash, Hoes” feat. DMX (1999)

In 1998, Kaseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean was just a teenager and nephew of the founders of Ruff Ryders Entertainment when he got the chance to work on DMX’s chart-topping albums.

By the end of that year, other artists had taken notice and wanted Swizz’s simplistic yet hard-hitting beats. His first collaboration with Jay-Z was born out of a joke between them; Swizz told Complex that “the song started as a joke with me sliding my hand across a keyboard, just bugging.”

However, Jay took it seriously enough to add his suave wordplay like “Only wife of mines is a life of crime/And since life’s a bitch in miniskirts and big chest/How can I not flirt with death?” His wordplay and flow made this one of the best jay z songs in history.

11. “4:44” (2017)

After being called out for his infidelities on wife Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Jay-Z faced the issue head-on with the title track of his 13th album. No I.D., the producer of the album, recalled to Rolling Stone that Jay-Z looked at him and said “O.K., I’m going home”.

Inn this song, he showed a vulnerability that had never been seen before in such a deliberate way, rapping “If my children knew/I don’t even know what I would do/If they ain’t look at me the same/I would probably die with all the shame.” He wrote it after waking up at 4:44 a.m, and told iHeartRadio that he believes it is one of his best songs ever written.

10. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (2004)

During this era, producer Timbaland’s beats were so innovative that he jokingly asked Jay-Z in Fade to Black if he was “confused” by them. However, the outcome of their collaboration for The Black Album was successful enough to be remembered for years.

In The Hits Collection Vol. 1 liner notes, Jay-Z remembered that when Timbaland initially played the track it had a brushing sound and he began writing lyrics about brushing off critics. This concept turned into a radio phenomenon with the song’s video.

9. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Otis” (2011)

No I.D., Kanye West’s long-time collaborator, challenged him to create the song “Otis” when they met at Mercer Hotel in New York to record Watch the Throne.

No I.D. asked West how he could make an album without producing a single beat himself, to which West immediately went to his MPC and produced a slow refrain from Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”.

This iconic soul song was transformed into something aggressive and gruff, introducing the world to “luxury rap” with Jay Z opening it by proclaiming “I invented swag”.

However, for someone who used to be part of a broke crew that pretended not to be broke, flaunting wealth was never so simple for Jay Z; as he told GQ about their lyrics on “Otis”: “It’s not like ‘We’re here! We’re balling harder than everybody.” He later clarified this idea further in an interview with Vanity: “when you are accustomed to wealth you don’t show it off right?”

8. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris” (2011)

The iconic stadium anthem from Watch the Throne, performed 12 times in a row at one concert, can be seen as a celebration of opulence.

From West’s “hah?!” to Audemars and Margiela jackets, this Top 10 single is actually an expression of relief. Jay-Z told GQ that it was inspired by his amazement that he had escaped his circumstances and was able to be in Paris enjoying himself.

He said it was different from the typical story of kids from his neighborhood going away to Harvard, but rather a conversation about those who have been able to escape their backgrounds.

7. “Empire State of Mind” feat. Alicia Keys (2009)

“Empire State of Mind” was the first time Jay-Z topped the Hot 100 as a lead artist. Alicia Keys, another New Yorker, explained to MTV that Jay-Z reached out to her with the idea of creating an anthem for New York.

The song is based on “Love on a Two-Way Street” by The Moments and features Jay-Z boasting his status as the “new Sinatra,” while Keys encourages listeners with lyrics like “these streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you” making it lyrically one of the best jay z songs.

6. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” (1998)

Producer Mark “The 45 King” famously used a tune from the Annie Broadway soundtrack to create Jay-Z’s first single that broke into the Top 15 of the pop charts. He purchased the record from a Salvation Army for only 25 cents after seeing an ad on TV. Kid Capri, who was DJing Puff Daddy’s No Way Out Tour, received a dubplate of it and said fans were asking him about it.

He knew it was working when he saw their reactions. Eventually Jay-Z asked for it too and created his monster hit – a vivid, melancholy look at his rise from “lukewarm to hot; sleepin’ on futons and cots/to king size”. According to Jay-Z in Decoded, he wasn’t worried about how people would take the contrast between his hard lyrics and the image of redheaded Annie.

5. “Big Pimpin’” feat. UGK (2000)

When Jay’s single “Things That U Do” from Vol. 3 failed to make an impact on the charts in its first two months, he and Dame Dash quickly shifted focus to the Timbaland-produced “Big Pimpin'”.

This track presented a glamorous, champagne-filled lifestyle of the world’s second-oldest profession and Hype Williams directed the music video for this song which was shot at Carnival in Trinidad.

4. “Threat” (2003)

For his retirement album, Jay-Z wanted to demonstrate that he was leaving hip-hop in prime condition. This put a lot of pressure on 9th Wonder, who was part of the underground group Little Brother and had taken over production duties for “Threat” after attempting to book DJ Premier.

When speaking to Complex, 9th said: “He was essentially telling me ‘I want you to be like what Premo was for me on my other albums.’ I replied, ‘ Whoa, you’re going too far now, Jay.’ Despite this daunting task, 9th pushed himself and managed to flip an R. Kelly sample while adding piano stabs and silences that highlighted Hov’s powerful wordplay.

3. “Dead Presidents II” (1996)

In February 1996, Jay-Z released the original version of “Dead Presidents”, featuring lyrics about fake thugs and his own representation of infinity with presidencies.

His flow was characteristic of peak Mafioso rap. However, when his debut album Reasonable Doubt came out in June, he provided two new verses that delved into deeper topics.

He indirectly hinted about the shooting of DeHaven Irby – a childhood friend who had taught him the drug game – and how he narrowly escaped being shot himself on an uptown high block (“I had near brushes, not to mention three shots close range”).

2. “Brooklyn’s Finest” feat. The Notorious B.I.G. (1996)

The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z’s collaboration on “Brooklyn’s Finest” is a brilliant display of the two Brooklyn legends at their peak. They were in the process of forming a group with Biggie’s girlfriend, Charli Baltimore, called the Commission when tragedy struck in March 1997 and Biggie was murdered.

The song serves as a reminder of what could have been had their partnership come to fruition; it starts with Wayne “Pain in Da Ass” Hirschorn’s sampling of Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, and then each artist takes turns rapping about their criminal exploits – Jay-Z famously raps “Peep the style and the way cops sweat us,”.

1. “99 Problems” (2004)

When Jay-Z visited Rick Rubin to “recapture that feeling he had when he was a kid,” as seen in the documentary Fade to Black, the outcome was a mix of vintage heavy metal riffs similar to Rubin’s Eighties work with LL Cool J and Beastie Boys.

However, the lyrics were more modern and criticized those who demonized him for being a black man and rapper. The hook from Ice-T and Brother Marquis of 2 Live Crew – “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” – was used as bait for the critiques, since the verses play with other meanings of the word.

Closing Thoughts

It’s clear that Jay-Z is one of the greatest rappers of all time, and his discography is filled with amazing songs.

From his classic hits like “99 Problems” and “Empire State of Mind” to his more recent work like “4:44” and “Family Feud”, Jay-Z has created some of the most iconic and beloved rap songs of all time.

No matter what your favorite Jay-Z song is, there’s no denying that he has the best body of hip-hop music in history.


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