JAY-Z At Webster Hall
Theo Wargo

Jay-Z's 50 Most Underrated Songs

As Jay-Z turns 50, VIBE chooses 50 of his most slept on songs.

The following sentence is guaranteed to make you feel old: Jay-Z turns 50 on Wednesday, December 4, 2019.

Arguably the most celebrated hip-hop artist of all-time, Shawn Corey Carter, has lived multiple lifetimes as he comes to the halftime of life. He’s been a street hustler, a misogynistic, materialism fueled lyrical mastermind, a real musician, a successful businessman, a husband, a father, and a teacher. Looking back on a musical catalog that spans some 25 plus years, there's a substantial amount of standouts, from “Takeover” to “Hard Knock Life” to more recent triumphs like “Family Feud.” What about the tracks that fell through the cracks? The ones that had momentary flashes of adoration but have faded as the years have gone by? Here is a definitive list of Jay-Z’s 50 most underrated songs.

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“Lucky Me” – In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)

Arguably Jay-Z's most underrated song, "Lucky Me" is less about the sonic soundscape and more about the lyrics, which may be Jay's most introspective on wax, rivaling even that found on the profoundly personal “4:44.” The song sees Jay reflecting on the perils of fame and the legacy he wants to leave behind:

"And ain't nothing changed so even in my afterlife I show it up/Don't grieve for me, my art remains/Like a dart from the speaker to your heart/Spiritually through the portal now my words is immortal"

The song is easily missed on the flashy and braggadocio filled '...Vol. 1’, but it's one of Jay's most notable songs and timeless in its content around the trappings of fame and what it truly means to be Hov.

“Dopeman” – Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

Playing out like a movie on record, the Digga-produced "Dopeman" is underrated in more than one sense. The tension-filled, anthemic production provides a canvas for Jay to testify in a mock trial as the state brings charges against Jay's "criminal enterprise" known as Roc-A-Fella Records. The songs second verse is a time capsule looking back at late 90s hip-hop and the music business that was:

"Your distribution's Polygram, and through your connects/Def Jam, you pushed over five million SoundScan/And not to mention, your cohorts and henchmen/Dame, Biggs, Lyor, Kev and Russell Simmons/And we ain't gon' talk about Murder Inc./that just establishes a deeper, darker criminal link."

Storytelling in rap isn't a lost art per se, but storytelling that puts the listener in the courtroom and builds suspense throughout the song is rare, and "Dopeman" is one of hip-hop’s best examples of storytelling as a part of the art form.

“Young, Black & Gifted Freestyle" – S. Carter Collection (2003)

Appearing on Jay-Z's only official mixtape (don't we wish now that Hov was more prolific in the mixtape game?), "Young, Gifted & Black" features one of Jay's most fluid flows as Jay goes in over Big Daddy Kane's "Young, Black and Gifted" instrumental, originally produced by Marley Marl.

Some of the freestyles most memorable bars include:

"I'm America's worst nightmare/I'm young, black, and holdin' my nuts like "Geah!"/Y'all was in the pub, havin' a light beer, I was at the club, havin' a fight there"

"Downloadin' all our music on ya iPods there/I'm Chuck D, standin' in the crosshairs here"

“Caught Their Eyes” Feat. Frank Ocean – 4:44 (2017)

As anticipation built for the release of Jay's 4:44 album and guests and rumors began to swirl, fans locked in on "Caught Their Eyes" with Frank Ocean. The song doesn't immediately stand out as one of 4:44's most lyrically dense; however, the No I.D.-produced track expertly sampling Nina Simone's "Baltimore" is hypnotizing to the ear. And this isn't to say that it doesn't deliver lyrically either. Jay's 2nd verse is a glimpse into the music business, and Hov's relationship with the late Prince as Jay doesn't shy away from calling out those who he believes profited from the singer's death:

"Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind/They only see green from them purple eyes"
"You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his houseI'm surprised you ain't auction off the casket"

“Cashmere Thoughts” – Reasonable Doubt (1996)

In a 2011 interview with Complex, “Cashmere Thoughts” producer Clark Kent said the song was a joke of sorts with him and Jay talking pimp sh*t back and forth at the beginning. But the song is anything but a laugh as the song sees Jay pre-super stardom spitting pure pimped out, braggadocio lyrics saying his words are “worth a million” like he was spitting them through platinum teeth. Clark Kent’s production on “Cashmere…” is wildly underrated as he beautifully spins Hamilton Bohannon’s “Save Their Souls” into a groovy street soundscape for Jay to talk his sh*t.

“I Know What Girls Like” Feat. Puff Daddy and Lil’ Kim – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)

“I Know What Girls Like” isn’t a great song, but time has rendered the jiggy-era track from “In My Lifetime Vol. 1” more impressive. Save for the stomach-turning chorus, verses from Lil’ Kim and Jay-Z are everything late 90s hip-hop was: flashy, filled with innuendo, and hosting enough brand name drops that pretty much every listener felt poor as hell listening to the song.

Safety deposit in the walk-in closet/Marble faucets and matching Rolls Royces” spits Lil’ Kim in a time in Hip-Hop when Bad Boy and ‘The Roc’ ruled the world.

“If I Should Die” (Feat. Da Ranjahz) – Vol.2...Hard Knock Life (1998)

Roc-A-Fella artists before there was actually a Roc-A-Fella, Wais and Haph AKA Da Ranjahz appear on the Swizz Beatz-produced “If I Should Die” off Jay’s breakthrough album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. Beat wise it’s a time capsule to Swizzy’s stutter-step, spastic production, and what makes the song underrated isn’t so much Swizz or Jay but rather some underappreciated verses by the aforementioned Wais and Haph. Haph (or Half Dead as he was known then) especially comes through with some vicious, vivid bars to finish off the song:

“I'll be down in hell scorchin' preparin' for life/Afterlife still torchin' and blazin' these mics/It'd rain for 40 days and 40 nights/And I'd return on the 3rd like Christ/(Without my physical portion)/My spirit a poltergeist for sureI'll be back through the Heights tomorrow/Blood over y'all fake ni**as door”

“Snoopy Track” (Feat. Juvenile) – Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter

Sounding like an engine revving at the starting gates of the Indy 500, the Timbaland-produced “Snoopy Track” off Jay’s Vol. 3 released in December 1999 is an impressive coming together of Hov’s growing NYC rap domination, and Juvenile’s Cash Money bred southern slick talk. It would be easy to make the argument for “Snoopy Track” being of Jay’s top three most underrated songs if it weren’t for what is ultimately hollow lyrical content, but pure uncut dope nonetheless. Juvenile assists on the song's hook while Hov tells tales of “Spanish cats with the keys of coca” and liking women with Gucci shoes and “new coochie.

“There’s Been A Murder”– Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

If you've forgotten this gem from 'Vol. 3…", one only needs to go back and look at the lyrics of this hidden masterpiece which reads like the script for the yet-to-be-produced Jay-Z biopic:

"Follow the life of this reckless minor/At sixteen in the 600, unlicensed driver/Playin', cops and robbers, like shots can't stop us/Flippin' a bird to the choppers (f**k you coppers!)"

The song gets its charge from the Alana Davis-sampled chorus with the aching refrain of "think there's been a murder…" Lost in the tales of drugs, gun, murder, and hustling is the fact that the song is the first time Hov "killed Jay-Z" with the 2nd being on "Kill Jay-Z" off his 4:44 album.

“Soon You’ll Understand”– The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

Relationships are complicated, and Jay-Z attacked them head-on with "Soon You'll Understand," one of the few solo tracks on Jay's should-have-been-a-compilation 'The Dynasty…' album. Rumors suggest the song is about model Shenelle Scott, a model who Hov was once rumored to have a child with. Song's intended target aside, the haunting Just Blaze production allows Jay to paint pictures of relationships lost amidst guiding exes in his black book:

"But still when your boyfriend ditched you, life's a bi**h you cried/Over my right shoulder, I told you to wipe your eyes/Take your time when you liking a guy/'Cause if he sense that your feelings too intense, his pimp'll die"

“Girls, Girls, Girls Part 2” – The Blueprint (2001)

A hidden treasure for Hip-Hop purists, Jay-Z’s “secret” track from his hip-hop classic The Blueprint album is a chest of historical music facts. Most people know about the uncredited Michael Jackson background vocals. The song is also one of Kanye’s first beats for Hov and along with MJ, features background vocals from Chante Moore. Pt. 2 brings substantially more soul than its album single counterpart “Girls, Girls, Girls,” thanks to a smooth Persuaders sample of their song “Trying Girls Out”.

Where the original “Girls, Girls, Girls” was more accessible for the masses, “Pt. 2” is dripping with soul and brings a stronger lyrical performance from Jigga:

“I'm lookin' for a Southern girl that cook like Patti LaBelle/Big ghetto booty, scarf over her doobie/Chanel under the Louis, Gucci over her booty”

“Bi**hes & Sisters” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)


Sisters work hard, b**ches work your nerves” said Hov on his criminally unnoticed “B**ches & Sisters” bonus track from his bloated The Blueprint 2… album (but hey, “mid” for Hov is the peak for many). Sampling N.W.A.’s classic “A B**ch Iz A B**ch” and Kim Weston’s 70s cut “When Something is Wrong with My Baby,” the song sees Jay breaking down the differences between “b**ches” and “sisters.” Some examples? “Sisters tell the truth, b**ches tell lies,” “Sisters do it slow, b**ches do it fast”...you get the point. For his part, Just Blaze gives Jay a horn-fueled banger to spit game on what could be considered one of the Roc-A-Fella honcho’s last overtly misogynistic songs.

“Guns & Roses” Feat. Lenny Kravitz –The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

It’s not everyday Lenny Kravtiz guests on a Hip-Hop track. The forgotten banger from Jay-Z’s only truly average album ‘The Blueprint 2…’ is chock-full of interesting facts that make this one a must revisit track from Hov’s catalog. First off, the song samples Cake’s “Arco Arena.” What makes the Cake sample even more impressive is it was crafted into the song’s track by the late hip-hop pioneer Heavy D. In one of his last interviews in 2011, Heavy D told Tim Westwood that he played the track for Jay-Z in Los Angeles as they drove around. Jay crafted the lyrics in his head. Little known fact: Hov and Lenny performed the song on Saturday Night Live in 2002.

“Meet the Parents” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

Because of the mixed reaction to its initial release, not much credit is given to Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2… album. Not only did it follow up one of the essential albums in music's history with The Blueprint, but the collection was bloated with substantial filler. That being said, it's time to give Hov and Just Blaze their flowers for some of what they did on the project. Case in point: "Meet the Parents." Just Blaze's synthy, gloomy backdrop was the perfect track for Hov to speak on the perils of street life and telling a story with the ultimate lesson of being there for your children. One of the song's more emotional moments is Hov's nod to the passed on B.I.G. and Aaliyah:

"So, give Big a hug, tell Aaliyah I said hi/Till the next time I see her, on the other side"

“Do U Wanna Ride” Feat. John Legend – Kingdom Come (2006)

As the story has been told, Jay-Z's close friend Emory "Vegas" Jones was sentenced to 16 years in prison, missing Jay's meteoric rise to the top of the entertainment world. But like a good friend, Jay never abandoned Emory, ultimately helping secure his early release with a job offer at Rocawear. Now a successful executive at Roc Nation and entrepreneur with his  ‘Bet on Yourself' Puma collaboration, Emory has turned his life around.

It wasn't always this good, however, and Jay's Do U Wanna Ride from his Kingdom Come album was a letter to his incarcerated friend, even beginning with a recording of a call Emory made to Jay while locked up. The song was said to have been critical in keeping Emory's spirits up while serving his sentence. As Hov says on the song, any time Emory called him while inside he just wanted to hear Jay "talk fly" and Hov does just that on the song's 2nd verse:

"International Hov, I told you so/ 40/40s out in Tokyo/ Singapore, all this from singing songs"

“30 Something” – Kingdom Come (2006)

Getting older is unavoidable, but aging gracefully is within your hands. Jay-Z's 2006 track "30 Something" aimed to shine a light on aging Hip-Hop fans, including Hov himself. The song set out to teach Jay's aging audience how he has managed to transition gracefully into adulthood. Think of it as a precursor to Jay telling fans about the artwork he bought for one million with early investment advice around stocks and clubs:

"I don't got the bright watch, I got the right watch / I don't buy out the bar, I bought the nightspot/I got the right stock"

Dr. Dre mans the boards and while Dre's production on "30 Something" won't have anyone confusing it with "Still Dre," it's reliable and shines on the song's remix with Ice Cube and Andre 3000.

“People Talkin'” – MTV Unplugged (2001)

After making history with his MTV Unplugged live album backed by The Roots playing his hits, Jay-Z placed this gem as a hidden track at the end. Armed with a beautiful sample flipped by frequent collaborator Ski Beatz, Hov celebrates his rarity and his excellence in hip-hop through that point of his career. "Damnit man, this is a gift from God," he insists. Amen.

“Heaven” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

When people list Jay-Z's "hardest" songs, it's unlikely they reference the Timbaland, The-Dream, and J-Roc produced "Heaven" from 2013's often panned Magna Carta Holy Grail album. But when Jay spits "arm, leg, leg, head - this is God body" with ferocity, Hov launches into an examination of religion, life, and death that can only be described as one of Jay's more underappreciated songs. Hov even tackles the Illuminati rumors head-on providing a believable explanation: "Conspiracy theorist screaming Illuminati/They can't believe this much skill is in the human body."

Fun fact: The song was supposed to feature Ghostface Killah and Raekwon.

“Somewhereinamerica” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

"Somewhereinamerica" should be remembered as one of Jay-Z's most poignant on racism and the state of race relations in America. Unfortunately, it's more often remembered for the line "Cause somewhere in America/Miley Cyrus is still twerkin'" which was followed up by a Miley tweet and subsequent Hov acknowledgment.

Hov seemingly brushed off the line as a slight at Miley but looking at the context of the song's lyrics, it's obvious it's a sharp commentary on not only white appropriation of black culture but the out front racism of new America: "New money, they looking down on me."

“This Life Forever” – Jay-Z: The Hits Collection, Volume One (2010)

For the Jay-Z purists, "This Life Forever" is about as pure as it gets for a song that didn't appear on 'Reasonable Doubt.' The underrated street hustler's tale appears on the 1999 soundtrack for the unreleased film Black Gangster based on the 1972 novel by Donald Goines. Much of the credit for the purity of "This Life Forever" goes to Queens producer Ty Fyffe whose hard drums give Hov the canvas to spit lyrics like:
"I'm the truest ni**a to do this, ni**a, and anything else is foolish/Like those who stay high, under God's grey skies/My lyrics is like Bible, made to save lives"

And when Jay says, "All day, socks explode and sweatpants pockets is bulging" you can see a young Shawn Carter on the corner moving his work while dreaming of what could be.

“Imaginary Players” – Reasonable Doubt (1996)

The Prestige produced “Imaginary Players” could have easily found itself on The Blueprint. The Rene & Angela-sampled track is dripping with soul as Hov speaks on his pre-and post-rap riches and his love of finer things. It’s interesting to look back and see the brands name-checked by Hov back in the late 90s - Cartier, Versace, Hummer, and Rolex. “Imaginary Players” is really that “down south Master P, bout it, bout it” sh*t as the listener rides shotgun with Hov early rap fame and seeing visions of what the future holds.

“Always Be My Sunshine” Feat. Foxy Brown & Babyface – In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)

Wait, underrated? Wasn’t this is one of Jay-Z’s most successful songs? Not really. “Sunshine” peaked at #95 on the Hot 100 and #16 on the rap charts. And chart struggles aside, the song was the one in Jay’s career that seemingly everyone loves to hate, including former Roc-A-Fella executives. In an interview with the ItsTheReal podcast in 2017, Roc Nation’s Lenny S. said, “We were kinda digging out of a hole after “Sunshine,” and the video didn’t help…”

But is the hate warranted? Ring off “Sunshine” at any party and no one is going to tell you to turn it off. The Prestige-produced track samples MC Lyte, Alexander O' Neal, Kraftwerk, and The Fearless Four providing a sugary canvas for Jay and Foxy Brown to trade playful lyrics while Babyface lends his vocals to the song’s hook. No, “Sunshine” is not Blueprint quality Hov, but it is one of the jiggy era's more enjoyable guilty pleasures.

“Rock Star Freestyle" – S. Carter Collection (2003)

With a nod to Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” to kick off the freestyle, Jay’s destruction of N.E.R.D’s “Rockstar” beat off the ‘S. Carter Collection’ mixtape was the official signal to Jay’s “retirement” when the Roc head honcho rapped “Rap’s my hobby, spending money’s my job.

Hov had reached such heights at the time of the freestyle that a comparison like “bigger than U.S. steel” (U.S. steel was at the time the 15th largest steel producer in the world) didn’t seem so far fetched. By no means Hov’s most magnificent set of bars but a forgotten moment off of Jay-Z’s only official mixtape.

“Glory” Feat. Blue Ivy

In the music blog era, the drop of “Glory,” Jay-Z’s tribute to the birth of his daughter, was a huge moment. At the time of its release, Rolling Stone called the record “rushed,” but a more accurate description of the song is “pure.” Featuring the first sounds of his newborn daughter, the Neptunes-produced track is one of Jay’s most-open lyrically on wax. The feelings of a new father seep through lines like “Your mama said that you danced for her/Did you wiggle your hands for her?” and deeply personal bars around previous miscarriages suffered by Jay and B. “False alarms and false starts/All made better by the sound of your heart.”

But it’s the song’s 2nd verse that genuinely cements this as one of Jay’s most underrated. Where the first verse sees Jay reflecting on his daughter’s birth, the second speaks to some of Jay’s trials growing up, including those with his father: “Your Grandpop died of ni**a failure/Then he died of liver failure/Deep down he was a good man.

“The City is Mine” Feat. Blackstreet – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1

What makes “The City is Mine” notable is that it feels like New York City at night. When Jay says, “I snatch your girl if your arm ain't strong enough/plus y’all don't stay in the studio long enough” you can visualize the late-night NYC studio sessions followed by club nights into the wee hours of the morning in the early Roc days. The song, like much of the shots at Pop stardom on ‘...Vol. 1’ was a moderate success and sure, the Teddy Riley production and Blackstreet helmed chorus isn’t the hardest you’ll ever hear Hov coming. However, much like “Sunshine”, the song’s lyrics still hold to what made people fall in love with Jay-Z in the first place: clever wordplay, vivid lyrics, and a sense of motivation for the listener who saw the street hustler beginning to rise Rap’s ranks.

“Party Life” – American Gangster (2007)

Somewhere between underrated, despite overall incredible reviews, and misunderstood, you will find Jay-Z’s American Gangster album. A concept project inspired by the film of the same name starring Denzel Washington, the album was steeped in 70s soul and funk with Diddy and The Hitmen helming the boards for six of the album’s tracks.

“Party Life” isn’t one of the tracks that jump out immediately from the project, but it encapsulates the build of the project. Diddy and team more or less jacked Little Beaver’s “Get Into the Party Life” for the song which Jay-Z chews up and spits out, using a slower, almost Southern drawl flow with tales of parties, sex and enough classic gangster references to fill a novel:

“I make it look good to be this hood, Meyer Lansky/Mixed with Lucky Lefty, gangster effortlessly”

“Dear Summer” – Memphis Bleek: 534 (2003)

In 2005, two years had passed since Jay-Z released what many believed was his swan song with The Black Album. So that made "Dear Summer," his solo song on Memphis Bleek's album 534, particularly resonant when it dropped. Over a nostalgic production by Just Blaze, Hov writes a breakup letter to the summer, in homage of the way that he would drop a new record or start the album cycle during the summer of every year. Thankfully, he would return full force the following year with Kingdom Come, launching a new era of his already storied career.”

“Ignorant Sh*t” Feat. Beanie Sigel – American Gangster (2007)

Yes, Just Blaze killed "Ignorant Sh*t." Yes, both Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel skate on this track like they play for the New York Rangers. And yes, "Ignorant Sh*t" is underrated - underrated in the sense that it should forever be referenced for being one of Hov's brightest moments. Digging deeper into Jay's lyrics on the 'American Gangster' track, Hov gets in between the bars on this one:

"Then, actually, believe half of what you see / None of what you hear, even if it's spat by me / And with that said, I will kill ni**as dead"

It's like Jay pulled back the curtain on hip-hop the same way CM Punk pulled back the curtain on pro wrestling during his infamous pipe bomb promo, exposing the scripted nature of much of what you hear on a record.

"Oh My God" – Kingdom Come (2006)

With its hints of “U Don’t Know”-like rowdiness and ferociousness, but with a bit of a lighter feel, the Just Blaze-produced “Oh My God” is a standout from Hov’s Kingdom Come album. Just’s masterful sampling of “Whipping Post” (originally performed by The Allman Brothers Band) anchors the chorus screams of “good lord” as tension builds into each verse. The 3rd verse is the highlight with Hov recanting visits to Africa and having dinner with Italian designer Roberto Cavalli:

“I got crowned king down in Africa/Out in Nigeria, do you have any idea/Sold out shows out in Seoul, Korea/Jo'burg, Dublin, Tanzania/Lunch with Mandela, dinner with Cavalli”

“I Made It” – Kingdom Come (2006)

Never one to shy away from braggadocio bars, "I Made It" off Jay's Kingdom Come album is one of those rare moments where it's less about making a hit and more about therapy. The therapy, in this case, is what feels like Jay-Z finally exhaling the countless hours in the studio, trials and tribulations and trappings of success to proclaim that he had “made it.” The first two verses recap Jay's relationship with his mom Gloria Carter with the 3rd bringing the song to the present day, giving the listener a glimpse into Hov's current relationship with Mrs. Carter:

"CEO of Carter Foundation, wow! I know pop looking down/I know Colleek somewhere up in the clouds like/Go get 'em Grandma make me proud"

Colleek is the reference to Jay-Z's nephew who passed in a car accident in 2005. Jay references the incident on "Lost One", another standout from his Kingdom Come album:

"My nephew died in the car I bought / So I'm under the belief it's partly my fault"

“Bam” Feat. Damian Marley – 4:44 (2017)

4:44 is arguably Jay-Z’s latest hip-hop classic filled with painfully personal lyrics around infidelity, loss, and redemption. “Bam,” while one of the album’s more shallow moments (i.e. it doesn’t talk about family or cheating on Beyonce), the song is underrated for one primary reason. Where much of 4:44 is meant to make the listener think and look inwards at their own life, “Bam” serves one primary purpose: to show that Jay-Z can still get a listener amped and bang their head. – nothing more, nothing less. It sees Jay leaving the family talk alone and getting back to that Pyrex talk telling tales of stuffing a million in a sock drawer and having ARs before A&Rs.

“Anything” –  Beanie Sigel: The Truth (1999)

When Beanie Sigel dropped his Rocafella debut The Truth in 1999, label boss Jay-Z provided his client with an assist by placing the solo song "Anything" on the album. The song had similar vibes to "Hard Knock Life," the breakout single from his album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life that dropped the year before: clunky drums, a sample of a child singing on the hook, and lyrics that reminisce on his time growing up in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. The song also appeared on the European version of Vol. 3...Life And Times of S. Carter as a bonus track.

“Intro” ‘The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (1999)

A Jay-Z album intro track is always a thing of beauty. From the classic that is “Intro / A Million And One Questions / Rhyme No More” off Vol. 1 to “The Ruler’s Back” off The Blueprint, it’s always a guarantee that the opening darts on the board from Hova are sure to be fire. “Intro” off The Dynasty… album is one of Hov’s intro tracks that many people don’t immediately look at as a “go-to,” but once it’s played, memories of just how fire it is coming rushing back. If “Intro” was on The Blueprint or Vol. 1 or one of any other more memorable Jay albums, it would be a more recurring play. It isn’t a stretch to say that the production on this is some of Just Blaze’s most exceptional work ever.

Interesting fact: The singing in the sample that occurs every four bars was a mistake due to two separate loops playing at the same time. In the end, it’s one of the most memorable parts of the song and cements this as one of Jay’s underrated intros.

“100$ Bill” – Various Artists: Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film The Great Gatsby (2013)

Don’t feel too bad if your first response was, “what Jay-Z song is this?” Jay’s contribution to The Great Gatsby soundtrack didn’t exactly light the music world on fire, but it’s worth a revisit if for nothing the way Jay dissects the “roaring 20s” and compares it to modern-day. When Jay compares himself to Mark Twain as a writer or to Malcolm X as a revolutionary, it’s like Hov verifying his pages in music’s history book. Producer E*Vax gives Jay one of the more awkward, skittish beats of his career, which makes this one a little less pleasing to the ear but worth a revisit nonetheless.

“In My Lifetime” (Remix) – Various Artists: Streets is Watching (1998)

“In My Lifetime” (Remix) is 90s hip-hop encapsulated in 4 minutes and 37 seconds of pure bliss. Nothing but an incredible Jaz-O rework of the original track produced by Ski and a fresh-off-the-streets Jay-Z enjoying life “lettin the Cristal breathe at the Barnacle Bar.” The song continues the theme of early Jay-Z struggling with his past experiences with lines like “I’m a prisoner of my crimes.

“A Week Ago” Feat. Too $hort – Vol 2 ... Hard Knock Life (1998)

MIA producer J Runnah helms the beat on Jay-Z and Too $hort's collaboration off Jay's Vol. 2… album. Fueled by a beat centered around 80s-like rock guitars and devastating piano keys, Hov and $hort tell the all too common street tale of a former partner snitching when the chips are down:

"I ran to the spy store to add some more features on my phone/To see if I had bugs and leeches on my phone/Can't be too safe, 'cause ni**as is two-faced"

The song is said to be directed at Jay-Z's former friend DeHaven Irby who Jay has accused of snitching on songs in the past.

“What We Talkin’ About” Feat. Luke Steele – The Blueprint 3 (2009)

“I ain't talkin' about gossip, I ain't talkin' about Game/I ain't talkin' about Jimmy, I ain't talkin' about Dame/I'm talkin' about real sh*t, them people playin'”

With those bars, Shawn Carter took yet another step in leaving the old Jay-Z behind. This underrated album cut from The Blueprint 3 features MGMT's Luke Steele on the song's hook. "What We Talkin' About" is Jay's shot at the critics and the fans for that matter, asking for the old Hov or wanting to know about perceived shots at the throne from other emcees. While the song isn't the pinnacle of Jay album intros, there are still some true lyrical gems to be found here, including Jay reminding people of his part in getting Barack Obama elected to office: "A small part of the reason the president is black."

“I Can’t Get Wid Dat” B-Side

The first comment under the YouTube video for Jay-Z’s “In My Lifetime” b-side is “I wanna see Jay z rapping like this in 2019.” And with good reason. “I Can’t Get Wid Dat” is a lesser-known Hov time capsule to his “wiggity wack,” Das-Efx like early 90s flow. The crazy thing about “old” Hov is that the vocal inflections and vibe have never been lost. In a way, this track from 1994 captures why Jay-Z is still at the top of the hip-hop world in going into 2020: presence, a raw but crisp delivery, and the ability to ride any track, including this Clark Kent banger, to critical acclaim and adoration.

“You Must Love Me” – In My Lifetime, Vol 1 (1998)

"You Must Love Me" type hip-hop music is unfortunately not made too often anymore. Sure, rappers make songs about life's trials, growing up in stressful situations and doing wrong to those close to them, but how authentic is it truly? "You Must Love Me," a Kelly Price-featured gem that gets somewhat lost in the "jigginess" of Hov's In My Lifetime..., feels real. It feels so real that the listener can envision Jay stealing from his mom's purse, shooting his brother, or having "girlfriends" smuggle drugs on planes. It’s one of those rare moments where a song becomes so vivid that it makes the listener feel like they’re hearing things they shouldn’t know about.

“It’s Like That” Feat. Kid Capri – Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life – (1998)

Nothing revolutionary content-wise, this standout from Kid Capri’s Soundtrack to the Streets album also appeared on Jay’s third album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. Produced by Kid, the song sees Jay politicking on his street origins and singling out the only rappers he f**ked with at the time:

“You dudes is too soft, why I don't f**k with you all I might bark at X, or spit at The LOX/But, other than that, I don't be f**kin' with cats”

“I Did It My Way” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

In hindsight, “I Did It My Way” could have been a bigger song for Jay-Z had the label ante’d up on sampling the Frank Sinatra version of “My Way” rather than the Paul Anka version, which Hov communicated at the time was the cheaper route.

“All Around the World” Feat. LaToiya Williams – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

The lyrics from “All Around the World” aren’t going to sit in any hip-hop hall of fame, but this forgotten track from Jay’s The Blueprint 2… album is fun. And many times “fun” hip-hop is cast away shortly after its release due to its lack of substance, but there are some great bars on this song – not because of the content but Jay’s uncanny ability to use flow and cadence to make something stay in the listener’s head:

“London, England, South of France/And all points between they know about your man / Konichiwa ladies when I'm out in JapanI'm a Tokyo Giant like Ichiro, I am”

“Runnin', then I wake up in Martha's Vineyard/St. Bart's this year, I think I'm gon' spend Christmas/Reminiscin' 'bout the time my mom couldn't spend Christmas”

Whether the Ichiro line or Hov’s double-play on “Christmas,” the song’s concept is simple, but there are more to the bars than what’s on the surface.

"Blueprint 2” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

Ask most hip-hop fans, and they'll tell you that the classic rap beef that was Jay-Z vs. Nas is primarily wrapped up in Nas' "Ether" and Jay's "Takeover" and "Supa Ugly" (which was so disrespectful that Jay's mom made him apologize). But Jay-Z's "Blueprint 2" off The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse is a wildly underrated chapter in the story of one of Rap's most historic beefs. Yes, the chorus is beyond awful, but the song contains some of Jay's best body blows at Nas:

"Is it Oochie Wally Wally or is it One Mic?Is it Black Girl Lost or shorty owe you for ice?"

"And the little homie Jungle is a garden to me"

"Can't y'all see that he's fake, the rap version of T.D. JakesProphesizin' on your CD's and tapes"

The almost comically apocalyptic backdrop from producer Charlemagne isn't "Takeover" level punishing, but it serves the purpose for Jay's last shots in the battle.

“Show You How” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

The appropriately titled “Show You How” is the essence of Jay-Z’s famous line “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” off his classic Black Album song “Moment of Clarity.” The song provides the listener specific instructions on how to ball-out like Hov and go after what you want in life. But it’s the fairer species who may have gotten blessed most by Hov on this album cut:

“And ma don't give him nothin', unless he's treatin' you special/Soon he'll get desperate, and go down and bless you/And when he come up for air, with a mouth full of hair/Just grab your coach bag and get the f**k outta there, yeah”

“Minority Report” Feat. Ne-Yo – Kingdom Come (2006)

It’s hard to believe that “Minority Report” isn’t celebrated more when it comes to Jay’s broader catalog. Similar to Lil’ Wayne’s underrated “Tie My Hands”, the challenging subject matter on “Minority Report,” centered around the devastating Hurricane Katrina that battered New Orleans in 2005, opens up wounds around race in American that many listeners likely don’t want to revisit too often. Which is a shame because the song contains some of Jay’s most meaningful bars, including one of the truest ever spoken on record at the onset of the song - “People was poor before the hurricane came...

As much as the song is about America’s response to the hurricane, it’s also about Jay-Z looking inward at his response to the tragedy and questioning if he did enough: “Sure, I ponied up a mil' but I didn't give my time/So, in reality, I didn't give a dime.

“Nickels and Dimes” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

At the time of Magna Carta Holy Grail’s Samsung-sponsored release, Jay-Z produced a series of videos where he talked about the meaning behind the album’s songs including the underrated “Nickels and Dimes”:

The song’s theme is one many can relate with who have found success in life despite close friends, family, or even strangers for that matter continuing to struggle day-to-day. How do the successful reconcile a beautiful experience with a dark mess left behind? Jay gets knee-deep in trying to answer the question on the Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua-produced track, including considering the beauty of the struggle:

“Something 'bout the struggle so divine/This sort of love is hard to define/When you scratching for every nickel and dime”

But Jay isn’t there anymore; he’s further away from the struggle than most people on earth with a net worth north of $1 billion. And this is why Jay is brutally honest in saying that sometimes he feels “survivor’s guilt,” and instead of simply giving money to the less fortunate, he wants to provide opportunity.

“MaNyfaCedGod” Feat. James Blake – 4:44 (2017)

A bonus track from Jay’s critically-acclaimed 4:44 album, “ManyFacedGod” features James Blake, hip-hop's favorite white boy crooner next to Bon Iver. The trip-hop-like beat was produced by the aforementioned Blake and English producer Dominic Maker and continues the theme of Jay reflecting on a significantly rough patch with his wife, honing in on the timing of the release of Beyonce’s critically-acclaimed Lemonade album which many see as the onset of infidelity accusations levied against Hov:

“Look at all we been through since last AugustSkating through the rumors like, "Aw, sh*t!"Still came back, f**ked up the red carpet/Shows how big your heart is”

The production on the track is one of the song's more underrated elements as it lays out a gloomy, painful layer for Jay-Z to pile on with truly deep-cut bars like "Woulda broke me down had you got away/It woulda broke me up, you took my child away/I'm glad we found a way"

“Things That U Do” Feat. Mariah Carey – Vol. 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

If Jay-Z's "Sunshine" is pop sugar-filled radio candy, "Things That U Do" off 'Vol. 3…" is a truck full of raw sugar dumped on a pile of pink lollipops. In other words, it's up there with the most poppy material Jay has ever done. That being said, the song is still an undiscovered gem in Jay's catalog, driven by the riddled flute backdrop from Swizz Beatz and surprisingly substantive lyrics from Hov. Mariah's airy, somewhat forgettable chorus leans into a third verse from Jay that touches on his entry into the game and his versatility as an MC:

"Don't matter to me the Garden or flowin' on Clue...You know I've traveled through zones/Homes spazzed like a bad back/I came into this game on Jaz's back”

“Fallin’” – American Gangster (2007)

“Fallin’” is everything a song should be on a concept album like Jay-Z’s American Gangster. Vivid, poignant, and with lyrics at the forefront. The production from Jermaine Dupri isn’t minimalist in the most real sense, but it isn’t overpowering and lets Jay’s tales of taking the street game one-step too far room to breathe. The song is centered around the “alphabet boys” closing in on Frank Lucas, the legendary gangster the American Gangster film is centered around, and Jay references some other famous gangster flicks to communicate just how close Frank had taken it to the edge:

“Damn, you f**ked up like your favorite movie scene/Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, Casino/You seen what that last run did to De Niro in Heat”

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Grammy Contender Lucky Daye Is Waving R&B's Melodic Flag With Pride

Perhaps it was a baton passed by February 2019 Vibe digital cover star H.E.R. during Grammy that solidified Lucky Daye’s 2020 nominations. At an intimate gathering during Grammy weekend last year, the 2019 Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance winner sweetly sang a rendition of “Roll Some Mo,” much to Daye’s amazement. As H.E.R. struck gold with five nominations last year, walking away with two gramophones, Lucky is poised for a similar fate, nominated for Best R&B Song (“Roll Some Mo”), Best R&B Album (Painted), Best R&B Performance (“Roll Some Mo”), and Best Traditional R&B Performance (“Real Games”). Though the nominations were announced merely two months ago, for Daye, the news finally sunk in as he attended The Recording Academy’s L.A. Chapter Celebration.

“My body doesn't react to verbal news, it’s like a normal thing. I'm so used to expecting stuff that people say--especially in music--and it not happening,” Daye says, as we speak a day following the L.A. Chapter Celebration. “Now that I should be excited early--because I want to be excited this whole time--it [doesn’t] happen until I walk into a room. Then I get all jittery and nervous, like, ‘oh my God, this is happening.'”

While the Grammys have previously been attuned with Black artists accruing few awards (only ten Black artists have won Album of the Year in the show’s 60-year history), the Recording Academy has attempted to diversify their categories. This means adapting to the stark change in the R&B climate, leaning on subgenres and mixtapes, rather than solely mainstream artists. Daye’s 2019 debut album Painted was transfixed in the lush, instrument-driven sounds of funk’s heyday, enriched by vocal sensibilities and near-spiritual opulence, stamping his destiny in R&B. Fellow singer-songwriter Victoria Monet shared with Billboard that Painted was her favorite album of last year, noting that Daye’s hometown of New Orleans was “the soul of the project”. For Daye, Painted wasn’t just a reclamation of home, but a testament of emotional reverence.

“I got a chance to get everything out, like, my deepest emotions and feelings. To finally say it without getting cut off, or to finally say it and not get a rebuttal before I actually try to get people to hear it… Most times, I get feedback and it discourages me, [but] this time, it was too late for anybody to discourage me since the album was done,” he says. “I was already like, ‘I love it, so I don’t care what anybody thinks’. To me, it felt good to get a response from people [but] a positive one, for once. I’m still adjusting, [so] I’m kind of new to how it’s moving and I’m new to the people liking stuff from me. People don’t really get it, it’s a different side of life that I’ve never been on.”

Daye, previously known as D. Brown during a run of being a songwriter and background vocalist, follows a tradition of fellow songwriter-turned-full fledged R&B artists including D’Angelo and Faith Evans. However, he assures that crafting music behind the scenes wasn’t his end goal, as collaborating with producer D’Mile ignited his passion of re-pursuing solo stardom. In a recent Rolling Stone profile of D’Mile, the producer noticed an uptick in contemporary R&B paying homage to the 70’s, notably psychedelic cut “Redbone”, which snagged Childish Gambino a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2018.

Both Daye and D’Mile followed suit, with their own formulaic reverence to 70’s funk and soul on Painted, ushering in a modern take. Daye mentions that while D’Mile is knowledgeable of music theory, it was Daye’s “chemical imbalance” over D’Mile’s production and radical instrumentation that essentially made them musical soulmates. “When it comes to music, [it] will teach consciousness in the body to be open, to be understanding of everything. To have multiple perceptions, it’s rare, and [D’Mile] has that,” Daye says. “If anything else, we know that at the end of the day, it’s all going to boil down to music. We’re here to do something on Earth at this age and time, and I’m indebted to him.”

For long-time fans of Daye, some were initially surprised once playing the album, as songs featured on his introductory EPs I and II were featured prominently on Painted. For Daye, he wanted to ease his listeners into living with his music for a while longer before presenting the remainder of his debut, unexpectedly recommended by a rap icon. “I didn’t want [fans] to listen to it and be like, ‘yo, it’s a jumble of a bunch of mess’, because honestly, that’s how I felt at the time. I just felt like, ‘they’re not gonna like it’. If we’re going to really put it out and [make] it a big deal, I don’t want to mess this up. The best advice was putting it out piece by piece. I talked to Nicki Minaj about that and that’s where the idea originally came from,” he says, referencing that he accompanied a friend to a studio session with Minaj.

“This was probably eight months before [Painted] came out. We’re sitting in there, they couldn’t come up with [any] ideas and she was like, ‘Why you sitting over there quiet? What you humming? Sounds like you got something if you wanna hop in, you can.’ I just hopped in and freestyled a whole song.”

Taking Minaj’s advice made for the organic success of his EPs, and a gradual acclimation of ‘Daye Ones’--a token for Daye’s dedicated fanbase--especially those who witnessed his performances during a streak of three tours in the past year. After joining Ella Mai and Kiana Lede during Mai’s debut tour, Daye launched into The Painted Tour, later heading to Australia with Khalid during The Spirit Tour. Daye admits the stage is where he’s most carefree, but that he’s still getting acclimated with finding time to rest. “It’s so crazy because I look around [and] sometimes I’ll push my friends too hard, or I’ll push other people too hard because of my expectations,” he says. “Fresh off the Khalid tour, I didn’t sleep for a week, I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’. I’m calling doctors, Kehlani’s helping me like, ‘maybe you should drink that’, I just realized it was adrenaline. It’s hard to go to sleep when you’re running off that kind of energy.”

Daye’s adrenaline and charismatic stage presence made his mainly-female audiences buckle at their knees, even intimately crooning select attendees to violin-driven track “Concentrate” at shows. But it was the track “Roll Some Mo” that stood apart from his catalog, instantly becoming a fan favorite and soundtracking The Photograph, which premieres on Valentine’s Day next month. Though “Roll Some Mo” is beloved for its penchant in marijuana-infused desire, Daye says he initially rejected the song being featured on Painted. “That was the fastest song I did. Most times when I write fast, I’m not trying and I felt like I didn’t put my all into it. That’s why, to me, “Roll Some Mo” wasn’t strong. I felt like I could do better, but everyone else was like ‘that’s the one’,” he says. “So I should just write and not think, that’s a lesson I’ve learned from misjudging “Roll Some Mo”: don’t overthink and do not try to make it perfect.”

Long accustomed to songwriting, Daye had a natural inclination to join the ranks of Keep Cool Records, especially the intensity of their songwriting boot camps. Prior guests of the boot camps have included Masego and Baby Rose, and Daye mentions that he also attended recording sessions of Revenge of the Dreamers III on their final day. “It’s so much pressure at writing camps like [Keep Cool Records] because there are so many people that are amazing. They go in with that mindset--and I understand that because I can write, as well--I just don’t do it with that type of intensity, because my confidence has been killed in that area,” Daye says. “Being in a room with those people, you learn different ways to make music and that’s the beauty [of it]. Music is art, it’s in me and I can’t do nothing about that, so to be in that environment is paradise.”

With writing credits for Keith Sweat, Boyz II Men and Keke Palmer years prior to releasing Painted, it was mentorship from Mary J. Blige during recording sessions for Blige’s 2017 album Strength of a Woman, that aided Daye with honing in on lyrical simplicity. Co-writing “Love Yourself” and “U + Me (Love Session)”, with admiration for Blige, Daye even attended her 2018 Walk of Fame commencement. “[Blige] always speaks vulnerability and she always taught me a lot about changing words [for them] to make more sense,” Daye says. “I’m way more abstract than I was when Painted came out, and she’d always bring me back, like, ‘why don’t you just say it like this?’ I’m like, ‘that’s ghetto’. (laughs) She’d be like, ‘but it’s good’. I’d be like, ‘Well, alright, I got it; just do what I normally do if I was talking to somebody.’”

With Blige’s guidance in mind, Daye knew that he wanted the apex of Painted to revolve around intricacies of love, his previous relationships being the basis of the album, notably, overexerting himself while in those relationships. “On Painted, I wanted to convey love as being misunderstood and not what you always expect it to be. I feel like we watch all of these things around us and we got these high expectations of what love is supposed to be and it’s really an illusion. When you find somebody who’s actually a real person and they don’t meet your illusion, they fail in your eyes,” he says, subtly warning women to beware of overzealous suitors. “I just wanted to say ‘it’s fine to not be perfect, it’s fine to be normal’. Being normal is actually what love is, everything else is extra. You can’t always exhaust yourself. I’ve exhausted myself and I wanted to portray that on the album, like, I’ve done that already. I’ve tried everything I could to try to stay in love and try to be in love. It allowed me to fall in love and get my heartbroken, and that created more content for me and it created more depth for my character.”

With room to create meaningful content, though not intentional, Daye withheld from having collaborations on Painted. For many listeners, the “Roll Some Mo” remix featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Wale was the first time they heard Daye accompanied by featured guests. “I don’t think I had any power to even get anybody that wanted to get on my record. I would like to think that the music industry would hear good music and want to get with it because it’s good to them, not necessarily good to popular people,” he says. “I wanted to at least do my first album complete and not wait on features. I think all great artists can do an album with no features and you’ll still be able to listen to the whole album. I don’t care who it is, if someone’s not good on my record, I’m not putting it out.”

While Painted didn’t lack in vulnerability, Daye is open to the possibility of having features on his sophomore album. With his majorly-female audience in mind, he wants to reintroduce an influx of female features to create melodic balance. “The second album might be a little bit different. I’m probably gonna do an album that has a great amount of features on it and I’m working on that right now. We’re reaching for gold,” he says. “When it comes to singing, girls are listening to me. Most guys, they have too much ego to listen to me, I’m too real. They don’t want to feel soft. I feel like if get girls featured, it’ll make more sense for me than male features because I talk about love a lot. Ain’t too many guys I know that’s gonna open up like that on a record. That’s one of my goals, I want to do a lot of songs with girls like Marvin Gaye did.”

With music videos traditionally having a cinematic, thoroughly crafted feel, Daye shares that a visual album is soon to come, with a slew of screenplays already written. Initially wanting to release a visual album alongside Painted, he’s tentatively reserving it for his sophomore album. Though he’s mapped out his plans for 2020, Daye says that he’s willing to let go of his reigns to get better acquainted with fans. “I’m gonna make myself more uncomfortable this year when it comes to putting myself out there--controlling less of what I think I should be controlling--and just be more free and just be present. I want them to know, if there’s anything I should do, I’m open [to it].”

During a generation of R&B when artists are arguably most hands-on with their creative intention, Daye fits right in, nominated in nearly every R&B category of the 2020 Grammys. Hinting at surprise single before the ceremony, while arguably a veteran, Daye assures that his journey is far from over. “The fact that [artists] can reach so many people, just with one button, that’s awesome. Most people have to climb, they climb a long way from city to city and it takes years just to get to a level. I have millions of views in a year, and I believe [“Roll Some Mo”] might be gold. Just to do that in one year, being able to touch so many people, I feel like we’re getting closer,” he says. “It’s come back around, for sure, [but] there’s way more to accomplish. I plan on having at least eleven albums, and I feel satisfied, kind of, but this is the beginning. I just started, it’s the first day.”

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Drake accepts Best Rap Song for 'God's Plan' onstage during the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

10 Problems With The Grammy Awards And How To Fix Them

Going into the 2020 iteration of the show, The Grammy Awards couldn’t be more irrelevant and in a place of struggling to attract younger viewers. Each year sets new lows in the coveted 18-49 demographic, and the show continues to take one step forward and ten steps back when it comes to its relationship with hip-hop. The step forward this year will be the confirmed tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle featuring Kirk Franklin, DJ Khaled, John Legend, Meek Mill, Roddy Ricch, and YG. Fixing what was once the most cherished institution of the music business and one of the most-watched events of each year is complicated and will require drastic directional shifts and changes to elements of the show that have been part of its fabric for many years. These are the 10 problems with the Grammy Awards and how to fix them.

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D'Angelo at the VH1 Men Strike Back concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, USA on April 11, 2000.
James Devaney/WireImage

The Incantation of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo'

“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”

Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.

Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”

“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.”  - Saul Williams

The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas -  their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.

Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about).  But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”

“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams

Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”

The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.

Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.

What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).

Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.

Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.

The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic -  and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”

(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)

But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.

“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams

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