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With a legendary career spanning over two decades at the top of the rap game, to deny Jay-Z’s status as one of the best niggas that done it is pretty much laughable. Since the 1996 debut of his landmark Reasonable Doubt album, Jay-Z has mostly maintained the tricky balancing act of being musically innovative, commercially viable, and respected by the hip-hop community.
But what are Jay’s finest moments? The questions was put to the Rap Genius community in a series of polls over the last two months, and the people have spoken! Rap Genius is therefore proud to present:
The Top 25 Jay-Z Verses
(that shit cray!)
U Don’t Know (verse 1)
The first verse from “U Don’t Know,” off of Jay’s landmark Blueprint album, paints a vivid, revelatory picture of the Marcy Projects and its immediate surroundings. Jay is from where the block itself has an insatiable appetite and bullets are always on your tail, and from where residents are always on the lookout for cops in SWAT gear. Jay immerses us in NYC’s own “Hell, where you are welcome to sell,” giving us a brief window into a post-industrial urban slum ravaged by narcotics, crime, poverty, and police corruption. In the end, though, “it’s home sweet home.”
Shiny Suit Theory
In this creative, recent verse on his talented protege Jay Electronica’s track, Jay-Z gives us this imaginary exchange between himself and his therapist. With this verse, he reminds us just how extraordinary his rise to the top was, and his psychiatrist does an excellent job at emphasizing the unlikelihood of Jigga’s stardom, all the while lording over him in their session as “the man” — ironically representing the psychological troubles that he should be treating.
Can I Live (verse 2)
While the mind-blowing super-sized verse that precedes it usually get most of the attention, the second verse of “Can I Live” lies firmly in classic Jay-Z territory. Jay explores the common theme of legitimizing his life of crime, delivering pithy pieces of advice such as “you guessed it, manifest it in tangible goods, platinum Rolex’d it / we don’t lease we buy the whole car, as you should.” Jay schools not only the hustler with dreams of legitimacy, but also the hordes of naïve rappers who, left to their own devices, wouldn’t even own their own publishing. Fitting for a guy who started his own record label only to become one of the world’s richest rappers.
What More Can I Say? (verse 3)
In this Black Album “street” single, Jay contemplates the (bullshit) retirement that he had threatened / promised with its release. The sound of the song’s third verse is full-on triumph, with Jay making a then-final statement of his legendary status. Jay spares no expense, referring to himself as “the Martha Stewart that’s far from Jewish,” and declaring that not even Public Enemy could “Shut [him] Down.” To finish things off, the beat cuts out, leaving Jay to spit a focused but dizzying argument for his Greatest of All Time title, before he fittingly drops his mic, symbolizing his retirement from the game.
But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat' a bunch of times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list
We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist
Man, fuck this
Allure (verse 2)
In one of Jay’s most telling verses, he talks about his involvement with the drug game, and the happiness that it brought him. He mulls over the process of drug brewing, and the distribution of the drugs. The verse morphs from dark braggadocio to a humbling regret over some of the darkness the drug life has brought him. The verse ends up being a very touching insight into the life and feelings of a thug. The most intriguing part of the verse however is the brief, simple account of an anonymous dealer’s girlfriend, “learning [she’s] the mistress only after that love gets slain,” with whom Jay ultimately identifies, as “hustlers in love with the same thing.”
But the allure of the game, keeps calling your name
To all the Lauras of the world, I feel your pain
To all the Christies in different cities and Tiffany Lanes:
We all hustlers in love with the same thing
Moment of Clarity (verse 2)
On a dark, brooding Eminem beat, Jay takes some verses to spill his guts a little bit. The most intriguing of these verses is the center one, where Jay considers the common criticism that he’s simplified his music to gain a broad audience. Surprisingly, Jay agrees with the assessment – “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars” – but does so in a sly way that shows the elegant genius behind his perceived simplicity. Witness and try to decode the barrage of wordplay surrounding the words “common” and “sense” in this verse, and you’ll see that Jay is a lyrical powerhouse on the level of any underground rapper – except more famous.
Dead Presidents II (Verse 1)
In an odd move, the original “Dead Presidents” track didn’t make Jay-Z’s landmark Reasonable Doubt album. Instead, listeners were treated to this sequel version, on the exact same beat, with Jay spitting a new set of three verses. Jay earnestly explores issues of faith, recounting a tale of a friend wounded by gunfire: “just dream about the get-back / that made him smile, though his eyes said ‘pray for me’ / I’ll do you one better and slay these niggas faithfully.” It’s a troubled and troubling display of the effect of crime and poverty on outlook, and every inch the classic that the lauded original was.
Swagga Like Us
Of all of Jay’s qualities, his ability to be quietly present in rap is one of his most powerful assets. At the time of this all-star collaboration’s release, Jay’s buzz was probably the quietest, with his Blueprint 3 facing repeated delays, and his collaborators in the limelight from their recent or upcoming releases Tha Carter III, 808s and Heartbreak and Paper Trail. But when it came to spitting bars, it almost didn’t matter – Jay taught us the difference between paying for school and buying class, showed us his all-blue Yankee graduation cap, and asked the pivotal question: “did you even have any doubt after Doubt it was over?” And just like that – Jay quietly delivered the best verse on the song!
Brooklyn (Go Hard) (verse 2)
“Brooklyn (Go Hard),” Jay-Z’s frankly weird collaboration with critical sensation Santigold for the soundtrack to the film “Notorious”, sees Jay adopting a strange accent and off-kilter flow to discuss…his greatness. It’s a bit more than that though – it’s a love letter to his hometown of Brooklyn, and the self-congratulatory elements of the track stem from his unlikely rise from low-level drug hustler to globe-trotting rap superstar, surviving that dangerous atmosphere. In the tour de force that is his second verse on the track, Jay again identifies with the little orphan Annie (coining the charming phrase “half-orphan” in the process), and referring to himself as the “black Branch Rickey,” after dropping a truly jaw-dropping quatrain on the subject of Jackie Robinson. Just another Hova home-run (sorry! Couldn’t resist!).
Made in America
Jay salvages one of Watch the Throne’s weaker tracks by delivering this troubled account of his dealing days, implicating the American Dream in his wrong doing with evocative lines like “our apple pie was supplied through Arm & Hammer.” The verse sees Hov at his most conflicted – he self-righteously justifies his dealing as his way of “leading a nation to leave [his] little mans.” But then why does he need to hide it from Grandma?
22 Twos (verse 1)
It’s a simple concept: just take the word (number?) two, its homophones (to, too) and use it twenty-two times in one verse. What could Hov possibly express with such a ridiculous constraint? How about letting it be known that he’s not down with the West Coast obsession he’s seeing, and painting a picture of hectic love lives he’s seen around the block. Performing the rap equivalent of facing Pacquiano in the ring with one hand behind his back, Jay is quite assertive and confident for a guy who was but a neophyte in the rap game at the time. So is this one of the 25 best Jigga verses? “No question; Jay-Z got too many answers”
Post 2010, the role in which Jay has been most consistently great is that of rap game elder statesman, giving his advice to the new generation of rappers. Nowhere is this more evident than on Jay’s brilliant turn on then-newcomer Drake’s debut Thank Me Later. Ignoring the vaguely embarrassing “triple entendre” gaffe, Jay’s verse brings heat to the otherwise somber track, with the veteran coaching the newbie on how to handle the rap game. “Drake, here’s how they gon’ get at you / with silly rap feuds try’na distract you.” The host of rappers looking to get into it with Drake today only serves to reinforce Jay’s status as someone who intimately understands the social aspect of hip-hop.
No Church in the Wild
This is the opening verse to Watch the Throne, and it doesn’t disappoint. The first two lines juxtapose the deaths (and the aftermath) of the wealthy with those of Coliseum fodder, their final resting place being mausoleums and dusty arena floors, respectively. The next two lines recounts the widely held misconception that Thanksgiving was a benevolent holiday. Jigga then refers to Plato’s Euthyphro, asking “Is Pius pious ‘cuz God loves pious?”. In an excellent ending to this verse, Jay constructs contemporary Hip Hop’s own Holy Trinity, where he is the Holy Ghost to Kanye’s Jesus. Given that Dr. Michael Eric Dyson has called Jay-Z “a great American philosopher,” it’s only right that Jigga gives us a philosophically charged verse, likening Hip Hop to Christianity (his religion is the beat), and introducing Socrates’s piety problem to the beats of black music.
Never Let Me Down (verse 2)
We’ll be the first to say it – Jay’s two boastful verses on this otherwise very socially aware Kanye West cut are almost disgracefully inappropriate to the song’s theme. However, looking past that, no one can do self-congratulation quite like Jay-Z, and the second verse of “Never Let Me Down” is a hell of a reminder. Who else can drop a line like “built the Roc from a pebble,” drawing in religious and drug-related themes simultaneously? And then seconds later turn “Mike Jordan” into a verb to describe what he does to his competition? The most telling lines though come at the very end – “Hov’s a living legend and I’ll tell you why / everybody wanna be Hov and Hov’s still alive!” Who could argue that?
Dead Presidents (verse 2)
The original “Dead Presidents” – often regarded as one of Jay’s finest moments, despite not making his classic Reasonable Doubt album – was a powerful opening salvo to his now legendary career. The track’s second verse sees Jay delivering devastating critiques of both rappers and hustlers; while this might have premature at the time, the empire that Jay has built since shows that, shit, he might have been on to something. Jay drops lines that have since inspired legions of rappers, a “you in the streets, nigga, make your moves, get your mail” here, an “everything was all good just a week ago” there, while dismantling the backward priorities of ignorant hustler/rappers with shots like “niggas’ll coast in the SL but can’t post bail.” Jay’s sensible approach to money – which he hadn’t really even started making yet, in the scheme of things – distinguished him early on from the scores of rappers who would floss for so long and lose it all (see Master P, MC Hammer).
Amidst all the hype of Watch the Throne, Jay-Z and Beyoncé let the world in on the heartwarming news that after several years of trying, they had finally managed to conceive a child. Progeny was certainly on the mind for Jay when he delivered this deeply personal verse, agonizing over whether the way he’s lived his own life would adversely affect the life of his future family, and trying to find solutions for the issues he knows his child will encounter. “Took me 26 years to find my path / my only job is cut the time in half / so at 13 we’ll have our first drink together,” Jay states, alluding to the thirteen years he spent fatherless and getting into trouble before he became a successful rapper, a time period he would like to excise from his child’s life. This hopeful verse sees Jay looking to correct the problems of the past for the next generation – Rap Genius wishes him the best in this endeavor in raising his brand new daughter, Blue Ivy Carter.
And if the day comes I only see him on the weekend
I just pray we was in love on the night that we conceived him
Promise to never leave him even if his mama tweakin’
Cause my dad left me and I promise never repeat him
D'Evils (verse 1)
I often find myself pinpointing the vibe I get from a song based on the beat. Yet, upon listening to the bare instrumental of “D’Evils”, I realized that it was Jay’s lyricism that made the song so menacing.
The theme “selling crack isn’t easy or right, but damn is it profitable” dates back a long way, but Jay puts a spiritual spin on it with this verse. Yet far from shoving faith down our throats like many other spiritual rappers, he’s subtle about it. Jay approaches matters of faith with an almost bitter tone. You can imagine Jay suppressing a grimace with a pseudo-smile when he utters, “9 to 5 is how you survive, but I ain’t tryna survive / I’m tryna live it to the limit and love it a lot.” It’s like he’s trying to jump from Step 2 to Step 7 of the stages of grief instantly. But by the verse’s end, you can tell he’s becoming comfortable with this grim mask and he’s embracing the amoral lifestyle of the streets – the “D’Evils” of the song’s title. It’s a miniature story in 16 bars that only someone Like Jigga could pull off.
Public Service Announcement (Interlude) (Verse 2)
Elizabeth Mendez Berry, a former reporter for The Village Voice, is the spark that started the second verse to Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement”. During the promotion process for The Black Album, this young lady was one of the lucky few to preview the album, although it was still unfinished. Well, after she listened to this masterpiece of an album, all she could say was this: “Don’t you feel funny?” The reason? Jay-Z was wearing a big Jesus piece over a Che Guevara T-Shirt. She claimed to not be able to concentrate on Jay’s music due to the contradiction of Jay’s expensive jewelry juxtaposed with the Marxist icon’s image. Hov couldn’t get over this encounter, so when Just Blaze gave him this beat to add to The Black Album, Mr. Carter knew he had to mention this incident:
The second verse, as a whole, talks about Hov hustling growing up, and his successes as a hustler. He tries to tie the spirit of the hustler in with the spirit of the revolutionary through the Che Guevera reference, as well as a Malcolm X reference (“I get my by any means on whenever there’s a drought”), offering a justification for his dope dealing ways, but acknowledging his inconsistencies with his referring to “doing it twice.” It’s fitting then that he wraps his conflicted treatise with a call to suspend judgment: “Either love me, or leave me alone”
Big Pimpin' (verse 1)
Jigga’s verse in this song is, perhaps, the ultimate celebration of the player lifestyle in Hip Hop verse. Jay promises line after line to remain unshackled, to resist the domestic prison of marriage. Enter Beyonce, who somehow persuades Jigga to become a one-woman man and marry her. Hopefully, she won’t “divorce him and split his bucks.” How did Beyoncé manage to convert him? Was her head game that good?
Aside from the reiterated machismo and Jay’s emotional detachment from his lady friends, this verse is showcases one of Jigga’s impeccable flows. He’s significantly quicker on this verse than he is most often, reflecting the way that the pimp figure moves through women and other hedonistic pursuits. This verse is poetic pimpology at its best, with perfect connotationally-selected vocabulary and masterful use of onomatopoeia (see below).
Having grown tired of the rumors that he was associated with the Illuminati and a devil worshipper, Jay delivered this verse in an attempt to end all the slandering. It didn’t quite work, but we did get an amazing verse out of it. After hearing the Lee Major produced beat just three times , Hov delivers his verse, tackling the issues about his faith. And he does so in typical Jay-Z fashion, with clever wordplay, double entendres, and evocative imagery as he raps:
Not only does Jay dismiss the rumors, but he reflects the accusations back at the accusers and brilliantly uses their own weapon, the Bible, against them. The religious imagery continues throughout the verse and Jay-Z thanks the Lord for his success which should put all the rumors to rest. Of course it didn’t exactly work, but c’mon people, “it’s Hov, just say you love it”!
Renegades (verse 2)
“And Eminem murdered you on your own shit.” So goeth the meme – it’s hard to deny that Jay-Z was outshined on this classic track by the dazzling pair of verses spit by the Detroit MC. Jay however, played the foil to Eminem’s ostentatious flows, delivering two brooding verses carrying an emotional depth belied by their simplicity.
The latter of Jay’s two verses is clearly the stronger of the two, seeing Jay ruminate on his childhood, particularly his precocious nature as a result of the harsh conditions in which he lived. Jay’s verse gorgeously shows the strain that inner-city living can inflict on family – with Mom working multiple jobs, when could she instill moral values in her son? And how could she steer him in the right direction when the wrong thing is what’s putting food on the table? Jay’s verse masterfully explores the tragedy of lost innocence due to poverty, but also the serendipitous benefit of the tireless work ethic that experience instilled within him, allowing him to fulfill his “multi before I die” promise to his friend and mentor Biggie Smalls. The final result is a dense, understated verse, bursting with quiet power. While the “murdered you on your own shit” meme will likely never die – to be “renegaded” has entered the hip-hop lexicon as a phrase which means just that – a close look at Jay’s verse here shows the score to be much closer than commonly held.
Diamonds from Sierra Leone (remix)
Continuing Jay’s streak of delivering irrelevantly boastful verses on highly conceptual and heartfelt Kanye West songs, Jay’s guest turn on Yeezy’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” remix nonetheless gives us Jay braggadocio at its most inspirational. In the wake of the breakup of Roc-a-Fella records, Jay’s verse came as a powerful assurance that far from ending, things were only about to get bigger: “How can you falter when you’re the Rock of Gibraltar? / I had to get off the boat so I could walk on water.”
Far from being discouraged with the trying times of the rupture of his oldest business relationship, Jay predicted his continued success. “People lined up to see the Titanic sinking / instead we rose from the ash like a phoenix,” Jay spit, demonstrating his indomitable will to any who would doubt his ability to rebuild. Jay’s success since the split proved that it was Jay’s artistry and business acumen behind the Roc’s success all along (shouts to Dame Dash, wherever you are now).
99 Problems (verse 2)
The Rick Rubin produced “99 Problems” stands as one of Jay’s defining moments both commercially and artistically. The thundering rock beat provides the perfect backdrop to Jay’s brash verses, each revolving around a creative reinterpretation of Ice-T’s original line, “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”
The song’s second verse – interpreting the line literally, as a drug-sniffing canine unit – is unquestionably its strongest. This verse finds Jay stopped by a crooked, racist police officer, who’s pulled him over “for doing 55 in a 54.” With neither party playing by the rules, the tension of the exchange is palpable. Jay described it himself in his memoir Decoded (a must read for any fan of hip-hop or poetry) as “casual and confrontational all at once, show[ing] how slippery language is depending on which side of the conversation you’re on.” In the end, the strongest asset Jay brings to the exchange is his encyclopedic knowledge of the very laws that he is breaking – an important message to would-be hustlers that civic ignorance is a liability even for hardened criminals.
D'Evils (verse 2)
“D'Evils” is often regarded as one of Jay’s darkest moments. The infectious beat as well as the samples (Snoop Dogg’s “Murder Was The Case”, and Prodigy on LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya” Remix ) set an ominous tone right from the get go. In the second verse, Hov reminisces on a bright friendship that faded due to greed. Both Jay and his friend have become money hungry, fighting over who gets to call the best block their own turf. Jay’s slick wordplay describes the kidnapping and bribing of his former friend’s baby mama, memorably telling the story through provocative double entendres: “I kept feeding her money ‘til her shit started to make sense.” The song explains Jay-Z’s damaged roots, “D'Evils” that came with selling drugs, masterfully continuing the idea introduced in the song’s first verse. The greed that tore apart one of his relationships turns into a pain felt in the same projects that Hov once called home — as well as ghettos around the world. In the world of “D’Evils,” greed manifests itself in the darkest of human actions, ones that poison not just their perpetrators, but the entire world around them.
Who could ever foresee, we used to stay up all night
At slumber parties, now I’m tryna rock his bitch to sleep
All the years we were real close, now I see his fears
Through her tears know she’s wishing we were still close
Can I Live (verse 1)
At a glance, the first verse of “Can I Live” just seems like a well-written piece about the experiences of a hustler. But it is much more than that. Truly great music conveys some of the commonality of human emotions. And Jay does just that by giving us a window to the mind of the hustler, and some of the emotions that he feels: joy, pain, regret, fear, paranoia, and stress. These emotions are what fuel Jay’s relentless ambition in the verse’s most quotable line, “I’d rather die enormous than live dormant, that’s how we on it.”
Jay believes that the risks of hustling are outweighed by the potential rewards; prosperity and success. He is essentially expressing his desire to live the American Dream as it presents itself to him – in the morally ambiguous terrain of neighborhood hustling. Jay sounds tired yet determined as he’s spitting his brilliant lines symbolizing the seriousness of his grind, and fifteen years later, that dogged determination to always cross the finish line comes through, even if Jay’s rhyming style has changed with the times.
The first verse of “Can I Live?” is everything that we love about Jay-Z. It’s the most triumphant portrayal of Jay as the hustler above it all – the one that balances the world of the street with that of a Forbes 500 CEO. The one who worked harder than the rest, and deserves what he’s got. The legendary emcee that didn’t need to die to achieve his status. And finally, is it just a coincidence that we selected the last verse Jay ever wrote down as his best?