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The 10 Best Rappers of the 2000s

1. Jay Z

Albums Released Between 2000-2009: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000), The Blueprint (2001), The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curce (2002), The Black Album (2003), Kingdom Come (2006), American Gangster (2007), The Blueprint 3 (2008)
Classic Mixtape: S. Carter Collection (2003)
Group Albums: N/A
Biggest Billboard Hits Between 2000-2009: "Empire State of Mind f/ Alicia Keys," "Run This Town f/ Rihanna & Kanye West," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "'03 Bonnie & Clyde f/ Beyonce," "Izzo (H.O.V.A)"

You were expecting…anyone else?

No.

Wrong.

No rapper has come close to having the kind of decade—yes, decade—of success like Jay has. And we're not just talking about selling rap records, or getting plays, or making bangers for the club, or for the streets, or being a Rap Nerd Talking Point. No—Jay held you down for a full 10 years of crossover success. Were there hiccups? Sure. Were there even fully regrettable and laughable fuckups? Yes. But it's Jay Z who more than anyone else on this list shaped the direction of rap, and what it means to be a Great Rapper. Even more, what it means to be Superstar who happens to be a rapper. And he did it by virtue of having a higher success-to-output ratio than maybe any rapper to ever walk the planet. Ten albums. Only four of which suck, and that's subjectively speaking. And two of those are half-R. Kelly's fault.

The Jay Decade started out still dealing with Vol. 3 in more than a few ways. For one thing, your man was trying to beat the charges of stabbing his friend Lance Rivera (who had been, allegedly, bootlegging Jay's records). But also, he still had singles from the album burning: "Anything," built off another Annie-style beat (this one from Oliver!) was a minor success as a bonus track turned single. And then in April, Jay dropped the album's final single. Do the words "play with the dick in the truck" ring a bell? 

When the Hype Williams-directed clip for "Big Pimpin" dropped, it changed everything. It was all so, so wrong, but so, so right: Rappers on yachts, showering women in Grey Goose, a white-on-white color motif and letterbox around the frame that made it look like a Hustler's Heaven. And, of course, insanely raunchy lyrics. (Lyrics that Jay Z has since noted as being somewhat regrettable.) Those lyrics scream a lot of things, "Summer Hit" not being one of them. And yet, that chorus. That beat. That yacht. The song took Jay-Z to a level of crossover success he'd yet to see up that point. 

That fall, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia came out—not the strongest way to start his decade in terms of albums—at least compared to what was to come—but by no means the worst. And yes, it is a crew album (kind of). But it ranks in the upper echelon of crew albums, featuring the first song Jay ever did with Just Blaze ("Streets is Talking") a world-class Neptunes beat that powers what still ranks among Jay's best singles ("I Just Wanna Love U"), and maybe one of the hardest album intro tracks ever, among others. "Change The Game" and "Guilty Until Proven Innocent" would drop as singles the next year, though with substantially lesser crossover impact. Don't forget that Backstagecame out in 2000 (and "Best of Me Pt. II" was on the soundtrack).

 

That sound was soon recognized as this album, and Jay Z's ambitious, Five Mic, contemporary classical rap was a welcome distraction from everything that started to happen around it, and whether they loved it or hated it, something every rap fan fell into in a way only the greatest books and movies and art can submerge us.

 

But by the time those were being let loose, they were old hat, nothing new. What Jay Z had in store for rap was going to do for the rap album what "Big Pimpin" did for post-Diddy rap videos: Jay Z was out there, trying to reinvent the classic. "Izzo" had been burning for almost a month by the time the album release day came, that game-changing Jackson 5-sampling Kanye beat running under Jay Z's warm appeal to the juries in the two criminal raps he was still facing: Not guilty, y'all got to feel me. And when the day came, and this would be all-time-classic album finally hit stores? The civilized world as we knew it changed, and September 11th became a day that even the biggest rapper on the planet could not (nor would want to) supersede in terms of infamy. And New York changed, too. But that change—which started with stunned silence—would eventually turnover to the sound of the moment. That sound was soon recognized as this album, and Jay Z's ambitious, Five Mic, contemporary classical rap was a welcome distraction from everything that started to happen around it, and whether they loved it or hated it, something every rap fan fell into in a way only the greatest books and movies and art can submerge us. And the lore around it was (and remains) larger-than-life, too: Jay cut the album in two weeks, and wrote it in two days? Is that really—no, it can't be—Michael Jackson on "Girls, Girls, Girls"? 

The next two singles are, in retrospect, almost hard to believe: "Jigga That Nigga" and "Song Cry." Sure, they're great songs. But "Heart of the City"-great? "U Don't Know"-great? And this is all to say nothing of "Renegade," which included the sole guest verse on the album, performed by Eminem (who also produced the track's beat.) Or "Takeover," with its insane, revolutionary, Doors-driven Kanye production, and lyrics that escalated the greatest rap feud of a generation to an entirely new level. Oh, yeah, and there was that too: The song, originally intended as a diss to Mobb Deep became—from the moment at 2001's Summer Jam when Jay premiered it, along with pictures of Prodigy in a leotard—was eventually rewritten to include much more about Nas after he fired back for Queens with "Ether." That performance, when Jay debuted "Takeover," was also the same one at which he brought Michael Jackson on stage with him.

Imagine that. I write this in an era when Papoose closes out Summer Jam. In 2001, Jay brought out pictures of Prodigy dressed like a ballerina, and brought out Michael Jackson. And Destiny's Child got booed

[It's worth noting that this was the same summer that Jay opened his Beyonce-dissing verse on the "One Minute Man" remix with the infamous "50 Grand I get this on one take!" ad-lib. Also, the "Fiesta (Remix)" was hot that summer, which represents the peak of Jay and R. Kelly's artistic relationship. It was a good vintage for Jay on ad-libs and remixes, too.]

And at the end of 2001? Jay Z released what is arguably the best live rap album ever, full stop. You forgot about Unplugged, didn't you? Go. Right now, go in a quiet room, put that shit on your best headphones and speakers, and listen to the opening notes: In what was one of the craziest years in relatively modern history—let alone rap—a subdued Jay joking around about his "poetry reading" to the opening keys of "Izzo" is exactly what the universe needed at that moment. In what sounds like an (entirely female) room full of Jay Z's biggest fans, backed by hip-hop's first band (The Roots), with a string section, Mary J. Blige, Jaguar Wright, and Pharrell, it is a virtually flawless run-through of some of Jay's best tracks (and has one of his most underrated songs as a bonus cut, too), and one of the earliest signs of the worldly, subdued charisma and gravitas that Jay would keep refining as time went on. 

2002: Jay releases the rest of the Blueprint singles. Freeway's "What We Do" comes out and Jay, as a guest, is on, like, a pile of trash rapping with his young State Property cohorts. That was a great moment. "What We Do" is a fucking amazing song. 

In November, Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse gifts us and curses us in equal proportion: It's got hits on it, sure. But there were a lot of songs. And yes, a double-disc album only having three significant singles (one of which hinged around a so-so Tupac sample): Not a flawless victory. Not an L, but not a win. So Jay went and re-released the album as Blueprint 2.1 later on, which just kind of makes it worse. This doesn't sound like an argument for Jay any more, does it? But only one other rapper on this list released a double album during the aughts, and it wasn't a no. 1 album. It also didn't have a video with Beyoncé Knowles, and Beyoncé Knowles would not go on to be that rapper's wife. There was also Best of Both Worlds that year. It was a big deal to have an album with Jay Z come out in 2002, you know? There's not much more to say on the matter except that the entire thing came to a fitting close when Ty Tymaced Kelly. 

 

The next year, Jay starts rolling out a new product: "Business Jay." At the opening of his first 40/40, The Black Album is announced, and Jay's supposedly going to retire from rap.

 

The next year, Jay starts rolling out a new product: "Business Jay." At the opening of his first 40/40, The Black Album is announced, and Jay's supposedly going to retire from rap. Enter Pharrell, enter Kanye, enter Just Blaze, enter Timberland, Rick Rubin, Eminem, DJ Quik, 9th Wonder and the rest of what might be the greatest all-star producer lineup of any Jay album. (And upon its release, just to show off, or maybe to prove that he wasn't relying on this spectacular collection of beats to carry his swan song for him, Jay released the entire thing a cappella as well, in an era when that wasn't the norm. This inspired an overflow of remixes and, after it made its way to London and fell into the hands of a certain ex-pat producer named Danger Mouse, The Grey Album, which ushered in the mash-up era.)

The Black Album itself—printed on black CDs, with black reflective bottoms—saw Jay taking victory lap after victory lap, re-introducing himself to rap via the shiniest new beats, or new versions of the old beats that made him famous, or just Def Jamming with Rubin. On nearly every track, it seemed, for a moment, like Jay was truly going out on top, having not only brought in another classic record, and selling out the Garden with a massive, star-studded stage show (including the mothers of Biggie and 'Pac, together), and the rap-concert-movie-to-end-all-modern-rap-concert-movies, but also, having just introduced the universe to a young producer-turned-rapper named Kanye West. Jay Z as a rapper was done, it seemed, but it also seemed like the Roc would now live forever.

The Roc was done the next year. Also, Jay released that thing with Linkin Park and another album with R. Kelly. So, yeah: 2004. Not a great one, musically. 2005, however, saw the return of Jay to the public eye when he took over Def Jam Records and headlined Power 105's "I Declare War" show, complete with a mock-up of the Oval Office, as Jay—who hadn't put out a real album since 2003—decided to end his feud with Nas by performing with him on stage, and then signing him to a recording contract. Jay didn't even have an album out, and blew all of hip-hop away.

2006 was inevitable: The Jay comeback, which resulted in what is inarguably Jay's worst solo record, Kingdom Come. Again: We didn't say all of it was pretty. But those of you who want to talk money, don't forget: Jay inked one of the largest rap endorsement deals in history with Budweiser, and the album yielded the highest single-week sales in Jay's career at that point.

2007: Jay appears on a single with this new R&B artist he's signed, this Rihanna girl. Whoops: Turns out "Umbrella" breaks open every chart, wins VMAs, a Grammy, the whole deal. Later that year, Jay surprises the world by releasing American Gangster, basically a concept album he was inspired to make after seeing the Ridley Scott movie of the same name. The album ain't half bad, and to hardcore Jay-Z fans, stands as a veritable classic: While there might not be any radio hits, "Roc Boys," "No Hook," "Ignorant Shit" and "Blue Magic" all represent a massive and important return to form. Go back to it. It really is great album. At the end of the year, he hangs up his hat as President of Def Jam. Time to get back to music full time.

 

You know how this ends: In the last year of the first decade of the new millennium, Jay drops the third Blueprint. It's his 11th album to top the Billboard 200, breaking a record previously held by someone named Elvis.

 

The next year? Jay would become the first rapper to headline Glastonbury, which upset some people (the British, right?) You know you're a worldwide superstar when Oasis is beefing with you. So it was: Jay opened up his set pretending to strum on a guitar, and—in what's one of the most classic and underrated rap crossover moments, hands down—starts singing "Wonderwall": "Today/is gonna be the day/that I'm gonna throw it back to you…" He went all the way through the chorus, and launches—like a goddamn rocket—into an electrified version of "99 Problems" (with an added guitar riff from AC/DC's "Back in Black"). It's readily apparent to anyone with a set of eyes that Jay is now the best working showman in rap, and he hasn't had an album the world is completely crazy for since 2003. Doesn't matter. They were crazy enough for the others. That summer, Jay would go on to perform a new track at the very end of Kanye's MSG date: "Jockin' Jay-Z." The song wasn't only the official Oasis diss response, but also, one giant allusion to the forthcoming Blueprint 3—stoking hype that the "Swagga Like Us" single had already fired up. In December, Jay drops his second solo track of the year, "Brooklyn Go Hard," and pours gas on the flames.

You know how this ends: In the last year of the first decade of the new millennium, Jay drops the third Blueprint. It's his 11th album to top the Billboard 200, breaking a record previously held by someone named Elvis. It's an impossibly over-produced, gloss-on-gloss record. It's also got hits. And features everyone in rap: Kanye, Drake, J. Cole, Cudi, Rihanna, Alicia, Jeezy, Pharrell. The first single, "D.O.A." comes with a clip of Jay eating with Harvey Keitel at Rao's, murdering auto-tune. The song hasn't aged well, but at a time when the world was still reeling in T-Pain, it was therapeutic. The next one is released a month later, and buys Jay-Z the summer ("Run This Town"). The third single, "Empire State of Mind"—released two weeks before the Yankees win their first World Series title in nine years—is compared in the pages New York Times to Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." And the last single of the year—the last Jay-Z single of the decade—is a Swizz Beatz banger that becomes the "fuck this, I'm outta here" anthem of a new era called "On To The Next One."

That's how Jay-Z left the '00s. 

This is the place where there's supposed to be some kind of outro paragraph, some Important and Critical Conclusion where this writer makes his closing argument for the reason Jay-Z was the best rapper of that decade, in grandiose summation. It'd be redundant, unless you've skipped to the bottom of this text, or you enjoy being wrong when faced with objective truths. It's not a matter of opinion that Jay-Z was the most dominant rapper of the '00s, just like it's not a matter of opinion that—say—World War II happened. Or that we won it. After all: History, as they say, is written by the winners. And Jay-Z wrote the first decade of the 21st Century to have him coming out on top of this list. Don't believe it? Just check the records. That's it. That's all you need to do. — Foster Kamer

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