Months ago, I made a tournament bracket of Outkast songs, completed the write-up, proofread it, and published it, all in 48 hours.
Last night, I finished a similar project about Shawn Corey Carter, but it took me 5 straight weeks to complete. It took me so long, because I know you only get one shot at something like this and it has to be PERFECT.
SONG SELECTION CRITERIA
1. Collaborations vs. Features – Equal collabos (songs that end up on both artists’ albums) = IN. Features (songs in which he simply lends a verse) = OUT
2. Live Songs — OUT. This is an unfortunate, yet crucial rule because it’s hard to compare live music to studio music. Having said that, some of his live versions are much better than the originals.
3. Random Singles – IN. Jay-Z songs from soundtracks, for example, are considered.
Once this was established, we went through every single eligible Jay-Z song and picked the ones that HAD to be in the bracket, no questions asked. You know, the most important, greatest songs of his expansive catalogue.
We narrowed it down to 89.
A bracket has 64.
Now began the first of many heartaches. Eliminating 25 CLASSIC Jay-Z tracks is a horrible task to undertake, but after a lot of back and forth, the 64 Jay-Z songs were set.
7 Tracks That Made Me Weep To Leave Out…
Blueprint (Momma Loves Me) – The Blueprint
The Bounce – The Blueprint 2
Cashmere Thoughts – Reasonable Doubt
A Million and One Questions – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Hova Song (Intro) – Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter
Success – American Gangster
Rap Game/Crack Game – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
…and 2 That I Proudly Left Out
The City Is Mine – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up) – Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter
Next Step: Ranking These Bad Boys
With the Outkast bracket, I seeded them based on how popular I thought they were. I’d say this was the biggest flaw in my methodology, because people ended up focusing more on the seedings than the match ups.
Luckily, I’m about to be a Master’s of Science and I know better this time. This time ’round, I’m using a common indicator to determine popularity, Youtube views (much better than iTunes sales, because I don’t even know how to go about buying music anymore). It’s not perfect, because there is some recent song bias, but it works out pretty well. And when it comes down to matchups, the seeds don’t really matter; it’s just a way to know where they go on the bracket.
Lastly, before we reach the point of no return, I have to say a four things regarding why I’m qualified to do this in the first place.
1) I’ve watched Fade to Black over 600 times. You can give me a 1/2 second clip from the movie and, for better or for worse, I can tell you if Jay is wearing a doo-rag or a fitted.
2) I’ve seen Jay-Z live. Coachella 2010, to be exact. This is important, because a live show tells you which songs the artist finds most important in his catalogue, as well as which songs make the crowd the most passionate. This should not be taken lightly.
3) While I’m thankfully not from New York (sorry I’m not sorry), I’ve lived here for a minute now and seen how some of his songs are especially meaningful for someone from the city. I’ve spent 2 years watching this phenomenon happen and I think it’s an important thing to understand.
4) No one else has done this. Oh, and it’s my blog so I can pretty much do what I want. Burrrrr.
Reasonable Doubt: 8
In My Lifetime, Vol. 1: 3
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life: 5
Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter: 3
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia: 4
The Blueprint: 11
Best of Both Worlds: 1
The Blueprint 2: 3
The Black Album: 9
Kingdom Come: 3
American Gangster: 2
The Blueprint 3: 5
Watch The Throne: 1
Outside Singles: 6
Yellow Cab Region
Empire State of Mind (1) vs. You, Me, Him, Her (16): You, Me, Him, Her is probably one of the 3 or 4 best Roc-A-Fella posse tracks ever. Unfortunately for the song, it’s up against one of the biggest (and best) songs in recent memory. No brainer, Empire State of Mind advances.
Takeover (8) vs. Kingdom Come (9): I have a one-word issue with Takeover (Ether) but it’s good enough to best Kingdom Come, one of the few examples of Jay being out-muscled by his beat (to his defense, the beat is heinously good).
Can I Get A… (5) vs. Encore (12): Ja. Rule. Kills. This. Song. (Can I Get A..) Conversely, Amil voice makes my ears bleed. Many mixed feelings about this song, but overall I love it. Encore, on the other hand, has the “Hova, Hova” chant, which might be the most important theatrical decision in Jay-Z’s career (all props to Kanye for that). When it happens, you lose control of you’re limbs, throw up the diamond, and immediately become part of the ROC cult. It’s unreal. There’s nothing like it. Encore advances.
D.O.A. (4) vs. What More Can I Say (13): The Black Album might be the greatest collection of epic, triumphant songs ever created (NUMBER 2). What More Can I Say is definitely one of those songs. D.O.A., on the other hand, is one of the riskiest songs Jay-Z has ever released. The fact that people got behind that song is a testament to his legendary status. Saying “Death of Autotune” in 2009 was like saying “Death to Black People” at the Million Man March in 1995: it seems like an easy way to become a pariah/get beat down. The fact that Jay actually won the battle of autotune gives it the edge over the 6th best song on The Black Album.
Lost Ones (6) vs. Where I’m From (11): “Cough up a lung where I’m from, Marcy son… Ain’t nothing nice.” Sorry Lost Ones, but Chrisette Michelle’s cute little chorus is no match for one of Jay-Z’s grimiest street fairytales.
Show Me What You Got (3) vs. This Can’t Be Life (14): Even if Lil’ Wayne hadn’t ruined Jay’s very good version of Show Me What You Got by rapping circles around him (4 Mortal Kombat references in 12 seconds, ZOMG), This Can’t Be Life would still TKO this song. It’s too beautiful.
H.A.M. (7) vs. My 1st Song (10): The first time I heard H.A.M., I hated it. In all honesty, the first 2 months of hearing the song, I wasn’t into it. Then I finally listened to it at a high volume and it sort of rocked my face off. But none of that matters, because the last track of The Black Album, My 1st Song, is one of the best album enders… ever.
Roc Boys (2) vs. Allure (15): Roc Boys is luxurious. I can’t listen to it without wanting to put on my nicest suit. It makes me, at the very least, want to obtain a credit card. And the video has one of the more iconic snapshots in hip-hop history, that being the triumvirate of bosses, Mr. Combs, Mr. Carter, and Mr. Escobar, looking WEALTHY. As much as I love the beautiful Pharrell-produced Allure, no way. NO WAY.
Gypsy Cab Region
Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) (1) vs. Hola Hovito (16): Pulling off a “Ghetto Anthem” with Annie as your chorus is almost as hard as growing up small and Black with a funny name and not getting beat up daily (Rembert Molineaux Browne II, 5’2” in 9th grade, Black, averaged a triple-double in 10-and-under basketball, GET SOME). Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) is an achievement in career confidence. Even though I love Hola Hovito and the line “I ball for real, y’all niggas is Sam Bowie” makes me randomly punch things it’s so good, it’s just not enough.
D’Evils (8) vs. Lucifer (9): Oh, the old Satan battle. I love everything about Lucifer. The one issue is that it makes me sort of want to hang out in hell, because it’s so catchy. D’Evils, on the other hand, scares me. It makes me want to live a stand-up life, in fear of what may happen if I start acting up. It’s too classic to get knocked out in the 1st round, that’d be blasphemy.
Nigga What, Nigga Who (5) vs. Ain’t No Nigga (12): This N-word battle is black on black crime at its finest. Both of these songs are older Jay classics. Unfortunately, they have to face each other in the 1st round. Based on the fact that Ain’t No has aged better, it gets to ever-so-slight upper hand. Barely. Love you, Foxy.
Sunshine (4) vs. December 4th (13): December 4th has proudly made me tear up on multiple occasions. “Maybe you’ll love me when I fade to black”, epic. HIS MOM IS ON THE TRACK. Sheesh, Jay, what are you trying to do to me? Sunshine is a cool song, but in the battle of Mom vs. Babyface, Mom always wins.
03 Bonnie and Clyde (6) vs. Public Service Announcement (Interlude) (11): Not even the powers of Ms. Cleo + Dionne Warwick + the rapture guy could have predicted that Hov and B would get married when 03 Bonnie and Clyde came out. It’s awesome to listen to now, though, mainly because it’s cute and the song is quite good (especially her breakdown with him coaching her “take em to the top”). Awwwww. Puppy Love. Over it. Public Service Announcement takes little to no prisoners and does not care about love. Not one bit. In ’03, Jay’s in love. In P.S.A., his focus is his girl wearing his chain. Nothing. Else.
Dirt Off Your Shoulder (3) vs. So Ghetto (14): On the surface, this is an easy win for Dirt Off Your Shoulder, but So Ghetto holds an unbelievable amount of significance in my personal life. This is the single greatest beat to freestyle over and my friends and I have been flowing over it for almost a decade now. So sad to see it go, but these things happen.
Jockin Jay-Z (7) vs. Renegade (10): The Oasis jab in Jockin Jay-Z is one of my favorite random Jay-Z moments ever (especially when he takes it 10 steps further in Glastonbury). Renegade is, however, one of the greatest meeting of the minds in hip-hop history. They were both SO huge in 2001. Also, I’m not in camp “Eminem humiliated Jay on his own song.” I’m more in camp “Eminem did a little better than Jay… in both verses.” Renegade walks into the next round.
I Just Wanna Love U (2) vs. Thank You (15): When you hear the first note of I Just Wanna Love U, you know it’s time to dance and sing about the gushy stuff. It’s too big to fail. Sorry Thank You.
Dollar Cab Region
On To The Next One (1) vs. All I Need (16): On To The Next One is the reason I sent in my $50 last year and joined the Illuminati. And Mr. Alicia Keys’ sample of Justice’s D.A.N.C.E. might be one of the coolest samples in hip-hop history. Sorry All I Need, you really should not be getting knocked out this early, but these things happen.
Change Clothes (8) vs. Money Ain’t A Thang (9): This is like the battle of old money/I’ve been rich for a minute (Change Clothes) vs. new money/I might lose it all any day now, lets spend everything (Money Ain’t A Thang). As much as I love blouses without bras, the NYC/ATL meeting of the minds between Jay-Z and JD is too good. And it might be the goofiest Jay-Z video ever. Money Ain’t A Thang is extremely underrated and is definitely advancing to the next round. #ATL
Can’t Knock The Hustle (5) vs. Best of Both Worlds (12): One would be hard-pressed to start your first album more wonderfully than Jay with Can’t Knock The Hustle. While hearing his multiple live renditions of the song with Mary J. Blige (Fade to Black, MTV Unplugged) lessens the studio version in my mind, it still out matches the Kelly/Hov collabo that I happen to love. (IMPT SIDE NOTE: if you downloaded Best of Both Worlds off of Kazaa back in the day, I promise your version skipped at “the combination of Pappy Mason and Larry Davis”. This fact has been proven by individuals from 4 different cities.)
I Know (4) vs. U Don’t Know (13): He said… He’d Sell… Fire… In… Hell… Buh-Bye I Know, U Don’t Know is pretty much unstoppable.
Can I Live (6) vs. Dear Summer (11): Dear Summer is actually on Memphis Bleek’s album, but only includes Jay so I’m calling it a Jay song. Plus, it’s awesome. Can I Live is a religious experience, though. The 3-word epic chorus doesn’t come in until 2:18 because he simply can’t stop rapping. Once it comes, though, I can’t help put put my arms in the air and triumphantly join in, be it behind the wheel, in the library, at a bris, wherever.
Dead Presidents II (3) vs. Jigga That Nigga (14): Calling Dead Presidents “iconic” is a gross understatement. I treat it less like a song and more like spoken word. Easy-ish win over the fun Jigga That Nigga.
Beware of the Boys (7) vs. Izzo (HOVA) (10): Why/How Punjabi MC and Hov collaborated for Beware of the Boys is still a mystery to me, but when it happened it was awesome. Not awesome enough, however, to best one of the more memorable songs of my life (Izzo-HOVA). One of the many examples of Jay further branding himself through his jams. Also, the song that truly made Kanye a producing star.
Excuse Me Miss (2) vs. Money, Cash, Hoes (15): Excuse Me Miss is classic grown and sexy Hov. The opposite of “grown and sexy” is Dark Man X in Money, Cash, Hoes. The combination of Hov and DMX overwhelmingly punks out “I see some ladies tonight that should be rolling with Jay-Z.” Woof. Arf. Growl. Bark. Grrrrrrr.
Holla Back Region
Run This Town (1) vs. 1-900 Hustler (16): 1-900 Hustler ousting Run This Town is the easiest 16 over 1 upset in the history of brackets. Yes, I say “All Black Everything” multiple times a day, but 1-900 Hustler, the 63rd most popular song in this bracket, easily dismisses the 2nd most popular. It’s hysterical. I love the idea of Beans as a phone operator, Freeway finds a way not to ruin it, and every now and then I find myself “Hollering at Purdue”, just cause. It’s also the 2nd best rap phone # of all time (281-330-8004).
Hey Papi (8) vs. Feelin It (9): The Timbaland beat + The yacht in the video + the fact that I still own the Nutty Professor II CD that this song is on + “No room service, just snacks and shit” makes Hey Papi a formidable opponent. But have you ever heard Feelin’ It? Have you? It might be perfect. After hearing it, none of those things I mentioned about Hey Papi matter anymore. Feelin It, next round.
Brooklyn Go Hard (5) vs. Who U Wit (12): So, Brooklyn Go Hard‘s line “I jack, I rob, I sin… Aw man, I’m Jackie Robinson, except when I rob base, I dodge the pen” is maybe the most clever wordplay of his career. I still can’t believe he came up with that. If he had a few more classic lines like that in the song, it might hold a candle to Who U Wit, but there’s something so endearing about ’97 Jay that quickly disposes of Brooklyn Go Hard.
Big Pimpin (4) vs. Politics As Usual (13): Politics as Usual, great song. The first note of Big Pimpin, however, destroys it. That’s all I’m going to say, because I have plenty of time to talk about the rest of the song, trust me.
Song Cry (6) vs. La-La-La (11): The “Yao Ming/Ya Mean” verse ender in La-La-La is unbelievable. So is the beat. So is the fact that it was from Bad Boys 2. With that said, Song Cry would make the entire cast of Oz weep. KEEP GOING, Song Cry.
Girls, Girls, Girls (3) vs. Brooklyn’s Finest (14): When Jay turns “contrary” to “contrilly” in Brooklyn’s Finest, I die. Very few wordplay things make me happier than that. Also, Jay and Biggie, back and forth, for 4 minutes, c’maaaaaan. Go away, Girls, Girls, Girls… I happen to like you, but think you’re horribly overrated.
Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love) (7) vs. The Watcher 2 (10): The Watcher 2 is my least favorite song in the 64, but I still love it. On the contrilly, the “take em to church” breakdown in Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love) gives me the chills. On to the next one, Heart.
99 Problems (2) vs. Jigga My Nigga (15): 99 Problems is one of my favorite rock songs ever. It’s almost rude to separate this song from the following track, P.S.A., because I like to pretend it’s this epic 8+ minute track, but alone it’s one of his career-defining songs. Bless you, Rick Rubin. Jigga My Nigga is awesome (good lyrics, better beat), it’s unfortunately up against one of his all-time best.
Reasonable Doubt: 7
In My Lifetime, Vol. 1: 2
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life: 3
Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter: 1
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia: 3
The Blueprint: 6
Best of Both Worlds
The Blueprint 2
The Black Album: 7
American Gangster: 1
The Blueprint 3: 3
Watch The Throne
Empire State of Mind (1) vs. Takeover (8): Takeover is not just a song, it’s a battle rap. I alluded to it earlier, but it’s counterpart, Nas’ “Ether” is simply a better, more vicious song and for me, ended the battle. Also, it’s going against Empire State of Mind. Yeah, sorry Takeover, but “Ether” ruined you with the machine guns before Nas even started rapping. Empire cartwheeling through the concrete jungle towards the Sweet 16.
D.O.A. (4) vs. Encore (12): Jay doesn’t inherently seem to have the ego that Kanye West does, but the brashness on Kanye’s production of Encore forces Jay to talk on the song like he’s God’s gift to humanity. It’s a very visual song, you feel like you’re at a concert when you’re listening to it on your iPod. D.O.A. was huge and an extremely important song (if for no other reason, for the health of hip-hop) but Encore is simply too powerful of a song to not advance. It’s the quintessential Diamonds in the Air song, the backbone of the Roc-A-Fella dynasty.
Where I’m From (11) vs. This Can’t Be Life (14): It’s both a shame and fitting that these two songs have to meet. These songs aren’t happy. Not one bit. Like Color Purple sad. With Where I’m From, you have Jay, alone, talking about where he grew up, Marcy Projects. This Can’t Be Life, on the other hand, is Jay, Beanie Siegel, and Scarface, telling 3 pretty emotional stories. 3 reasons This Can’t Be Life gets the nod: 1) Starting off a song with “I was, born in sewage” is pretty much rawer than anything else. 2) Beans gives the verse of his career. 3) While Where I’m From loses steam as the song pushes on, This Can’t Be Life pushes on, making me cry to the very end. Classic.
Roc Boys (2) vs. My 1st Song (10): I love listening to Jay-Z talk. Even though the first 2 minutes of My 1st Song are great, the last 2 minutes of him just shouting people out and telling stories is some of my favorite Jay-Z. There is a good chance my last blog post next May will be me, talking over this beat, shouting out people and telling stories, for 6 hours. As good as it is, Roc Boys gets the nod for being maybe the classiest song Jay has ever made. The horns alone might give it the slight edge. Also, Jay’s enfatuation with Judasim reaches a highpoint in this song “Black Bar Mitzvahs, Mazel Tov it’s a celebration bitches… L’Chaim (step on glass, put Jay-Z in chair, uncles lift him in the chair, commence with the horah).” Truly the standout on his American Gangster concept album, and it’s one of the better in his post fake-out retirement career (and the video is responsible for me and my boy Owen’s baller celebratory high-five…SLAP, SLAP, SALUTE).
Hard Knock Life (1) vs. D’Evils (8): Beyond the Annie sample, perhaps the most unbelievable thing about Hard Knock Life is how minimalistic it is. 95% of the beat is just one note repeated over and over again. The song makes people (myself included) extremely happy. When you match confidence with creativity, every now and then you get an end result as beautiful and weird as Hard Knock Life. It’s a one-of-a-kind. D’Evils, great song, great example of perfectly used samples, but it matched up with one of the most clever rap songs ever made. Laterz.
Ain’t No Nigga (12) vs. December 4th (13): This isn’t a spoiler for the winner of this contest, nor does it carry the most weight in my decision making, but I have to admit that I think December 4th is the most beautiful song Jay-Z has ever made. The way it begins, instrumentally (which forces me to throw my arms up in triumph) and ends with the almost cryptic “if you can’t respect that, you’re whole perspective is whack, maybe you’ll love me when I fade to Black” is sometimes too much to handle among company. It’s like the emotion of Oprah’s Legends Brunch, but divided by 367,000. Ain’t No Nigga is a great, fun track, classic early Jay, classic pre-Beyonce, flirtatious Jay. But at the end of the day, objectively and subjectively, it doesn’t hold a candle to December 4th. HIS MOM IS ON THE TRACK. SHE GOT HIM A BOOMBOX. IT DROVE HIS SIBLINGS NUTZZ.
Dirt Off Your Shoulder (3) vs. Public Service Announcement (Interlude) (11): You hate to see the intra-album battle. While both are good, there is a glaring difference between the two songs. I think a number of people could have rapped over that insane Timbo beat and had a hit with Dirt Off Your Shoulder. Ludacris, easily. Lupe maybe. Joe Budden, why not? NO ONE ON EARTH/MARS/PANDORA could pull of P.S.A. other than Jay-Z. You can’t say, “Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is WAKA.” I promise you can’t. P.S.A. is so Jay-Z, it hurts. Example of how insane the song is, a few weeks back a DJ turned on the beginning of P.S.A., thereby alerting the listener that they have 22 seconds to get in position. With about 7 seconds left before the explosion, 5 people stopped their conversations outside the bar and ran inside, simply to scream HOV at the top of their lungs. I was one of those 5 people. I’m always one of those 5 people.
I Just Wanna Love U (2) vs. Renegade (10): Renegade is Jay and Eminem at the top of their game. As much as I love I Just Wanna Love U, it can’t even sit at the adults table with Renegade. It’s going to take another track at the adults table to knock it off, because the song is one of the best rap duo tracks ever made.
On To The Next One (1) vs. Money Ain’t a Thang (9): Saying I “love” both of these songs is an understatement. The funny thing about both of them, however, is that they’re both pretty slept on tracks, On To The Next One because it was the 4th single on the Blueprint 3 and Money Ain’t a Thang because people often forget the song even exists. Throw either of them on at a party, however, and everyone goes bonkers. There’s something about On To The Next One that makes it overwhelmingly infectious. Maybe it’s the sheer number of times the phrase “on the the next one” is said. Maybe it’s the phrase “on to the next one” that has permeated slang as the new, cool way of describing “moving on” (it’s said on Basketball Wives 37 times an episode). Maybe it’s the part in the 2nd verse when the beat goes out for 2 seconds. Whichever, it is too much for one of my all-time favorites. Sorry Jerm.
Can’t Knock The Hustle (5) vs. U Don’t Know (13): If you think U Don’t Know is an average song, you need to stop listening to it through headphones. It should only be heard through large, loud speakers in a room/field of 100 people (minimum). It is such a powerful song, it makes many of his classics seem sort of soft, Can’t Knock The Hustle being one of those. To quote Jay, Can’t Knock The Hustle is the knife in the proverbial gunfight represented by U Don’t Know. Guns. Always. Win.
Dead Presidents II (3) vs. Can I Live (6): The thing about Dead Presidents is I feel it’s one of those songs you have to know every word to in order to have some sort of rap legitimacy. Or at least 95% of them. It’s a song that should end up on hip-hop timelines of important events and releases. It’s beyond classic. With all of that said, it barely edges out Can I Live. The chorus of Can I Live gives me the chills like very few other songs and it’s an overall classic track. Unfortunately for it, it went up against one of the few songs that could edge it out, simply because Dead Presidents is a similar, slightly better song.
Izzo (H.O.V.A.) (10) vs. Money, Cash, Hoes (15): This is actually one of the more lopsided matchups of the 2nd round, not because Money, Cash, Hoes isn’t great, but because H to the Izzo, V to the Izzay is, as he mentions, an “anthem”. All rappers need anthems and this is definitely one of his best. Also, probably his 2nd best summer-dominating jam. (Side note: Mr. West, the Jackson 5 sample is perfect. You are the king.)
Feelin It (9) vs. 1-900 Hustler (16): The Cinderella story is over, 1-900 Hustler. It’s a heartwarming story, but let’s be real for a second. There might not be a better song to medium-speed head bob to in history than Feelin It. It’s a phenomenal song to blast in a residential neighborhood while doing no faster than 25mph. It gives the mostly intense all-the-time Reasonable Doubt a much needed chilled out tone. It’s a pretty near-perfect rap song.
Big Pimpin (4) vs. Who U Wit (12): Jay often talks about looking for beats “with that bounce”. Big Pimpin is the definition of “that bounce”. In terms of up-tempo, party Jay tracks, at this moment in time I don’t know what can take down Big Pimpin. Who U Wit is a jam, but not enough for the song that will permanently stay on loop when I finally get that yacht out of lay away from Rooms-To-Go.
Song Cry (6) vs. Brooklyn’s Finest (14): Okay. This isn’t good. Two classic, underrated songs from 2 classic albums, both exhibiting aspects of Jay’s dynamic abilities. With Song Cry, you have Jay at his most personal, an eyelash away from crying at all times, while on Brooklyn’s Finest you have sparring Jay, rapping with the then-king of NYC, Biggie Smalls, doing a full-fledged battle of wits. I might not be allowed to walk in Brooklyn after this (it’s all good, I live in Harlem, Cam’ron will protect me) but Song Cry is a better song. Rappers of Jay’s stature didn’t make songs like Song Cry before it’s release and haven’t made them like it since. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind and he should be applauded for it. And the line, “They say you can’t turn a bad girl good, but once a good girls, gone, bad… she’s gone forever…” is one of the best lines he’s ever delivered.
99 Problems (2) vs. Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love) (7): The line “If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems” I don’t even have to finish, because you know the rest. This lyric will stand the test of time. Rick Rubin’s decision to have Jay do that part a capella was almost as genius as the line itself. Every facet of this song out rocks the wonderfully soulful Heart of the City. (side note: the live version of Heart of the City with Jaguar Wright might outrock everything, except maybe the live version of 99 Problems.)
Reasonable Doubt: 2
In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life: 1
Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter: 1
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia: 1
The Blueprint: 4
Best of Both Worlds
The Blueprint 2
The Black Album: 4
American Gangster: 1
The Blueprint 3: 2
Watch The Throne
Empire State of Mind (1) vs. Encore (12): Continuing to advance Empire State of Mind isn’t the coolest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like rooting for the Miami Heat. No one wants the most popular song in recent memory to beat all of the more under-the-radar Hov tracks. unfortunately for the previous 2 songs, and now the epic Encore, this song has replaced an institution of a song, that being “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra. I’ll never forget NYE 2010 when the clock struck midnight, I had failed to kiss anyone, and they played Jay-Z before Frank Sinatra. Jay, in a prophetic move, calls himself “the new Sinatra” in the song… and then becomes to new Sinatra. The popular DJ transition from Frank to Jay is pretty awesome when it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME I GO OUT. I love Encore, love love love it, but when it comes to the creme de la creme, Empire is hard to beat. It’s his love song to his city.
Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…) (2) vs. This Can’t Be Life (14): I love this match up, because they represent two very different moments in Jay’s life and career. This Can’t Be Life is a tale of hardship, of sadness, of tough times. Roc Boys is a celebration of life, “This Can Be Life”, if you will. The thing I love about Jay is that he doesn’t pretend not to be rich/wildly successful now. Why pretend. With that said, he always acknowledges his past. These two songs are both quite good, but the edge definitely goes to This Can’t Be Life, an extremely personal account where each verse sounds like a private diary entry. It’s easily one of the best 2 or 3 collaborations of his career.
Hard Knock Life (1) vs. December 4th (13): This isn’t fair. I never should have done this bracket. Having to explain why one perfect song is worse than another perfect song is miserable, but here we go. I’ve heard people criticize Hard Knock Life as being “too poppy”. That’s dumb. For one, you can’t dance to it, all you can do is bob your head, really really slowly. Secondly, he’s rapping over a silly sample, years before other people thought this was a cool thing to do. Hard Knock Life changed rap for the weirder and I love it for that. December 4th, on the other hand, did not change rap, but gave a sizable glimpse into Jay’s life like few other songs. This is easily the closest match up of the tournament so far, but the extremely small edge is going towards Hard Knock Life, for sheer creativity and for the fact it makes grown-up goons belt Annie at the top of their lungs. I’m not happy about knocking out my favorite Jay song, but it had to happen eventually. Great run, sorry Ms. Carter.
Renegade (10) vs. Public Service Announcement (11): What Jay-Z lacked in Renegade he made up for in Public Service Announcement. I like it when Jay has collaborations, but I especially love it when he needs the help of no one. P.S.A. is a perfect example of that. The amount that he packs into not even a 3 minute song is remarkable. It even makes an intense song like Renegade look sort of fluffy. In Renegade, Jay has a peer in Eminem. In P.S.A., you are reminded that at the end of the day, Hova is peerless. P.S.A. moves on.
On To The Next One (1) vs. U Don’t Know (13): I’m struggling to find a more brash, cocky, beautiful way to end a song than U Don’t Know’s “I. Will. Not. Lose. Ever… Fucker.” I mean, jeeez Jay. At least give other people a chance by saying something like, “I. Might. Not. Lose. Today… Colleague.” That’s what I would have done, but that’s why one of us is married to Beyonce and the other is about to update his avatar on BlackPlanet.com. On To The Next One is one of his flyest songs ever, but U Don’t Know is way too much.
Dead Presidents II (3) vs. Izzo (H.O.V.A.) (10): Jay’s line to begin the second verse of HOVA, “I do this for my culture”, is one of my favorite lines ever. Very simple, but completely sums up his legacy, that being the voice of his generation. With that said, he began doing it “for his culture” and speaking on behalf of a generation in Dead Presidents. Who knows the direction his career might have gone had Dead Presidents never been made. The song has aged remarkably well, is easily the highlight of many classic tracks on Reasonable Doubt, and lyrically has few peers. It gets the edge over the HOVA, not for one particular reason, but because I think it genuinely is an all around better song and a lyrical tour-de-force. Also, while coming out 5 years before HOVA, it has aged considerably better.
Big Pimpin (4) vs. Feelin It (9): The unfortunate thing for every other up-tempo song in the bracket is that I can’t help but compare it to Big Pimpin. I think I like I song, then I turn on Big Pimpin and I realize the other song isn’t that good. I think it might be the most fun song ever made. Try to listen to it and frown. I want it played at my funeral (maybe just the beat), simply to make everyone smile, and to give my funeral a little of that bounce. Feelin It, on the other hand, is also an extremely enjoyable song and probably my favorite song on Reasonable Doubt. Unfortunately, it’s just not enjoyable enough. Pimp C + Bun B + Jay Z are two much to handle. A classic, by classic standards.
Song Cry (6) vs. 99 Problems (7): I’m tired of weeping, Hov; I have no more tears for you. Listening to these two songs back to back is a hysterical experience, because after 5 minutes of reflection and watery eyes, 99 Problems wakes me up, I start throwing furniture, headbang a wall, get lightheaded, and then pass out. When I come to, I lather, rinse, and repeat. 99 Problems is one of the best rock-inflenced rap songs ever (NUMBER ONE). The reason it has become such an iconic song is that Jay doesn’t let Rick out rock him with the beat. Jay comes extra hard, creating one of the wildest, craziest rap songs he’s ever made. They are hard songs to compare, because they are polar opposites, but one has to go and that one is Song Cry. I was expecting it to get knocked out much earlier, but the more I listened to it, the more I re-fell in love with the song. Unfortunately, I think 99 Problems is simply a better track, one that deserves to continue on in the contest. It’s one of the tracks that made people realize Jay was much bigger than rap.
Reasonable Doubt: 1
In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life: 1
Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter: 1
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia: 1
The Blueprint: 1
Best of Both Worlds
The Blueprint 2
The Black Album: 2
American Gangster: 1
The Blueprint 3: 1
Watch The Throne
Empire State of Mind (1) vs. This Can’t Be Life (14): It’s hard to think about Empire State of Mind without thinking about how played out it’s become. If you think about it with that lens, some unfair opinions will enter the equation. Don’t punish the song for being wildly popular and having more cross appeal than any previously-released Jay song. I’m not a New Yorker and this song makes me proud to have temporarily set up shop here. It’s an exquisite song, from Alicia’s voice and piano, to Jay’s uplifting chorus and ability to take the listener on a verbal field trip of New York City. This song took over the world, not because it’s gimmicky, but because it’s that good. It’s his city, he deserves to make a song like this. This Can’t Be Life’s Cinderella run ends here, but had it gone against some of the other tracks still alive, it easily could have made the Final 4. Well, not easily but it would have at least had a chance against a few. Jay-Z’s love letter = FINAL 4 Bound.
Hard Knock Life (1) vs. Public Service Announcement (Interlude) (11): These are two extremely unusual songs. Neither of them remind me of anything previous to their release. In my mind, the only way to beat Hard Knock Life is to be even more creative/out-weird it. Public Service Announcement does that, and then some. Take a step back and think about P.S.A. Jay and Just Blaze are saying that this track (a measly interlude, lest we forget) is something the public/humanity needs to hear, for the sake of their well-being. That’s what a PSA is. The gall of these two. And then the spoken part: “Fellow Americans, it is with the utmost pride and sincerity that I present this recording as a living testament and recollection of history in the making during our generation”, followed by “Allow me to RE-introduce myself, my name is” FREEZE. (Side note: probably my favorite thing in music, due to my new-found love of house music, is the “build-up”. PSA is hip-hop’s greatest build-up. The first 22 seconds of this song alone could have advanced it a few rounds. Adding in the “HOV” easily takes it to the Elite 8. Then Jay has the nerve to have 2 ridiculous verses to accompany the intro, all for a measly interlude. Hard Knock Life, you had a great run, but PSA is proudly walking into the Final 4.
Dead Presidents II (3) vs. U Don’t Know (13): Two great songs with no guest stars, just Jay. Actually, I take that back. U Don’t Know has an important non Jay-Z vocal contributor. Whoever is screaming at the top of their lungs throughout this song adds to the drama and sense of urgency associated with this song. While U Don’t Know is loud and aggressive, Dead Presidents is calm and composed, but equally as intense. It almost feels like a toss up, but when I think of Jay at his best, I think of instances in which he’s reminding you implicitly and explicitly, that he’s peerless. U Don’t Know is that, in the most explicitly way possible. He outlines the ways in which he’s the best, and in each example, I completely believe him. Leaving Reasonable Doubt out of the Final 4 seems like a sin, but an equally strong argument could be made about leaving The Blueprint out of the Final 4. If you have any beef with U Don’t Know making it, turn it up to 11 and tell me I’m wrong. Don’t worry… I’ll wait…
99 Problems (2) vs. Big Pimpin (4): I have so many props to give out. 1) Timbaland, thank you for having an obsession with flutes. 2) Jay, thank you for putting UGK on this song. 3) To all parties involved, thank you for making Big Pimpin the single greatest song to play between the months of May and August. When I hear the first note, I lose it. While I love Jay and B, this is the single, bachelor, “I be forever mackin” Jay that everyone loved. This song is like a time capsule of a time long ago when everyone was happy. This is pre-recession rap. I’ve yet to say anything about 99 Problems, which is rude because it’s an unreal song, but Big Pimpin is too important to music. Jay-Z has multiple summer anthems, but this one is the patriarch of the genre. RIP Pimp C and RIP 99 Problems.
**Still Hanging On For Deal Life?**
In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (Big Pimpin, 4 Seed)
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
The Blueprint: (U Don’t Know, 13 Seed)
Best of Both Worlds
The Blueprint 2
The Black Album: (Public Service Announcement, 11 Seed)
American Gangster: 1
The Blueprint 3: (Empire State of Mind, 1 Seed)
Watch The Throne
Four songs are left, from four different albums. Half are 2 of the biggest rap songs in history, songs that even the causal rap fan might know every word to. The other two weren’t even released as singles, but from 2 of his 3 most classic albums. Interesting.
Empire State Of Mind (1) vs. U Don’t Know (13)
I knew, you knew, everyone knew at some point the top dog had to get knocked off. I wasn’t going to let it lose to any song, it had to be against a song so powerful, so “Jay-Z”, that Empire State of Mind’s status as New York’s new official song wouldn’t even matter. U Don’t Know is that song. Everything about it is larger than life. It’s one of the brashest songs I’ve ever heard, but the reason is works is because the dude rapping can back it up. I can’t perform U Don’t Know, because none of the lyrics apply to my life. I can barely sell water to thirsty people, so selling it to a well is completely out of the question. The fact that the listener tends to believe the extravagant things coming out of Jay-Z mouth is a testament to 1) how baller he is and 2) how convincing he is. I stand behind U Don’t Know beating Empire State of Mind and making it to the Final 2 as much as pretty much anything.
Big Pimpin (4) vs. Public Service Announcement (Interlude) (11)
I’ve mentioned a few times how Big Pimpin is just the greatest party song in recent memory and how other up-tempo songs suffer because it is in a league of its own. For me, there is the feeling of happiness that comes from plenty things, from winning something to hearing something you like to laughing, etc. etc. There is a level of happiness, however, that goes well beyond smiles and laughs. It’s the feeling of triumph. When I hear something triumphant, I don’t smile and I don’t laugh, I just let the experience wash over me. There are a handful of songs in every genre of music that make me feel this way. Public Service Announcement is one of those musical moments that exemplifies this idea of triumph. It’s overwhelmingly good and that’s the only way, in my mind, a song can oust such a classic like Big Pimpin. But it did. Yep, definitely did.
Public Service Announcement (11) vs. U Don’t Know (13)
I think it’s fitting that it comes down to two songs that true Jay-Z fans love, not just his two most popular songs. These songs are very similar, in the sense that they both are loud and in your face. Neither were singles from their respective records. Neither songs really have choruses. They are simply Jay-Z’s two finest examples of him doing what he does best, rapping like he’s the God MC he touts himself as. I listen to these songs back to back and I feel like I can do anything. They’re both unbelievable songs, but one is better. That song is Public Service Announcement. The first 9 tracks of the work of art that is The Black Album builds up to this song. All the high drama that took place in the early stages of this album leads up to the explosion that is “HOV”. It’s unlike any rap song I’ve ever heard and really should be thought of as one of the better hip-hop songs ever made. I don’t have one slightly negative thing to say about U Don’t Know, because there’s nothing wrong with it, there just happens to be one other song that out-everything’s it.
If you made it this far, congrats. I did this more for debates sake than to show of my knowledge of Jay-Z or throw my opinions on people. I will gladly argue with anyone about any decision in this bracket; that’s the whole point. Feel free to tell me how wrong/right you think this is, and I’ll gladly tell you if I respectfully agree/disagree with you.
It’s been fun. I’m going to take a nap now.
Shout out to Lucky Lefty for having the most impressive rap resume of all time. I’m honored to have done this.
p.s. For those of you counting, Word Count = 7,397
p.p.s. I didn’t use the word “swag” once. I consider this an achievement.