It's been a long four years between Hova's last solo album and today. Since The Blueprint 3, Jay-Z has been mingling with stars and basking in familial life; he and Kanye West spawned the entire Watch The Throne franchise and he's working with Justin Timberlake on a similar 20/20 Experience venture.
He headlined Glastonbury. He curated The Great Gatsby's OST with Baz Luhrmann and is trying his hand at a multitude of industries, including fashion, sports management and nightclubs. He invests in cosmetic businesses, high-end property development and major league basketball (there was a rumour of him investing in Arsenal at one point). If there's anyone who embodies the term 'mogul', it's Jay-Z.
Now, with his twelfth studio LP, Magna Carta Holy Grail due to hit, erm, Samsung devices, July 4th, his renown is sure to expand exponentially. Featuring lyrics from 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana (Courtney Love actually let him, too) and guest slots from Frank Ocean, Nas, Pharrell, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, it's likely to be one of the biggest rap albums – if not releases in general – of the year, even giving Yeezus a run for its money. Though, if there's anyone that deserves to be able to do that, it's Jay-Z.
He's the Frank Sinatra of our generation; schmoozing with politicians (he's tight with Barack), running NYC and attracting almost universal acclaim. He's the James Bond of our generation; enacting pretty much every male fantasy - owning sports teams, being a worldwide superstar, marrying Beyoncé - and having so much money he could bathe in it. There's no doubt about it, Jay-Z is one of the most vital artists of a generation, influencing countless aspiring rappers and wielding a hit-studded back catalogue. Here's our rundown of his most essential tracks.
'Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)', featuring samples from Annie, was Jay-Z's breathrough hit outside of the US. It's been continually voted on of the best hip-hop songs of all time, and went gold in under six months. Juxtaposing the chirpy Broadway vocals with Jay-Z's gritty flow, it was both insanely contagious and poignant, recounting his tumultuous upbringing in Brooklyn.
Based (sort of) on Tha Dogg Pound's hit of the same name, 'Big Pimpin'' is a formidable example of Hova's knack for not just impeccable lyrics, but also flawless pop majesty – try getting that riff out of your head and not whistle to it for six days straight. Timbaland, who produced the song, interpolated two bars of 'Khosara' (i.e. they were rerecorded, not sampled, in order to avoid royalty payments), a song by Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez to create the Arabian feel and main hooks. Unsurprisingly, it was embroiled in a copyright dispute (though not for that reason).
Famously referenced by President Obama, 'Dirt Off Your Shoulder' is an anthem for rising above hate and telling haters to 'talk to the hand'. It's one of his biggest tracks from before The Blueprint 3 was released (and Jay-Z skyrocketed into God-dom), and one that popularised the phrase 'dirt off [my] shoulder'.
Retrospectively, this is one of the weirdest rap collaborations the world has ever seen, but 'Numb/Encore' is also one of the best, overpowering the rest with its hip-hop charm and nu-metal mess. Released at the height of rap-rock hype, there's never been another cut of this type – it brought together two different artists, combining their arguably biggest hits for an arresting synth-rap trainwreck. The rest of Collision Course may be utter tripe, but this stands out as the smartest.
A remake of Tupac's 'Me And My Girlfriend', and with nods to Prince's 'If I Was Your Girlfriend', ''03 Bonnie & Clyde' was the first duet between future power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z. It was produced by Kanye West for Jay-Z's The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse and features flamenco guitars. Toni Braxton took offense to the track, as she released a similar track ('Me and My Boyfriend') in the same year, decrying West and Jay-Z and claiming they'd stolen her idea, which they vehemently denied.
'Run This Town', featuring Rihanna and Kanye West, was a massive hit, reaching the number one spot in the UK and number two stateside. Along with 'Empire State Of Mind' (featuring Alicia Keys), it was one of two insanely popular collaborations from The Blueprint 3 that were played on repeat across the globe. Both were also lyrically concentrated on his home city: 'Empire State Of Mind' is a love letter to the Big Apple, whereas 'Run This Town' is about the kingdom he surveys like a modern day Caesar.
Featuring wondrous samples from The Jackson 5 ('I Want You Back'), and Kanye West on knob-twiddling duties, 'Izzo (H.O.V.A.)' is a stunning slab of nigh perfect hip-hop. There are cameos from a plethora of artists, including OutKast and Destiny's Child, during the effort, as Jay himself raps about his life as a drug dealer and in the projects where he was raised.
Ah, '99 Problems'. It's Jay-Z's biggest hit and one of the most iconic tracks of the decade. Dealing with issues, including, most memorably, racial profiling ("Are you carryin' a weapon on you?/ I know a lot of you are") and rap critics, the track is probably most famous for Rick Rubin's production. Enormous rock guitar riffs and cowbell-led beats stick out like sore thumbs, and '80s samples from Mountain and Billy Squier are slipped into the background for only the most learned muso to notice. It's a huge track, often placing highly on 'Top Tracks Ever' lists and continuing to this day to be Jay-Z's calling card. When those guitars hit it's impossible to stay still.
Honourable mentions include 'Dead Presidents', 'Dead Presidents II', 'Jigga That Nigga' and 'Renegade'... actually most of his music. He's Jayhova, after all.