Every single track is essential to a story that shows no sign of stopping.
Mike Diver 2010
One of Jay-Z’s biggest UK hits, Empire State of Mind, possesses a title that can be taken different ways. It alludes to the rapper’s hometown, New York, a sing-along celebration of what its streets have to offer. But it also outlines the man’s commercial mindset. Rewind to 2001’s The Blueprint and he’s making a long-held business attitude clear: "I sell ice in the winter / I sell fire in Hell / I am a hustler baby / I’ll sell water to a well." This focus has rarely wavered since he set up his own label, Roc-A-Fella, in 1996.
What haven’t been quite as consistent since The Blueprint are Jay-Z’s long-players. 2003’s The Black Album, at the time purported to be his final release, was an award-winning mix of abrasive bangers and smooth hits. But it’s the exception, the rest of his 21st century collections only haphazardly rewarding (strong singles, but no little filler). So it’s odd that only one Blueprint track makes the cut on this fourth hits compilation, Izzo (H.O.V.A.), though "Volume One" suggests a sequel may include more.
While something from rightly revered 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt would have offered an interesting insight into rawer early material, the quality of what’s included here is high. It’s a neat summarisation of Jay-Z’s chart-dominating days, arranged to appeal to relative newcomers. The earliest track, Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem), might have irritated some back in 98, but it took its maker worldwide. It also illustrates, vividly, Jay-Z’s well-tuned ear for a crafty steal – a sample from the musical Annie, sitting high in the rap charts? Nobody saw that coming.
The harder beats of The Black Album’s 99 Problems and Dirt Off Your Shoulder (two of four from said LP) owe much to their respective producers, Rick Rubin and Timbaland. This is another area where Jay-Z has been savvy: high-profile collaborators have included The Neptunes, Kanye West, Dr Dre and Eminem. He might be one of the best lyricists around, but it’s the fine blend of MC and producer – and on-record guests – that’s seen Jay-Z ascend through the ranks, from Brooklyn’s Finest alongside The Notorious B.I.G. to globe-conquering hook-ups with Rihanna and Alicia Keys.
Braggadocio is prevalent in rap, but when Jay-Z adopts his big-man-on-campus swagger he’s got the sales to back it up. These 14 tracks are just a snapshot of what’s taken him this far, but every single one is essential to a story that shows no sign of stopping.