7 Of The Best: Jay-Z

Showing the Dead Presidents what he's got...
Jay-Z

You barely need to have had half an ear to the ground to have picked up on the fact that there is a new Jay-Z album out. Right now. Today.

But don’t go looking for it in your local record store. It won’t be there. Former Clash cover star Jigga’s gone all in with multinational electronics company Samsung and made ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ available as a free download via the tech giant’s range of mobile phones.

But those without Samsung sets can stream the album, too – head here to do so. We've reviewed it, too.

To mark the release of Hova’s 12th studio LP – which will be available via conventional distribution on July 7th – Clash asked some of its hip-hop-headed contributors to suggest their favourite cuts from Shawn Carter’s back catalogue. And here’s what we arrived at.

No Nirvana lyrics included, we promise…

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‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ (1996)

Nominated by Matt Oliver

From Jay-Z’s blueprint-founding debut ‘Reasonable Doubt’, this hook-up with the late Biggie Smalls is one of those collaborations that defies the passing of time, feeling as vital 17 years on from its recording as it did in the mid-‘90s. The track’s interpolation of Carlito’s Way dialogue is indicative of its parent album’s gangster themes: this is some way from the Annie-tapping crossover artist to come.

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‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’ (1996)

Nominated by Matt Oliver

Another ‘Reasonable Doubt’ cut, this number opened the rapper’s debut and was released as its third single. With Mary J. Blige on the chorus – her lines more recently delivered live by Beyoncé – it’s one of the more immediately chart-friendly offerings from this point in Jay-Z’s career. But it’s not without discernable fire in its belly, its lyrical ambition driven by a timeless Knobody-produced beat that’s well-weathered changing rap trends. ‘Can’t Knock…’ easily fits into any contemporary DJ set beside tracks from Joey Bada$$ or Kendrick Lamar.

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‘La La La (Excuse Me Miss Again)’ (2003)

Nominated by Matt Oliver

This sequel to ‘The Blueprint 2’’s ‘Excuse Me Miss’, a stateside top 10 hit, finds Jigga again working with one of the hottest production teams of the time, The Neptunes. A fuzzy, thumping, filthy cut, ‘La La La…’ bounces with the authority of artists who know they’re at the absolute zenith of their game. Like much of Jay-Z’s best, it rides a beat that just can’t fail to connect with a crowd, even so long after its initial impact. You might have heard this on the soundtrack to Bad Boys II, where it shared space with tracks from Snoop Dogg, M.O.P. and Freeway.

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‘U Don’t Know’ (2001)

Nominated by Marcus J Moore

This Just Blaze-produced, Bobby Byrd-sampling banger from Jay’s huge ‘The Blueprint’ LP just keeps on keeping on… the beat is just so incessant, and Jigga’s claims that he can “sell water to a well”…? Well, it’s just a perfect fusion of a rapper celebrating his success and a producer absolutely making his mark on the biggest possible stage. This is Blaze’s breakthrough, and looking at his credits since – Kendrick, Kanye, Eminem – it set him up pretty superbly.

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‘Where I’m From’ (1997)

Nominated by Marcus J Moore

Back to the ‘90s, now, for this ‘In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’ cut featuring scratches by the legendary DJ Premier. The samples, too, are tight: Fat Joe and Biggie Smalls figure, as does Jay-Z’s own contribution to P Diddy’s ‘Young Gs’ (which also featured a certain Christopher Wallace). With production by D-Dot, the man behind Biggie’s ‘Hypnotize’, ‘Where I’m From’ serves as both a statement of identity in terms of turbulent place, and in positioning its protagonist as a central player in the rap scene, addressing trivial beef at the same time. “How real is this?” Real enough to get realer, still…

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‘Dead Presidents II’ (1996)

Nominated by Marcus J Moore

Speaking of beef… for a time back there, Jay-Z and Nas didn’t see eye to eye. ‘Dead Presidents II’ samples the Tip Mix of Nas’ ‘The World Is Yours’, but the story goes that the original proposal was for the ‘Illmatic’ MC to actually guest on the track. Nas declined and somehow that spun into a feud of sorts, with each rapper attacking the other on record. But let that conflict take nothing away from this superb, somewhat tender track, which connects to the old(er)-school via a subtle Tribe Called Quest sample while keeping its eyes on the present, on the everyday hardships facing a kid growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses complex.  

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‘Show Me What You Got’ (2006)

Nominated by Mike Diver

What? Nothing from ‘The Black Album’. What might’ve been Jay-Z’s swansong set was, of course, nothing of the sort. But ‘Kingdom Come’, his 2006 return three years after ‘The Black Album’, threatened to derail the Jigga train entirely. Feeling tired and not a little complacent, it’s an album that slogs its way through an hour’s run-time that could easily have been trimmed for greater effect. However…  in terms of great singles, the Just Blaze-produced ‘Show Me What You Got’ stands as one of the rapper’s best, and most instantly infectious, and just about carried its parent LP towards mixed reviews. Naturally the sales were huge, but those have been a given for this artist pretty much since day one. Sling this on in a club and watch the place erupt. The sax, the Public Enemy sample, the fun that comes through loud and clear… sometimes these things are surely written in the stars.

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With a catalogue like Jay-Z’s, naturally we’ve not nailed a definitive seven here. These are just some of our favourites. So why not tweet us your own top Jay-Z tracks in anticipation of getting ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ into your record/downloads collection.

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