Jay-Z’s long anticipated thirteenth studio album 4:44 finally arrived late last month and it has already topped the Billboard 200 chart. After a four-year hiatus, the LP is getting high praises from the hip-hop community and reminding listeners of all genres why Hov is without a doubt one of the greatest rappers of all time. Last month Jay also made history by becoming the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (which he could not attend because Beyoncé just happened to be giving birth to their twins). So, it’s safe to say that Jay-Z’s summer is probably going a lot better than yours.
“Dead Presidents” (1996)
Song Sampled: “A Garden of Peace” by Lonnie Liston Smith (1983), among others
The breakout single off Jay’s debut album Reasonable Doubt, this track was certified gold just a few short months after its release. The song samples Lonnie Liston Smith’s “A Garden of Peace” for the main melody and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Oh My God (remix)” for its percussion, while the chorus is a sample of Nas rapping “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me,” from his 1994 song “The World Is Yours (Tip Mix).” Nas was originally invited to perform the chorus for Jay-Z and appear in the track’s music video, but he declined and thus began their public feud. Nas confronted Jay in his track “Stigmatic Freestyle” stating, “You show off, I count dough off when you sample my voice.” Jay-Z then responded in the song “Takeover” with the lines: “So yeah, I sampled your voice; you was usin’ it wrong/You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song/And you ain’t get a coin nigga you was gettin’ fucked then/I know who I paid God, Serchlite Publishing.” Their feud officially ended in 2005 at Jay-Z’s I Declare War concert, when they performed “Dead Presidents II” together.
“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” 
Song Sampled: “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from Annie (1982)
This is undoubtedly the song that skyrocketed Jay-Z to fame. It samples a high-pitched version of the musical number “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from the 1982 film Annie, which is fitting as Jay raps about his rags-to-riches story. The song peaked at number fifteen on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 41st Grammy Awards in 1999. Of the track’s inspiration, he says: “[One of my sister’s name is Andrea], but we call her Annie. That’s how the Annie sample came about. When I seen that on TV, I was like, ‘Annie?’ And then, I watched the movie. […] Any person that goes from ashy to classy or, you know, is from the orphanage or the projects—it’s pretty similar.” Jay later wrote in his memoir Decoded that in order to clear the sample, he sent a letter to the song’s copyright holders, lying about how he had seen the musical on Broadway as a child and written a competition-winning essay on it at school.
“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (2001)
Song Sampled: “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5 (1969)
The first collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West, this track prominently features a sample of “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5. The song’s main hook, “H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A” uses the -izzle language code (which was invented by E-40 and popularized by Snoop Dogg) to spell out “H.O.V.A.” in reference to one of Jay-Z nickname “Hova,” which is play on God’s name (as in “Jehovah”, aka “Yahweh” aka “Hashem”). Jay debuted the song during the 2001 BET Awards and producer Kanye West explained that it was one of the defining moments in his life:
“I was on the phone with my girl, and she just started screaming, and my two-way [pager] started blowing up. I was just thinking, ‘Damn.’ That was like the time in the [movie] ‘Five Heartbeats’ when they heard their song on the radio and they start running through the crib. If they ever do a movie about me, that’s one of the spots they’re gonna have to put in the movie. This song is really gonna change my life […] Until an artist of [Jay-Z’s] caliber co-signs for you, the industry doesn’t believe in your skills. Now they know.”
Kanye referenced this track on his 2004 song “Through the Wire” about his near-fatal car accident: “That right there could drive a sane man berserk/Not to worry, Mr. H-to-the-Izzo’s back to wi-zerk.”
UNSPECIFIED – JANUARY 01: Photo of Billy Squier (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
“99 Problems” (2004)
Song Sampled: “The Big Beat” by Billy Squier (1980), among others
In Decoded, Jay writes that he used “99 Problems” to confuse critics by hiding a deeper meaning behind its superficial chorus. The hook “I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one” was taken from the Ice-T single “99 Problems” off his album Home Invasion (1993). Jay’s track was produced by legendary beat-maker Rick Rubin, who provided Hov with a guitar riff and stripped-down beat derived from “The Big Beat” by Billy Squier, “Long Red” by Mountain, and “Get Me Back On Time” by Wilson Pickett. “The guitars were a combination of old records that were sped up or slowed down, scratched in, or in some cases, we played guitars and then made a disc and scratched them in with a digital turntable. It was all processed and made new,” Rubin said of the track’s production. He recalled that it was comedian Chris Rock who was the inspiration for the song. Rock told Rubin about Ice-T’s track and its catchy hook and was convinced that Jay could make an even better song out of it. Said Rubin, “I told that to Jay, and he wrote the song based on the title. The idea was, it’s the opposite song. In the Ice-T original song, it’s all about the girls. Our idea was, ‘OK, this will be a song with the same hook about the problems.'”
“Ni**as in Paris” with Kanye West (2011)
Audio Sampled: Dialogue from film Blades of Glory (2007)
Fun fact: Will Ferrell is featured in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest hip-hop songs of all time. Inspired by Kanye West’s travels in Paris, the iconic song’s production was originally offered to rapper Pusha T by producer Hit-Boy. Pusha turned it down, claiming “it sounds like a video game. Get that shit out of here!” Then Jay and Ye got their hands on it and the track went platinum just under two months after it debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, just shy of two months after the album’s release. The smash hit also racked in the trophies, winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. During the Watch The Throne tour, the two would perform this track multiple times at each concert. The crowds loved it. When they reached Paris, it was performed 12 times in a row. Talk about balling hard.
– Matthew Martino