So. You may have heard that Jay-Z and Kanye West recently released new albums. Yeah, I had no idea, either, but it's true: the mentor dropped Magna Carta Holy Grail, hopefully not into a toilet (that's a cell phone joke, you see) while the student put out Yeezus. It certainly seems like you can't talk about one without the other, so in honor of the new additions to their discography, I thought now's as good a time as any to rank both Hova and Ye's studio albums, from worst to best. One note: I didn't include collaboration records, like The Best of Both Worlds or even Watch the Throne. I don't think anyone will cry foul over Unfinished Business' lack of an inclusion. Probably not even Jay-Z.
The Blueprint 3 finds Jay-Z stuck between two identities: the guy who grew up in the Marcy Houses, and the sir who pals around with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and owns basketball teams. If he had stuck with one or the other, The Blueprint 3 could have been successful, or at least not as irrelevant; instead, it sounds like Jay-Z had no idea what kind of album he wanted to make, which one of his personae to emulate, resulting in one unfocused whole.
One of the more polarizing albums in his discography, Kingdom Come, one of Jay-Z's many comebacks, is considered an oft-overlooked masterpiece to some (including the Grammy voters, who nominated it for Best Rap Album — Kanye ended up winning with Graduation) and a major step-down from The Black Album to others. Now, most albums would sound like a letdown after Black, but what hurt Kingdom Come was its sleepiness. The hibernation joke is an easy one to make, but it's true: he sleepwalked through his much-anticipated return.
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse is a confusing double-album sequel to The Blueprint. Where one was almost totally devoid of guest stars, the other was stuffed with superfluous appearances from Lenny Kravitz, Young Chris, and Sean Paul, among others. It's a perfectly fine album, with a few highlights, but after the revelatory Blueprint, Jay Guevera's for-once-laughable arrogance feels misplaced and messy.
Sophomore albums are notoriously tricky. Artists can surprise on their debut, having spent months, if not years fine tuning their material, but once they break big, like Jay-Z did with Reasonable Doubt, they have to strike again quickly with album #2, before the general public moves onto someone else. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 is by no means a failure — Jay-Z is still more street than pop (especially on "Streets Is Watching"), only with a flashier sound, and his flow is top-notch — but it's a rough draft of the all-time great he would soon become.
When the most interesting thing about an album is its distribution model, that's probably not a good thing.
The forgotten album during Jay-Z's peak, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia isn't as fondly recalled for a good reason: it's barely a Jay-Z album. Instead, it's a showcase for at-their-best Roc-a-Fella labelmates like Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek, neither of whom overshadow Hova. It's as scattered, if occasionally lively (the Neptunes-produced "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me)" is a favorite) as you'd expect a glorified compilation to be.
"The singles are the best songs on the album" is the last thing die-hard music fans (a.k.a. oft-pretentious dicks) want to admit, but on 808s & Heartbreak, it's true. More influential than exciting, Kanye's Autotuned love letter is best represented by "Love Lockdown," "Heartless," "Amazing," and "Paranoid," which all exemplify the album's coldness, depression, and obsession with mortality. It's a fascinating heart-chilling experiment that shouldn't have worked as well as it did, but listening to the entire thing in one sitting may find you appreciating Kanye's musical genius while simultaneously making you want to jump into a bathtub with a toaster. While watching Robocop.
Thank you, Ridley Scott. Jay-Z came out retirement with the uninspired Kingdom Come, leading many to wonder if he had anything left in the tank. That worry disappeared once American Gangster, a concept album inspired by Scott's film of the same name about crime boss Frank Lucas, came out in the fall of 2007. In Lucas, Jay-Z found someone who he could relate to — a New York City drug slinger — and he was equally fascinated by how sometimes the supposed bad guys are the good guys, and vice versa. American Gangster resembles a pumped-up spin-off of Reasonable Doubt, and while it doesn't match his debut, at least he sounds engaged.
In "Champion," "Stronger," "Good Life," and "Barry Bonds," Graduation's most self-congratulatory tracks, Kanye takes an oversized victory lap after the success of his first two albums, and while that makes for great synthesized pop music, it's slightly lacking in the emotional resonance department. (His self-doubt is more subtext than text.) Graduation was the first time Kanye sounded like he was giving fans what they wanted. It was the last time, too.
Thanks to the success of singles "Can I Get A..." and "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life is, perhaps surprisingly, Jay-Z's highest selling album to date. That's because it finds him at his most mainstream (at least up to that point), trading the grittiness of Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 for something far more radio-accessible. In that regard, it's a total success — it's his most digestible album, the one that's most easily enjoyed by both hardcore fans and even "I love all music, except country and rap" idiots — but it sounds slightly dated. It's very much the sound of 1998: state-of-the-art at the time, "what's Kid Capri up to?" in 2013.
Vol. 3...Life and Times of S. Carter is a reaction to Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life, which itself was an obvious acknowledgement to In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 and even Reasonable Doubt. He began small, then went big, then, in Vol. 3, found a nice place to settle in between. There's a few overblown duds, but Life and Times is the best example of Jay-Z sounding like his old confrontational self, with a booming, adventurous production worthy of his "best rapper alive" label. When people think of Jay-Z, the rapper, the mogul, the dealer, the trendsetter, this is the Jay-Z they think of.
The odds were stacked against Kanye in 2004. He was known as a producer, not a rapper; his flow wasn't anything special yet; and he had just been a part of a car crash that nearly took his life. The fact that The College Dropout is as fully formed, soulful, exciting, and, my god, both eloquent AND fun as it is is nothing short of a musical miracle. It had to be, too, because what Kanye did then (an, ugh, backpacker in an industry dominated by gangster rap) was borderline revolutionary, if commonplace now. When Kanye says, "I swear, this right here? History in the making, man," you better believe it.
Kanye's latest is sloppy, rushed, brief, and unrelenting. It's his punk album, and it's brilliant.
The should-have-been followup to The Blueprint, The Black Album is Jay-Z's final classic. It was meant to be his final album overall, but obviously that announcement proved false, though The Black Album certainly sounds like the end of era. It's a greatest hits album made up of entirely new material, dropping into various points of Jay-Z's life, from his humble beginnings on "December 4th" to his hustling days on "Justify My Thug" to his booming radio hit bravado on "99 Problems." Or as the man himself puts it, from grams to Grammys. Three years later, he would reintroduce himself, but he hasn't made a declaration as strong as The Black Album since.
Fittingly, Late Registration's finest moment is a collaboration between Kanye and teacher Jay-Z; it's also a perfect example of the album's greatness. "Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)" is a sprawling epic about blood diamonds and the conflict that arises after discovering how "something so wrong" can make you feel so right. Like the jewelry Kanye is torn over, Late Registration is flashy and appealing, thanks in part to an expansive production courtesy of Jon Brion, but there's more to it than what you see/hear on the surface. It's equal parts witty, angry, celebratory, soulful, and personal, and not one to stay in one mood for too long. Like Jay before him, Kanye isn't the businessman, slaving away on other people's ideas; he is the business.
In a perfect, less horrifying world, September 11, 2001 would be hailed as one of the greatest days for new music in the 21st century. Bob Dylan released the lovely "Love and Theft," Slayer had a surprise hit in God Hates Us All, and the Moldy Peaches confused and/or delighted, depending on how you feel about Juno, with their self-titled debut. Oh yeah, and Jay-Z released The Blueprint, one of his many masterpieces, but the only to introduce the world at large to Kanye West, whose production on "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" is now a thing of history. But make no mistake: The Blueprint is Jay-Z and only Jay-Z's own flawless, marvelous, tortured album. If only Nickelback hadn't put out Silver Side Up, the worst thing to happen that surprisingly warm September day...
No frills, no expectations, no duds — Reasonable Doubt works as a perfect whole. Even on The Blueprint and The Black Albums, track seven could become track three and no one would notice. Not true on Jay-Z's debut: "Ain't No N*gga" was made to follow "Can I Live." But that's only partially what makes Reasonable Hova's greatest triumph: it's in the way the street-savvy mafioso never sounded hungrier, determined, competitive to prove he's the best there ever was and the best there ever will be. It's his magnum opus, one Jay's come close to topping, but never quite got there.
In which the world had to admit: yup, Kanye's as good as he says he is.