Solo Albums: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997), Vol.2...Hard Knock Life (1998), Vol.3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999), The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000), The Blueprint (2001)
Group Albums: n/a
Biggest Hits: "Hard Knock Life" (1998), "Big Pimping" f/ UGK (1999), "I Just Wanna Love U" (2000), "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" (2001), "Girls, Girls, Girls" (2001)
Jay Z's great run was, like 2Pac's, a six-year one. But it's even worse to cut off a year for Jay, as the bookends of that six year run—1996's Reasonable Doubt and 2001's The Blueprint—have, over time, come to be considered the crown jewels of the Jay Z catalog. The former's reputation was burgeoned, at least initially, by a nostalgia for the era it captured: DJ Premier beats, heavily coded drug game-influenced rap writing, intricate, conceptually ambitious song construction. Compared to the club-friendly, trend-chasing, pop chart-dominating music of late-'90s Jay, Reasonable Doubt was respectable. Everything about it, from the Real Heads-approved Premo beats to the black-and-white cover art, was dignified.
It also wasn't very successful, at least initially. "Classic," Jay would argue later. "Shoulda went triple." But it didn't. And while it was definitely underrated at the time, and remains one of his best records, it also doesn't capture the heights Jay would attain over the next five years, as his persona took full flight. Jay was always, above all, a success-at-all-costs achiever. His period as chronicler of the drug dealer's day-to-day was a stepping stone—not the end zone. He was to embody ambition, success by any means. And his articulation of this—from 1997 until 2001, when The Blueprint represented a new, reflective moment, in addition to accidentally creating a production sea change in hip-hop to the soulful-was one of hip-hop's true great five-year runs.
Vol. 1, of course, is widely considered an overreaching mis-step in his attempt to not only cross over, but to become New York's king in the wake of Biggie's murder. But beyond the surface, it's got some of his best songs, from stunting pinnacles like "Imaginary Player" to perhaps his best street track ever, "Where I'm From." Vol. 2 made up for its predecessors deficiencies by turning everything inside out. Where the former record was all strong album tracks and medium singles, Hard Knock Life was all about immediacy. A string of hits helped, but the title track in particular took Jay to another level of fame, making him the true superstar of hip-hop's commercial crossover moment.
"Hard Knock Life" redefined Jay's career, more than the entirety of Reasonable Doubt. It gained such potent traction in the story of his success that a decade later, a still-pre-"Lollipop" Lil Wayne would talk about how he was seeking a "Hard Knock Life"-type record of his own. There was a shotgun approach to Jay Z's methodology on Vol. 2, incorporating all the latest producers and guests. Where Reasonable Doubt failed to measure up to similar inspirations like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Vol. 2 had no real competition in its effort to epitomize its time. Bridging the new roughneck aggression of emergent star DMX with the rising Southern bounce sounds approximated by Irv Gotti on "Can I Get A..." and reinvented by Timbaland, Jay's unrufflable nonchalance was comfortable over a wide variety of styles. As apocalyptic triton spasms of "Money, Cash, Hoes" ripped through the very fabric of the track, Jay was a cooly unaffected superhero.
Vol. 3 wasn't the blockbuster success Hard Knock Life had been. But it did show an increasingly ambitious rapper expanding on the sound he'd become most closely identified with. He was beginning to sell a lifestyle. The smash single "Big Pimpin" was also emblematic of the success that hip-hop was experiencing more broadly. It was a "corporate" rap era—one of unprecedented diversity, experimentalism, and popularity.
But what capped his five-year run was pioneered on the underrated Dynasty and fully fleshed out in The Blueprint. Rather than the formalist exercise of Reasonable Doubt or the mercenary hit-chasing of his late-'90s popular peak, Jay helped set a new sonic template. In contrast to the techno-futurist video arcade that hip-hop had become, Kanye, Just Blaze, and Bink! utilized soul samples to give Jay Z's sixth full-length a new style. Organic instrumentation and soul samples were in. But it no longer sounded like the boom-bap era; instead, it was as informed by the immediate pop appeal of Puffy's Hitmen, cleaning up the samples so they sounded as clear as one of Mannie Fresh's synthesized basslines. Thematically, too, Jay seemed—for the first time since his debut—to stretch out and consider what it took for him to reach what surely must have felt like his pinnacle.
Jay's 5-year run included four No. 1 albums (In My Lifetime...Vol. 1 hit No. 3) and 19 songs in the Hot 100. He dodged a significant legal hurdle in the stabbing of Lance "Un" Rivera, went from a respected underground New York MC to a credible King of NY candidate, from an underrated street rapper to one of the genre's biggest commercial stars to one of its most acclaimed. — David Drake