Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.
Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.
An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.
* * *
One could argue pretty convincingly that Jay-Z is a singles artist above all else, if only because it acknowledges his memorable guest appearances on other artists' songs. Few could argue against the notion that the majority of his albums have been mediocre experiences, and that his filler-to-classic ratio is way off. I suppose that makes it even more important to recognize those times that Jigga actually was able to put it all together.
So, for the heavyweight title of Jay-Z's best album, there was a furious match between his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt and 2001's The Blueprint. They stepped into the ring with perfect 5 star ratings from the All Music Guide and identical 4.5 fan ratings from Amazon.com. The fight went 12 rounds, and the judges' decision came down to percentages. In the end, Reasonable Doubt won the decision, with 85% 5 star ratings compared to The Blueprint's 66%.
That means for the third time in a row (and the 6th time overall) an artist's debut is named their best album. Now, given that I have only agreed with the choice in 2 of the cases, this might provide me a soapbox to talk about the dual scourges of nostalgia and "older-is-better" in rock criticism. But in this particular case there's something else at work, as you'll see. But first, let's look at what the All Music Guide had to say. Steve Huey writes that, in Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z produced "an instant classic of a debut, detailing his experiences on the streets with disarming honesty, and writing some of the most acrobatic rhymes heard in quite some time."
Okay, fair enough. How about our intrepid Amazon.com reviewers? Well, there's a startlingly clear theme running through their thoughts on Reasonable Doubt. It can be summarized thusly: "I think Jay-Z sux and is too commercial, but this album is awesome." Now part of this could be attributed to "hipster rock snob rules" wherein any amazingly popular artist must automatically be considered crap (exceptions: Radiohead, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan). Under these rules it's often customary to single out and champion one album that somehow defies the rest of the artist's career (see also: Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection.) Witness:
- Scott D. Gribble: "This is a classic, and would recommend it highly for people who HATE Jay-Z. Trust me and others, he's a completely different rapper here..."
- A Customer: "Nowadays, when most people think of Jay-Z they think of the commercialized rapper who brought us commercialized songs on commercialized beats with commercialized lyrics like Change Clothes or Big Pimpin. When the album was released in 1996, Jay was making an album to show the world his skills, not to put a video on MTV."
- The One and Only Eric: "This album is what made Jay-Z into a respected, talented lyricist, NOT a commercial rapper. If Jay-Z could've stayed with this philosophy that he used for Reasonable Doubt for all his albums, he would be the best rapper IMO without a doubt."
- Stevey Wundar: "Jay-Z's masterpiece -- but for truschool hiphop fans only! This is from before Hov's crossover 2 mainstream so don't expect 2 get'cha party on wit dis CD."
- Robbie V: "This isn't pop music -- there are pop elements to it, but on the whole this album serves as a portrait of Jay-Z the hustler and not Jay Z the dynasty. The lyrics in nearly ALL of the songs on this album are infinitly more complicated and introspective then the majority of songs on any of his other records."
Get it? Jay-Z committed the crime of getting too popular. I could understand this attitude if it were still 2000 and Jay had just put out The Dynasty, and hit number one with I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me). At that point Jay had put out his fifth album in as many years, and was regularly topping the charts, while at the same time scraping the bottom of a dry creative well, shown in an overabundance of guest appearances. But in a post The Blueprint (2001), Black Album (2003), and American Gangster (2007) world, you can't accurately say that Jay stopped delivering amazing rhymes, being introspective, or even that his production was too of-the-moment. If that's the main argument behind championing Reasonable Doubt, then it's a weak case.
Of course, there are others who simply think Reasonable Doubt is just that good. YoungRoscoe Miles says: "His magnum opus, is, and always will be 1996's Reasonable Doubt. Each track acts as a different memory and different emotion that he expresses to the listener with his complex and deep lyricism." Chris, who dislikes capitalization, periods, and last names, remarks that "this album is basically chronicling the ups and downs, regrets and joys of being a hustler, the beats to start off with are great, this album was mostly produced by dj premiere, and he did a fantastic job, the production is clean, crisp, and fit jay zs flow and lyrics, my next point, the lyrics, the lyrics are some of the best rap lyrics ever, jay z has a great mutli-syllable rhyming scheme, it is amazing how he can change his flow to suit every beat, he has fantastic wordplay, very clever punchlines, and a great vocabulary, his subject matter is basically, as i stated earlier, the struggles of hustling, the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and regrets(there is a song which has this title), overall, this is one of the best rap albums ever, and any rap fan should have it, it ranks up there with the likes of ready to die, illmatic, and lifestylez ov da poor and dangerous"
Personally, I have no doubt that Reasonable Doubt belongs in the conversation for Jay's best, along with the three albums I mentioned above and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. I'm just not sure the choice is as clear as so many of our reviewers make it out to be. For sure, songs like opener Can't Knock the Hustle ("I got extensive hos with expensive clothes / And I sip fine wine and spit vintage flows"), D'Evils ("We used to fight for building blocks / Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killing"), and 22 Two's ("Too many brothers wanna be lovers don't know what romance is / Too many bitches stuck up from too many sexual advances") are lyrically incredible. But did we really need the poor Scarface imitation that recurs between songs, or the played-out sounds of guns cocking and firing? Did we need jailbait Foxy Brown on Ain't No Nigga, which succeeds despite her, barely? How about Hov's inexplicable championing of the mediocre Memphis Bleek, as personified (and bragged about) on Coming of Age? Or the casual rasism that crops up in Regrets?
These are fairly minor quibbles, yes, but what ultimately makes my decision is the very idea that so many people believe that Reasonable Doubt is not representative of Jay-Z's music. As such, it isn't really fair to call it his best, is it? That's why I'm more likely to go with The Blueprint, since it combines soulful introspection (e.g. Song Cry) with commercial power (e.g. Izzo (H.O.V.A.). The Black Album is a close second for me, for similar reasons, but also because of what Danger Mouse turned it into. And if I were truly limited to owning only one Jay-Z disc, I'd choose the Rock-Solid-ineligible MTV Unplugged. It's got the "greatest hits" and a crazy energy, mostly thanks to the backing of The Roots.