Shawn Carter turned 50 on Wednesday, but he used his birthday as an occasion to give a gift of sorts to his fans: Every Jay-Z album is once again streaming on Spotify.
Since 2015, the rapper has co-owned a competing music streaming service, Tidal, and since 2017 it had been the only place to stream most of his music. Whether this is a tacit admission that Tidal’s relatively small subscription numbers have deprived his estimable catalog of attention, or simply the whim of a billionaire, it means some great albums are once again a click away for many of us. So let’s listen to a couple dozen great non-singles from Hov’s 13 solo albums.
Jay-Z’s first album, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, was a sleeper hit that didn’t initially enjoy the multiplatinum sales of his friend the Notorious B.I.G.’s debut Ready to Die or the widespread acclaim of his rival Nas’s Illmatic. But as Jay-Z’s star rose, that debut has rightfully entered the canon of classic New York hip-hop albums, with Jay’s ear for cleverly conversational lyrics immediately apparent on tracks like the one-sided argument of the DJ Premier-produced “Friend or Foe.”
In the late ’90s, a trilogy of more commercially savvy albums gradually pushed Jay-Z to superstar status. In My Lifetime Vol. 1 was ill-served by slick singles, but the grit of “Rap Game / Crack Game” and the vulnerable storytelling of “You Must Love Me” make it one of the most under-appreciated albums in Jay-Z’s discography. The next few albums were packed with great singles, but for every Timbaland-produced club staple like “Big Pimpin’,” Jay and Timbo linked up on strange and funky deep cuts like “It’s Hot (Some Like It Hot).”
In the early 2000s, Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records started to build a roster of MCs and producers who played a major collaborative role in his output. 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia began life as a label compilation but wound up as a Jay-Z solo album that heavily showcased proteges Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek, and introduced a few producers adept at creatively sampling classic soul records: Just Blaze, Bink Dog, and an ambitious young beatmaker named Kanye West. That trio was largely responsible for the sound of perhaps Jay’s greatest triumph, The Blueprint.
Jay-Z’s later albums offer intermittently brilliant dispatches from a life of incredible wealth and accomplishment mixed in with the bored musings of a guy who could never quite bring himself to retire. His longevity has made him the Rolling Stones of hip-hop, and appropriately his creative hit rate after 2001 is something like Mick and Keith’s after Some Girls. He recorded two sequels to The Blueprint, one overstuffed and the other insipid. The Black Album is solid but feels a little empty in retrospect, a bombastic and sentimental retirement party for a guy who would return with a new album just three years later.
Yet Jay-Z’s most recent solo album, 2017’s 4:44, was an arrestingly short, minimal, and personal album, his best in ages. And some credit belongs to the album’s sole producer, Chicago rap veteran No I.D., who’d produced Common’s ’90s albums and mentored Kanye West. No I.D. had worked relatively little with Jay-Z before 4:44, but the beginnings of their chemistry can be heard on 2002’s “All Around the World,” a neglected deep cut from one of those inessential Blueprint sequels.