With Jay-Z appearing at FedExForum this weekend, here's a buyer's guide to what might be the most impressive career in hip-hop history:
Reasonable Doubt (1996): The tired drug-deal soundbites that open the record and the ersatz-classy Mafia-don cover imagery on this debut album suggested that Jay-Z was just another Big Willie wannabe. But the incredibly nimble flow that bursts through on "Can't Knock the Hustle" corrects that impression about 20 seconds into the album. With future nemesis Nas paid homage to with a sample on "Dead Presidents" and with mentor Notorious B.I.G. guesting on "Brooklyn's Finest," this street hustler's diary is a bid to match New York's hip-hop class of 1994. That Reasonable Doubt doesn't hold up next to Nas' Illmatic or Biggie's Ready To Die is no shame, though. After all, each of those masterworks is a contender for Greatest Hip-Hop Album Ever.
Reasonable Doubt establishes the chilly calm at the heart of Jay-Z's early work, and even though the lyrical content rarely strays beyond the expected (typical sample: "I got extensive hoes with expensive clothes/And I sip wine and spit vintage flows/But y'all don't know"), there are hints of a broader future on a couple of ostensibly minor album cuts: the effortlessly casual spirit of the Tribe Called Quest-referencing "22 Twos" and the menacing humor uncorked on the jazzy DJ Premier track "Friend or Foe."
In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997): This more-commercial followup to Reasonable Doubt expanded Jay-Z's sound and audience, incorporating Puff Daddy and Teddy Riley productions and pop-song interpolations. Riley's reworking of Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City" is as unfortunate as it sounds, but Jay-Z and guest Lil' Kim create plenty of sparks on Puff Daddy's gender-flip of "I Know What Boys Like." Better are virtuosic, gimmick-free street-hustling tales such as "Friend or Foe '98" and "Streets Is Watching." Also notable are Jay-Z's first flirtations with the Southern rap scene in the form of a Too Short cameo, Outkast sample, and Master P. reference.
Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life (1998): The title track here is one of the great, audacious moments of not only Jay-Z's career but in all of hip-hop. In borrowing a chorus from the Broadway version of Annie, Jay-Z expands rapper Rakim's classic genre power grab ("Even if it's jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up/Convert it into hip-hop form"). Message: This music can be anything it wants to be. Subtitled "The Ghetto Anthem," it's also one of Jay-Z's most empathetic and expansive moments: "I flow for chicks wishin' they ain't have to strip to pay tuition/I see your vision, mama/I put my money on the longshots." The generosity there is contradicted elsewhere, of course. Sleek machines like the misogynistic "Can I Get A " and the bling-overload "Money Ain't a Thing" boast the kind of suave amorality critic Robert Christgau likely had in mind when he dubbed the rapper "a scary original" early in his career.
Vol. 3 Life and Times of S. Carter (1999): Stuffed with guest stars and myriad A-list producers, Vol. 3 is in some ways Jay-Z's most impressive album. It overflows with sounds and ideas without ever losing focus. Rapping with extraordinary relaxation over a devastating DJ Premier track on "So Ghetto," this self-described "product of Reaganomics" comes up with an anthem less showy than but nearly the equal of "Hard Knock Life." Kickin' broads out of bed at six in the mornin' and playing ringleader to an extended rat pack of collaborators, this is the album where Jay-Z started getting well-earned comparisons to Frank Sinatra. The alluring callowness and overwhelming vocal skill are definitely a hip-hop equivalent, even if Jay-Z is a lot more direct about the reality behind the facade than the Chairman of the Board was: The megaton bomb here is "Big Pimpin'," where a Timbaland track takes Jay and Dirty South veterans UGK to a Cairo of their minds' design.
The Dynasty -- Roc La Familia (2000): Basically a showcase for young protégés and labelmates such as Memphis Bleek, Freeway, Beanie Sigel, this is Jay-Z as impresario and showman rather than artist, and it's the major falloff you'd expect. It still sounds really good, of course, but isn't nearly as purposeful as the classics that came before and after. Highlights are the Neptunes-produced hit "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" and especially the early Kanye West production "This Can't Be Life," featuring a cameo from former Geto Boy Scarface.
The Blueprint (2001): At a lean 13 tracks and with the only guest appearance coming from Eminem, this was Jay-Z's most focused album since Reasonable Doubt and that intensity vaulted it past Vol. 3 as his best. With references to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and an avalanche of old-soul samples, this is a more grown-up, more reflective Jay-Z, setting the stage for the introspection of The Black Album. The highlight? Every single second of the Kanye West-produced, Jackson Five-sampling single "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," which gets more purposeful with every verse.
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse (2002): This overstuffed, 110-minute double-disc set might be the last Jay-Z album you'd want to buy. There's good stuff here if you have time to search for it, but more likely you'll be inspired to spend the time listening to the The Blueprint again instead. Lead-track highlight: The way "A Dream" laces the entire first verse of Notorious B.I.G.'s 1994 single "Juicy" but fades out the World Trade Center reference -- "Time to get paid, blow up like the " -- reinforcing a double sense of loss.
The Black Album (2003): A more effective dual-personality rap record than Outkast's more heralded Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, on this album the art/commerce tension that had long informed Jay-Z's music finally became his theme, inspiring for perhaps the first time a depth and introspection that rival his hero Notorious B.I.G. Justifying his thug while revealing his admiration for "conscious" MCs like Talib Kweli and Common, this ostensible farewell sounds more like a preview of coming attractions. And from a visit to his father's funeral ("Pop died/Didn't cry/Didn't know him that well/Between him doing heroin/And me doing crack sales") to a defiant roadside confrontation with the cops, it's his most cinematic album. •