A list that actually matters: Jay-Z's Top 100 songs

A list that actually matters: Jay-Z's Top 100 songs
The Greatest.

I got my start at ChicagoNow with Lists That Actually Matter, a sweet little outfit that challenges itself to sustain a readership based solely on list-making, which at the time of the blog's inception in 2010 was a well-known lazy staple of online journalism. (My favorites? “11 Overused Phrases Dumb People Say,” the “10 Signs It’s Summer in...” Chicago neighborhood series, and “6 Phrases You Didn’t Know Came From Horse Racing.”)

What makes Lists stand out from the other listers is that we use lists as our meal ticket, which means we have to bring the list heat every day. Most sites lean on list-making for off-day filler, a trait that led to Bill Simmons writing in 2004 his own list of potentially annoying elements to list-journalism:

1. Everyone does them now.

2. Every list is completely subjective and almost always ridiculous.

3. These lists always have a way of sucking you in… right up to the point where something goes terribly wrong.

4. Even though I hate these lists, I always enjoy them. If that makes sense.

It does, Bill. Of all the acceptable forms of online writing, list-making is the easiest to schlub your way through. And because a list is essentially an opinion column whittled to its core, it will always rile its readers, ESPECIALLY if it’s a half-assed job, in which case the reader can take umbrage with both the selections and the author’s arrogance in thinking his or her non-committal mind tripe was worthy of publication.

Which is what makes Andrew Barber’s complex.com list of the Top 100 Jay-Z songs so remarkable.

This is list-making for list purists, a list that feels driven by a sincere debate and, moreso, by the awe of Jay-Z’s catalogue. Part of the thrill in reading the list is realizing, “Wow, you can actually make a list of Jay’s 100 best songs, AND leave songs off!” How many mainstream artists who debuted in the 1990s can make that claim? How many mainstream rap artists? Just looking at LPs, without considering singles or features... Eminem and OutKast each released over 130 LP tracks. Jay’s late 90s contemporaries Ja Rule (115) and DMX (131) each topped 100 tracks, but most of those in the latter parts of the 2000s were entirely forgettable. Jay dropped over 200, and was still making waves – with tracks and albums – in 2007 (Roc Boys), 2009 (Empire), and 2011 (W.T.T.).

For a breakdown of the Barber list, let’s take the Simmons “annoying criteria” and go through one by one.

1. Everyone does them now.

I have not yet found a Jay-Z Best Songs list nearly as comprehensive as this one. There is this top 100 that is unnumbered, underwritten, and poorly laid out. There is this top 25, which is decent in writing but does not display the songs. There are a few decent top 10 lists, and even a top 15, but none of these touch Barber’s top 100.

Why is this one so good? Four reasons. It is comprehensive, accounting for Jay’s entire career, from his pre-Reasonable Doubt days to the present, from album cuts to features.

It is well-researched and informed. If you knew only Jay’s most popular singles, you could use this list as a primer to the man’s career.

It is well-written, well-argued, and passionate. This is key for me. My only large disagreement is “Izzo” at #39, which feels much too low for such an iconic, well-known, and culturally significant track. But Barber does such a good job in defending his positions and is so clearly knowledgeable that his placement of “Izzo” at 39 creates more arguments in my mind and does more to challenge my thinking than a crappy list would in placing “Izzo” in the top ten where I would put it. I’m much more inclined to buy a well-written list that opposes my views than a thrown together one that supports them.

And finally, great presentation! The list is presented in gallery form, meaning each song is its own page; the act of clicking your way through the list and waiting for the next page to load builds suspense and increases the list’s mystique. Each page features a picture and (with the exception of the three non-“Otis” Watch The Throne cuts) the song. And each page gives the song’s stats: year of release, album, producer, other artists, and label.

2. Every list is completely subjective and almost always ridiculous.

Well, of course it’s subjective. It’s an opinion-based list. But like I said, if you put thought into your list, argue your selections, and reveal your knowledge on the subject, readers may disagree but they can’t get mad.

3. These lists always have a way of sucking you in… right up to the point where something goes terribly wrong.

I was definitely sucked in, but did anything go “terribly wrong”? I would say no. I read 100-51 on Wednesday, and saved the final 50 for yesterday afternoon. In the morning while running errands, I found my mind stirring, trying to guess the top ten. “Izzo” was, to me, a no-brainer, so when it popped up at 39, I was shocked and kind of thrilled, because someone who clearly knows more than me about Jay-Z’s career had a severely different opinion on one of Jay’s trademark tracks.

My only other real disagreement? Only one cut ("People Talkin" at 47) from Jay's outstanding Unplugged performance. Having The Roots, Mary J. Blige, and Pharrell performing live, hearing the crowd shout "vamoose son of a bitch!"... forget about it. I would even argue that "Takeover" (#4) is better on the Unplugged album, not just for the live instrumentals, but because The Roots inserted pieces of music into the track from the artists who Jay was dissing, like them playing "New York State of Mind" over the Nas verse. I flipped out when I first heard that -- along with being a great jam, Jay and The Roots had effectively added an additional layer to the dis.

4. Even though I hate these lists, I always enjoy them. If that makes sense.

Again, nothing here to hate. If you’re not convinced yet, I don’t know what to tell you. Name one thing this list ain’t done? It hurts when you say that it ain’t the one. It’s supposed to be number one on everybody’s list. We’ll see what happens when it no longer exists. Fuck this.

(Logs off computer. Leaves room.)

ANDREW BARBER'S JAY-Z TOP 100 SONGS LIST, BREAKDOWN:

by year

14 songs – 2001

13 – 2003

12 – 1996, 1998

9 – 2000

8 – 1999

7 – 1997

6 – 2002

5 – 2009

4 – 2007, 2011

2 – 2005, 2008

1 – 1994, 1995, 2006, 2010

0 – 2004

by album

11 – Reasonable Doubt

10 – The Blueprint

8 – The Black Album

7 – The Dynasty: Roc La Familia

6 – In My Lifetime… Vol. 1, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life

4 – Vol. 3… The Life & Times, Blueprint 3, Watch The Throne

3 – American Gangster

by producer

18 – Kanye (13 solo)

10 – Just Blaze

9 – Ski (including 2 DPs, kinda 3)

7 – Timbaland

5 – DJ Premier (including two Friend or Foes)

4 – Swizz Beatz

4 – The Neptunes

4 – The Hitmen (1 with Knobody)

4 – No ID (1 solo)

TOP 25

by year

5 songs – 1996

4 – 2001

3 – 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003

2 – 2000

1 – 2005, 2007, 2009

by album

5 – Reasonable Doubt

4 – The Blueprint

3 – Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Black Album

2 – The Dynasty

1 – Blueprint 3

by producer

5 – Ski (kind of 6, kind of 4, all solo)

4 – Kanye (3 solo)

3 – Timbaland

2 – Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz

1 – The 45 King, Clark Kent, Devo Springsteen/Jon Brion, DJ Premier, Eminem, The Hitmen, Irv Gotti, The Neptunes, Rick Rubin, Rockwilder, Shux/Sewell-Ulepic/Hunte

AND FINALLY, THE TOP 10:

1. Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) -- 1998, Vol. 2 [produced by The 45 King]

2. I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me) -- 2000, The Dynasty [The Neptunes]

3. Public Service Announcement -- 2003, Black Album [Just Blaze]

4. Takeover -- 2001, Blueprint [Kanye]

5. Can I Live -- 1996, Reasonable Doubt [Irv Gotti]

6. Money, Cash, Hoes -- 1998, Vol. 2 [Swizz Beatz]

7. 99 Problems -- 2003, Black Album [Rick Rubin]

8. Big Pimpin' -- 1999, Vol. 3 [Timbaland]

9. Empire State of Mind -- 2009, Blueprint 3 [Al Shux, Janet Sewell-Ulepic, Angela Hunte]

10. U Don't Know -- 2011, Blueprint [Just Blaze]

 

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