Few artists in rap history have ever known how to make a better first impression than Jay Z. An emcee with arguably the most successful rap career in history, that includes multiple certified “classics” (in spite of the omnipresence of the word itself), Jay knows the importance of setting the scene for his audience out of the gate— musically, narratively, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Simply put, if you were creating a baseball lineup comprised of legendary rappers, you’d be hard pressed to find a lyricist better suited for the Rickey Henderson role.
The release of 4:44 has shaken the rap world, with its opening track “Kill Jay Z” serving as the utensil to once again put fans and emcees on notice…
Hovi’s home! The global phone!/The world is back in order/The number one rap recorder is back!
Knowing this, attempting to identify the best opening track of Jay Z’s 20-year/13 solo album career is damn near impossible…but we’re gonna do it anyway.
Of his 13 solo studio LPs (the songs where he actually rapped on track one), here are the top five intros bestowed upon us by the great Shawn Carter.
Honorable Mention- Song: “The Ruler’s Back”
Album: The Blueprint (2001)
Best Bar: “You got a couple of beans and you don’t have a clue?/You situation is bleek, I’ma keep it real cause/Fuckin’ with me, you gotta drop a mill/Cause if you gonna cop somethin’ you gotta cop for real”
No, shitting on Amil isn’t what this record is most known for. It was actually the opening track on The Blueprint, arguably Jay’s best album and the one in which his place as an all-time great in rap was permanently solidified. Jigga payed homage to the great Slick Rick The Ruler with this song, which came off almost prophetic. He knew this would be the one to set him apart from his contemporaries, so why not let it be known off top?
Honorable Mention- Song: “The Prelude”
Album: Kingdom Come (2006)
Best Bar: “I used to think rappin’ at 38 was ill/But last year alone I grossed 38 mil/I know I ain’t quite 38 but still/The flow so Special, got a .38 feel”
Much like “The Ruler’s Back”, “The Prelude” is another introduction that was bigger than just the the opening of an album. Jay Z had “retired” after 2003’s The Black Album, making his foray into life as a full-time executive becoming the president of Def Jam Recordings in 2004. Carter unretired two years later releasing Kingdom Come, self-admittedly his worst album. However it produced a few gems, like “The Prelude”, which until recently was one of his five best intros. Jay used this reintroduction to enlighten the world on the rap game’s problems. Guilty by association, “The Prelude” was collateral damage of a less than stellar project, thus evolving into one of Jay’s more underrated songs of all-time.
5) Song: “Hova Song”
Album: Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
Producer: K Rob
Best Bar: “Slimmy at the Rucker wanna leave and spin with me/I consistently take ’em out the park like Ken Griffey”
If sanctimony and sacrilege ain’t your thing, you probably don’t like this record. Nonetheless, “Hova Song” strongly signified the completion of Jay’s ascension to the pinnacle of rap. Short, yet impactful, “Hova Song” was also the battle ground for a few shots at an up-and-coming rapper named 50 Cent. In response to Fif’s “How to Rob” record, Jay spits with supreme confidence, “Mike Jordan of rap, outside J working…/Now watch how quickly I drop 50“. 50 would eventually get to hold the title, but not for another four years. Jay Z’s dominance was in full bloom.
4) Song: “Intro/A Million And One Questions/Rhyme No More ”
Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)
Producer: DJ Premier
Best Bar: “Motherfuckers can’t rhyme no more, bout crime no more/Til I’m no more, cause I’m so raw/My flow expose holes that they find in yours/Wasn’t for me, niggas still be dying for whores”
“I’m not a rapper, I’m a hustler. Just so happens I know how to rap.” These words spoken by long time Roc-A-Fella crony Pain In Da Ass (yes, that’s his name) seemed to surmise who Jay Z viewed himself to be back in 1997. Not far removed from the dope game, Jay was still operating with a hustler’s mentality, if not actually moonlighting. Jigga took to this record to air a few grievances he had dealt with as his rap career began to bubble up. Only it was an epic beat change by the incomparable Premier that allowed this track to appear on this list. The “Rhyme No More” portion was undoubtedly funkier; interestingly, the ’98 remix edition might be better than the original.
3) Song: “Kill Jay Z”
Album: 4:44 (2017)
Producer: No I.D.
Best Bar: “I don’t even know what you woulda done/In the Future, other niggas playin’ football with your son”
A full score into his career, Jay Z managed to turn in one of his signature albums, featuring one of his most complete intros. Lyrics, production, substance, self-reflection, drama, tone— “Kill Jay Z” has everything. Finding the correct way to introduce his most intimate album couldn’t have been easy. Still, S Dot managed to weave in tales of a Kanye fallout with significant levels of self-deprecation. With a dubious tone, he questions himself as a husband and father, while also highlighting a lack of honesty within himself and his music (“Cry Jay Z/We know the pain is real/But you can’t heal what you never reveal”). And he accomplished all this in under three minutes of an intense No I.D. track. We rank it here for now, but amazingly, this song has the potential to rise even higher on this list as 4:44’s legacy continues to settle.
2) Song: “Can’t Knock The Hustle” Feat. Mary J. Blige
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Producer: Knobody, Sean Cane and Dahoud Darien
Best Bar: “Niggas can’t fade me, chrome socks beaming/Through my peripheral I see you scheming/Stop dreaming, I leave your body steaming/Niggas is fiending, what’s the meaning?/I’m leaning on any nigga intervening with the sound of my money machining”
“Can’t Knock the Hustle” was the first track on Jay Z’s first album, making it no coincidence as to why it holds such a dear place in his heart (it’s actually the only song on this list with an official video). “It’s the foundation of everything I’ve done. It’s the foundation of my life, my career as a recording artist,” he told MTV. “It’s the foundation of everything I’ve built.”
In a year when hip-hop maxed out in terms of talent, relevance and reverence, Jay Z’s debut to the world was relatively obscure. Though it only debuted at #23 on the Billboard charts, it would eventually join the rest of Jay’s solo catalogue as a platinum selling project. His message was clear, his audience was uncertain. In the year’s since its release, Carter has informed NPR his credo of not passing judgement on how another man makes his paper was meant for gangsters and dope dealers, rather than individuals who earned clean money.
“Music was my hustle…the streets was my job.”
1) Song: “Intro”
Album: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
Producer: Just Blaze
Best Bar: “Niggas, say it’s the dawn, but I’m superstitious/Shit is as dark as it’s been, nothing has gone as you predicted/ I move with biscuits, stop the heart of niggas acting too suspicious/This is, food for thought — you do the dishes”
It took a second for him to get going, but once Jay launched into his singular verse to open his fifth solo album, he laid waste to this memorable Just Blaze beat. Unbeknownst to many, this was the song that catapulted Just Blaze’s career at Roc-A-Fella. At this time, the two weren’t even in the studio together. “It took about a year before Jay took notice and started paying attention,” Blaze told Complex in 2011. “Once we did get in the studio, it was like Batman and Robin.”
Finding yet another creative way to bundle his rough upbringing with his perseverance, and the dichotomy of street life versus rap superstardom, Hov had officially raised the bar for all of rap music at the turn of the century. His diction was impenetrable, carefully crafting the mindset of a man who had risen up from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects to the apex of music. “Watch it my niggas, I’m trying to be calm but I’m gon’ get richer/Through any means, with that thing that Malcolm palmed in the picture/Never read the Qur’an or Islamic scriptures/Only psalms I read was on the arms of my niggas“.
Invoking the name of the great Stevie Wonder felt appropriate here; Jay Z had slid into an iconic place in hip-hop he would never relinquish.