AlbumAmerican Gangster
LabelRoc-A-Fella/Def Jam
ProducerDiddy, Sean C & LV
American Gangster gets my vote as most underrated Jay-Z album as a whole. After the legitimate dissapointment of a comeback album, 2006's Kingdom Come, that had many fans wishing that Jay had remained retired, a return to drug-baron rap (even just one inspired by a movie) was just the thing to relight Jay-Z's creative fire. But for the all drama of the title and the subject matter, it's an understated affair. Much of that has to do with the beats. Loungy, '70s, Curtis Mayfield-inspired music that Puffy gave to Jay because he didn't know what else to do with it. "I'll just play it in my house and run around with my socks on," Jay says Puffy told him.

That's why it's underappreciated, I think. Because it's quiet, unassuming, mellow. "No Hook" is the epitome. A mid-tempo strut fleshed out with sumptuous strings and a repeating single guitar note that's left to echo in space, over which rhymes so cooly, so effortlessly, so confidently that, like he says, he doesn't even need a hook. (Although, winkingly, that declaration becomes the hook itself.) He knows how good he sounds. I'm surprised more people don't agree. —Dave Bry