It’s hard to pick a single Jay-Z song for this list, but I went with this one for many reasons. First, it signaled the return of one of the most important music producers of the past 30 years. Rick Rubin introduced the world to The Beastie boys by sampling Led Zeppelin’s, The Ocean, and he brought back that hard rock sound when he agreed to help Jay-Z end his career. Second, it’s consistent with hip-hop’s long-standing tradition of biting off lyrics from those who came before: What a lot of people don’t know is that Jay-Z didn’t write the classic hook. Ice-T did, and he recorded his song of the same name all the way back in 1993.
Jay-Z wasn’t even the first person to steal it from Ice-T—that honor goes to Trick Daddy, who recorded a version of the song back in 2001.
But nobody knows about their versions because, let’s face it, Jay-Z is the best rapper who ever lived.
Although it only hit #30 on the Billboard pop charts, it did win a grammy—and Pitchfork said it was the 14th best song of the decade.
Further listening: Jay-Z loves to play with numbers, and 22 2s off Reasonable Doubt is phenomenal. Even more exciting is 44 4s, a bonus track from the reissue of that album.
Covers: There are some, but the most magnificent of the songs below is the mash up with Nena’s 1980s hit, 99 Red Balloons.