Solo Albums: Reasonable Doubt (1996), In My Lifetime, Vol.1 (1997), Vol.2... Hard Knock Life (1998), Vol.3... Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
Group Albums: N/A
Biggest Hits: "Ain't No Nigga" f/ Foxy Brown (1996), "The City Is Mine" f/ Blackstreet (1997), "Can I Get A..." f/ Amil, Ja Rule (1998), "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" (1998), "Jigga My Nigga" (1999)
To judge Jay Z’s body of work solely based on the albums he put out in the '90s is to eliminate his magnum opus, The Blueprint. It also means talking about Jay Z without talking about the chipmunk soul-sample production style Just Blaze and Kanye West pioneered on that album, one that left such a lasting impact on the 2000s. And yet, despite that, Jay Z ranks within the top five of the '90s best rappers. The work he put in during this decade laid the foundation for the mogul he was to become. And when pitted head-to-head against the material he released in the following decade, the four albums he dropped in the '90s might even surpass his overall catalog of the 2000s.
Of course, it all begins with Reasonable Doubt. Jay’s first album is a staple in the “mafioso rap” subgenre. The pairing of Jay’s then rapidfire flow with the jazzy, boom-bap production of Ski Beatz, Clark Kent, and DJ Premier resulted in an album that offered gritty street rhymes and pensive honest reflection in equal measure. For a devout few, this remains Jay’s best album.
Jay departed from the boom-bap wheelhouse, never to truly return. In a lot of ways, this was for the best. Would Jay have been able to recreate the magic of his debut album while sticking to that same sound? Probably not. Would he have been able to become the most influential man in hip-hop? Absolutely not. Jay needed to evolve sonically to become the heir to New York’s throne after Biggie died.
Reasonable Doubt satisfied the purists. But after it, Jay departed from the boom-bap wheelhouse, never to truly return. In a lot of ways, this was for the best. Would Jay have been able to recreate the magic of his debut album while sticking to that same sound? Probably not. Would he have been able to become the most influential man in hip-hop? Absolutely not. Jay needed to evolve sonically to become the heir to New York’s throne after Biggie died.
The first album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, had a few stumbles on it, relying too much on recreating the Biggie formula by tapping into production from Diddy’s Hitmen crew. But the following year, Jay struck paydirt with Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life. The album’s title track became its second single and ultimately Jay’s most successful single until 2009’s “Empire State of Mind” topped the charts.
Meanwhile, the album’s other singles, "Can I Get A…," "Money, Cash, Hoes," and "Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)" are signature songs in Jay’s catalog. One year later, Jay closed out the decade with Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, which spawned hits like "Jigga My Nigga" and "Big Pimpin." Jay had locked in with Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and Irv Gotti to create his own commercial sound. All three would go on to stand among the biggest producers of the following decade. Meanwhile, Jay continued to tap into the boom-bap sounds of DJ Premier to bring balance to his albums.
Consider this: Earlier in the summer, we ranked Jay’s albums from worst to best. While The Blueprint was our top selection, all four of Jay’s 90s albums followed within the next five choices. Reasonable Doubt and Vol. 2 followed The Blueprint to fall within the top three. While Jay transitioned into a mogul in the 2000s, he created most of his best material the previous decade. —Dharmic X