Since his major beginning in 1996, Jay Z's been a genius storyteller, not just by the construction of his songs, but also by the the construction of his albums and the narrative integrity of his catalog. Consider that Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, The Black Album, and Magna Carta Holy Grail are sturdy, definitive checkpoints of Jay's career highs and creative fluctuations, and that, singles aside, Jay Z recharges our expectations of him from each album's jump. Think of "The Ruler's Back," from The Blueprint, as a bullying, bass-driven contrast to that album's final track, the whimpering, nostalgic "Momma Loves Me." Think back to The Dynasty album's "Intro," which, as it plays, requires no hype or advocacy from me.
Among Jay Z's odd strengths is his leading nearly every one of his albums with these unstoppable intros. From Reasonable Doubt, which leads with "Can't Knock the Hustle," in 1996, through the The Dynasty's "Intro" in 2000 and the third Blueprint's "What We Talkin' Bout" in 2009. Even Jay Z's weakest albums (Kingdom Come, The Blueprint 2) lead with the right foot.
Forget this rap shit; I need a new hustle
A little bit of everything, the new improved Russell
I say that reluctantly 'cause I do struggle
As you see, I can't leave; so I do love you
But I'm just a hustler disguised as a rapper
In fact you can't fit this hustle inside of a wrapper
—Jay Z, "The Prelude," Kingdom Come (2007)
With his intros, he's refreshed his life's panorama in broad strokes. He's reset the game, teasing new rivals and deading past allies. On the Black Album and American Gangster intros, Jay is absent, his voice replaced with sparse, sample-narrated white space. He's so variously effective.
Backed by DJ Premier, Just Blaze, Bink, No I.D., and Kanye West over the years, Jay Z has mastered the art of the rap album intro. Below I've ranked these career-defining track-ones, from the very worst to the very best—and there's no disputing the very best.
12. "Holy Grail," Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)
11. "Intro" f/ Idris Elba, American Gangster (2007)
10. "A Dream," The Blueprint 2 (2002)
9. "Intro (Hand It Down)," Vol 2., Hard Knock Life (1998)
8. "The Prelude," Kingdom Come (2006)
7. "Interlude," The Black Album (2003)
6. "What We Talkin' About," The Blueprint 3 (2009)
5. "The Ruler's Back," The Blueprint (2001)
4. "Hova Song (Intro)," Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
3. "A Million & One Questions/Rhyme No More," Vol. 1, In My Lifetime (1997)
2. "Intro," The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
1. "Can't Knock the Hustle," Reasonable Doubt (1996)