We all know the phrase, “It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” Thankfully, JAY-Z doesn’t listen to silly clichés. Because, at the age of 47, we saw the legendary rapper do something he’s never done before: lock in with one producer and create one brilliant piece of work.
As we all know, the rapper’s excellent album 4:44 was produced by No I.D., the man who helped groom legends like Common and Kanye West. On this project, you can tell they’re pushing each other: JAY gives his most heartfelt and honest performance in years, while No I.D. provides JAY with some of his most textured work.
In a career that has spanned more than 20 years, the artist has collaborated with dozens of producers. However, there’s only been a select few who he have had a special bond with the legendary rapper.
In no particular order or ranking, here are the ten producers JAY-Z has done his best work with.
There were many producers on JAY-Z’s classic debut LP Reasonable Doubt, but none mattered more than Ski, who produced four tracks on the album: “Politics as Usual,” “Dead Presidents II,” “22 Two’s,“ and “Feelin’ It,” which JAY muscled away from Ski and Camp Lo.
We saw how strong their chemistry was when, a year later, Ski produced classic singles like “Who You Wit II” and “Streets is Watching.” However, despite their success rate, the musical relationship cooled. The last time the two would ever pair up would be on “People Talking,” a very good track that got buried on JAY’s MTV Unplugged album.
2. DJ Premier
Back in the ‘90s, the DJ Premier stamp of approval meant everything. The legendary producer basically appeared on 90 percent of the rap albums that mattered during that era, from Nas’ Illmatic to The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die to, yes, JAY’s Reasonable Doubt. You can’t speak about Reasonable Doubt without mentioning “D’Evils,” probably JAY’s most haunting song — a song that came when the artist rapped his verse over the phone and Primo crafted a beat from those lyrics.
JAY-Z and DJ Premier would keep a very productive relationship going; Primo appeared on JAY’s first four albums. However, after their initial run, the two stopped working together, despite the mutual respect. The last collaboration they would do together was the Vol 3… Life & Times of S. Carter snapper “So Ghetto.”
3. Clark Kent
In the early days, DJ Clark Kent was one of JAY-Z’s most reliable producers. They worked together on pre-Reasonable Doubt cuts like Hi-Five’s “She’s Playing Hard” remix and the In My Lifetime B-side “Can’t Get Wit That.” (Hov was still doing double time flows back then).
The most iconic collaboration between the two was “Brooklyn’s Finest,” which featured The Notorious B.I.G. The two didn’t work with each other much after that. However, JAY made sure to shout out Kent on The Black Album closer “My 1st Song.”
Timbaland had a heavy hand in Magna Carta… Holy Grail, one of the more unpopular JAY albums in his discography. But, that album can’t change the fact that the two have classic records together. What makes a lot of their work — especially the early stuff — so good is that Timbo usually saved some of his more adventurous beats for JAY, from the spacey ““Ni**a What, Ni**a Who” to the glitchy “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
5. Swizz Beatz
It’s crazy to think about, but Swizz and Hov have made bangers in the ‘90s, aughts, and the ‘10s. With each collaboration, you sort of get a screenshot of where JAY was at that moment in his life. On early collaborations, like “Jigga my Ni**a” and “Money Cash Hoes,” Hov was mean-spirited. On collaborations from the aughts, like the Grammy-award-winning, “On to the Next One,” he was at his most braggadocious. And on later collabos, like Watch the Throne standouts “Murder to Excellence” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” he came with perspective — realizing there were bigger fish to fry than rival rappers and doubters.
6. The Neptunes
Everyone can name the Neptunes-produced hits. But it’s the album cuts that make the JAY-Z and Neptunes’ relationship so special. These songs are some of JAY’s greatest gems.
What makes their union so cool is you never know what kind of song you’re going to get from the two: it can be introspective like “Allure;” experimental like “I Know;” or just plain fun and breezy like “Gotta Have It.” There have been some clunkers over the years — we shall not speak of “Anything” and “F**k All Nite” — but for the most part JAY and the Neptunes’ collabos have been gold.
7. Kanye West
Kanye West’s relationship with Roc-A-Fella — and extension JAY-Z — started in 2000 when he produced Beanie Sigel’s debut single The Truth. Kanye didn’t really become known as one of Roc-A-Fella’s go to guys until Hov’s masterpiece, The Blueprint. After that album, a Kanye West-produced song was something to be cherished.
The two might not be on the best terms right now, but that is a new development. They have been frequent collaborators over the last decade. From a listener’s perspective, you always got the sense Kanye led JAY by the hand, especially when you listen to the electronic sounds on Blueprint 3, which foreshadowed the work they would do on Watch the Throne. Whatever their issues are, let’s hope they get it straightened so we can get another classic.
8. Just Blaze
From 2000 to 2007, Just Blaze was JAY-Z’s workhorse. He was Hov’s go-to guy, producing more tracks for the legendary rapper than anyone else during that period. JAY has more hits with other producers. But the duo of JAY and Just Blaze has created the most crowd pleasers, from The Dynasty “Intro” to “U Don’t Know” and the climatic “Public Service Announcement (Interlude),” the ultimate concert opener.
9. Sean C & LV
LV & Sean C only worked with JAY during one period of his career. But the music that was created during that era is so beloved, it’s impossible to not give them mention. In 2007, Puff Daddy reformed the Hitmen, with LV & Sean C being the much-needed mavericks. The three produced six tracks for one of JAY-Z’s better albums, American Gangster. They were the ones that set the direction for the album, creating production that had a unique mix of samples and live instrumentals.
10. No I.D.
No I.D. and JAY-Z have a solid history together. The first track they collaborated on was The Blueprint 2 deep cut, “All Around the World.” From there, No I.D. would become a reliable hired gun for Hov; he was the man behind the boards for the Blueprint 3’s first two singles, “DOA (Death of Autotune)” and the smash hit “Run this Town.”
But it’s on 4:44 where No I.D. really signifies his legacy as one of his best collaborators. No I.D. provided JAY with some of the densest and most soulful production of his career. In the process, we heard vulnerability from JAY that we’ve never heard before.