20 Underrated Jay-Z Songs

He's got 99 problems, and one of them is that some of his songs are under-appreciated.

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Complex Original

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Jay-Z is one of hip-hop's defining icons, known worldwide and serving as a virtual ambassador to the genre. 

But this massive exposure—Decoded, tete-a-tetes with Oprah, Warren Buffet and the President, hordes following his every step in Cuba—has come in the years after he recorded the bulk of his best music. His early years, his climb, was built on cold calculation and remarkably consistent, seemingly effortless accomplishment, and happened under a far smaller spotlight.

Of course, his hits from that era have, by and large, lasted into this one. From "I Just Wanna Love You" to "Big Pimpin'," Jay-Z's catalog remains in club rotation to this day. But in his most creatively fertile period, plenty of songs fell by the wayside. This is a tragedy. (Well, relatively speaking. It's a music-appreciative tragedy.) And one we intend to remedy. 

You may think you know Jay-Z, but until you've heard these records, you don't know how good he could really be.

Written by Al Shipley (@alshipley), Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin), Dave Bry (@davebry9), and David Drake (@somanyshrimp)

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Jay-Z f/ Meli'sa Morgan "Can't Knock The Hustle (Fool's Paradise Remix)" (1996)

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The Braxtons f/ Jay-Z "So Many Ways (Extended)" (1996)

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Album: Maxi Single
Label: Atlantic
Producer: Jermaine Dupri
Jay's never been quite as known for his R&B guest spots as some of the rappers who followed him (think Fabolous) even though he's got a few classics under his belt (think "The Best of Me Pt. 2"). But one of his best is "So Many Ways," a slept-on collaboration with The Braxtons, courtesy of Jermaine Dupri.

It captures a similar vibe to Jay's own work circa Reasonable Doubt, thanks to Jermaine Dupri's ominous loop. Jay's delivery matches the beat's eery use of space, with the same coldhearted detachment that gave all of his verses an edge at that time. Jay was only mildly more popular than The Braxtons (who had been Toni-less for several years—and she, of course, was massively more popular than either her sisters or Jay) so the slinky collaboration is now widely forgotten. Although it's worth watching this somewhat stiff performance at the 1996 Soul Train Lady Of Soul Awards for a glance at Reasonable Doubt-era Jay's quick sixteen and fly palm frond t-shirt. —David Drake

Jay-Z "Who You Wit" (1997)

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Album: Sprung (Music from and Inspired By the Motion Picture)
Label: Qwest/Warner Bros.
Producer: Ski

Let this sink in for a moment: in 1997, "Who You Wit" was Jay-Z's second biggest radio hit after "Ain't No" (third if you count his feature on Foxy Brown's "I'll Be"), and would remain so until his unending parade of megahits began in the summer of '98. The track was initially released on the soundtrack to the forgettable Tisha Campbell comedy Sprung. And just as Jay penned new verses to put "Dead Presidents II" on Reasonable Doubt, he would write a new third verse for the version of "Who You Wit" which would appear on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 later in the year—including the unknowingly appropriate double-entendre, "I sink this ball in your hole/I'm Tiger Woods!" —Al Shipley

DJ Clue? f/ Ja Rule & Jay-Z "Gangsta Shit" (1998)

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Album: The Professional
Label: Desert Storm/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producer: DJ Clue?

They had already been collaborating together as far back as 1995 via their mutual friend Irv Gotti (word to Mic Geronimo), but after Jay had effectively introduced Ja to the world via "Can I Get A," they were as closely associated with each other as they'd ever be. So when DJ Clue dropped his platinum debut "retail mixtape" for Roc-A-Fella, The Professional, at the end of 1998, the Roc boss's big marquee guest appearance naturally featured Jeffrey on the third verse. Released less than 3 months after Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life's massive sales triumph, it was one of the first glimpses of Jay-Z the cocky superstar, taunting the listener to do the math on how much he was worth: "Fuck it, I lost count, why don't you tell me the amount?" —Al Shipley

Sauce Money f/ Jay-Z "Pre-Game" (1998)

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DMX f/ Jay-Z & The L.O.X. "Blackout" (1998)

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AlbumFlesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood
Label: Ruff Ryders/Def Jam
Producer: Swizz Beatz, PK, DJ Shok, Dame Grease, Irv Gotti
Even if he put up "Will Smith numbers" with Vol. 2, Jay was eager to prove he still had one foot in the streets (and the streets were certainly still watching). Jay's verse finds him in a foul mood, he's aggressively boastful and downright vicious. The song was a classic in the "Reservoir Dogs" era, when Roc-A-Fella, Bad Boy, and Ruff Ryders often got together for a series of memorable posse cuts. Ruff Ryder's maestro Swizz Beatz' backdrop was the sound of danger approaching, like an alarm system that goes off whenever a group of goons on the run from the law shows up at your party but don't dance or socialize. Jay laces his verse with a phrase he'd later use for the title his future album: "Y'all niggas bout to witness a dynasty like no other." It felt more like a threat than a promise. — Insanul Ahmed

Jay-Z f/ Memphis Bleek & Sauce Money "What The Game Made Me" (1998)

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Ja Rule f/ Jay-Z & DMX "It's Murda" (1999)

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AlbumVenni Vetti Vecci
Label: Murder Inc./Def Jam
Producer: Irv Gotti, Tyrone Fyffe, Lil Rob, Erick Sermon
Before Ja Rule was making pop hits (bay-bayyy) and DMX hated Ja Rule for for thinking it was a fucking game, Jay-Z actually considered forming a supergroup with the both of them called Murder Inc. The trio was immortalized on a memorable XXL cover where they appeared in all black everything. That cover was a nice counterpart to “It’s Murda,” a tough as nails cut off Ja’s 1999 debut, Venni Vetti Vecci. Despite Jay’s excellent verse and the fact it was Ja’s song, the real star here is DMX. It’s easy to forget, but in 1998 DMX was bigger than Jay—which is why he’s able to bogard the track and have Ja and Jay trying to get as gully and gutter as him. Still, Jay is slick like a gato leaving the track, “Slumping Kennedy, style with your memory out.” —Insanul Ahmed

Jay-Z "Come & Get Me" (1999)

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Album: Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producer: Timbaland
Mid-song tempo changes have never been especially commonplace in hip-hop, but they're certainly more accepted now than at some points in the past, especially the late '90s and early 2000s (shout out to Lil Kim's "No Matter What They Say"). Even a creative weirdo like Timbaland would generally rock the same groove for a whole song, only tweaking the synths and samples while the drums remained fairly static. But the 6-minute epic towards the close of Vol. 3 threw all the rules out the window, starting with one funky beat for the first minute, and then dissolving into a dreamy interlude of bells and gongs, Jay taunting "come and get me!" though the haze. Then, a darker, more propulsive beat enters the picture, and he rants for a few more minutes about everyone from his old hood who's talking shit or planning to rob him. At one point, Jay compares himself to Bobby Boucher, the title character of Adam Sandler's then-recent hit The Waterboy, a line that may have made an impression on young Kanye West if "New Slaves" is any indication. —Al Shipley

Silkk the Shocker f/ Jay-Z and Master P "You Know What We About" (1999)

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Album: Made Man
Label: No Limit/Priority/EMI
Producer: Craig B

Back when Southern hip-hop was still maligned in certain circles, Jay-Z was one of the only rappers to recognize the accomplishments of his country cousins; from featuring Juvenile on "Snoopy Track" to snatching UGK for one of his biggest singles, Jay was always cognizant of the region's creative impact. But Jay was listening to New Orleans long before he jumped on Juvie's "Ha (Remix)." First, he appeared on the I Got the Hook Up soundtrack. Then, shortly after the "Ha" remix dropped, he graced Silkk the Shocker's Made Man LP, solidifying the NYC-NL link years before Dipset swiped "'Bout It 'Bout It." His guest spot was a particularly ruthless late '90s Jay, spitting over alternating pianos and horn hits courtesy Beats by the Pound's Craig B. "Even without airplay, platinum off of hearsay," Jay says, a nod to Master P's revolutionary hustle. —David Drake

Jay-Z f/ Amil & Memphis Bleek "Hey Papi" (2000)

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Album: Nutty Professor II: The Klumps
Label: Def Jam
Producer: Timbaland

A summer soundtrack single produced by Timbaland should've been a no-brainer smash. But "Hey Papi" came and went pretty quickly and remains a footnote, which is a shame since Jay and Timbo go the fuck in, picking back up where they left off with their monumental Vol. 3 collaborations. The queasy spiraling strings recall "It's Hot (Some Like It Hot)" intro, while Jigga expands on the ambivalent womanizer perspective he perfected on "Big Pimpin'," and the drums snap so hard that you barely notice Amil and Memphis Bleek taking up space on the track. You know it's a joint because the video features perhaps the most impassioned Dame Dash bottle dance of all time. —Al Shipley

Scarface f/ Jay-Z "Get Out" (2000)

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Jay-Z "People Talking" (2001)

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Jay-Z "Girls, Girls, Girls (Remix)" (2001)

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AlbumThe Blueprint
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producer: Just Blaze
Jay-Z's always seemed somewhat disinterested in all-star remixes of his own hits. More often, he'd rather just write a sequel himself with multiple new verses, and sometimes a new beat, as was the case with this easter egg hidden at the end of The Blueprint. Like the original, it's mostly an extended series of politically incorrect punchlines bagging women of various professions and ethnicities, but perhaps funnier than the first, with a great new Persuaders-sampling beat from Kanye West. At the time, Jay was flaunting a friendship with Michael Jackson, appearing on the "You Rock My World" remix and bringing MJ out at Summer Jam. But it wasn't until 2009 that he revealed that Michael actually contributed some backing vocals deep in the mix of "Girls Girls Girls (Part 2)." —Al Shipley

Jay-Z f/ Big Boi, Killer Mike & Twista "Poppin' Tags" (2002)

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Album: The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producer: Kanye West

The Blueprint 2 was a mixed bag, but its best tracks remain some of the most slept-on in Jay-Z's catalog. "Poppin' Tags" featured an unusually breezy, deft Kanye West beat that proved a perfect complementary canvas for dexterous double-time flows from Jay-Z, Twista, Killer MIke, and Big Boi. While producers at this time had begun to jack Kanye's style, swiping soul beats to lather on nostalgia, 'Ye flipped the script; "Poppin Tags" uses samples to compete on Timbaland's terrain, aiming for a vaugely exotic flute-and-bongos-driven beat that made the rapper's rapid-fire deliveries seem effortless. The fact that this was never released as a single is unfortunate, because with a lineup like this (in the lead-up to the release of OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below no less) it seems unfathomable that "Poppin' Tags" would remain buried as an album track on one of Jay's more ignored efforts. —David Drake

Jay-Z "Don't You Know" (2002)

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Jay-Z f/ R. Kelly "Honey" (2002)

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AlbumThe Best of Both Worlds
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/Jive
Producer: R. Kelly, Poke and TineJay-Z and R. Kelly's two Best of Both Worlds albums were both cursed with bad timing, putting up big initial numbers and then disappearing with no videos or sustained promotion amidst controversy and feuds. But the first one, in 2002, is simply a great party record that many Jay fans weren't trying to hear a few months after anointing The Blueprint a classic. The Trackmasters laced up a killer loop of The Bee Gees' "Love You Inside Out," a couple years before Snoop sampled the same track on a single, and Jay was so inspired by the Gibbs' falsetto that he threw a few playful high notes into his opening verse. —Al Shipley

Jay-Z "This Life Forever" (2003)

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Jay-Z "Kingdom Come" (2006)

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AlbumKingdom Come
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producer: Just Blaze
Unfortunately sharing its title with Jay's worst studio album, "Kingdom Come" is one of the few highlights the album has to offer. At times, Jay does sound unconvincing while rhyming lines like, "And I'm so evolved I'm so involved/I'm showing growth, I'm so in charge," especially considering this was the one album where he was sorely out of step. He still strings his bars together well, closing each verse with a series of superhero references (instead of endless Michael Jordan references) that fit well with the album's supposed narrative, even if Jay being the savior of rap was ultimately untrue. The best reference remained the most apt: "Take off the blazer loosen up the tie/Step inside the booth Superman is alive." Yet the hero of the song was actually Just Blaze, who provided a booming backdrop that sampled, of all things, Rick James's "Super Freak." —Insanul Ahmed

Jay-Z "No Hook" (2007)

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AlbumAmerican Gangster
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producer: Diddy, 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

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