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20 Best Lyrics From Jay-Z

Jay Z
Ben Gabbe, Getty Images

Jay-Z may not have invented the art of clever wordplay, but he certainly perfected it. Starting out with Jaz-O working high-speed syllable flips, Jay eventually slowed down his flow, making sure every line was felt and processed, along with killer double entendres. At times his lines were difficult to decipher, so much so that the rapper released the book ‘Decoded’ late last year to clear up some of the meanings behind his enigmatic verses. As a continuation of ‘Watch the Throne’ anticipation, the Boombox follows suit from our favorite Kanye lines to the 20 best lyrics from Jay-Z. While he has a whole stash to invest in, we picked a combination of his best lines and those that have fallen into the public domain as everyday lingo. At this rate, Jay-Z could have his own language with the way people cite his lyrics daily.

20. “Hov’s a livin’ legend and I’ll tell you why/ Everybody wanna be Hov and Hov’s still alive.” (Kanye West’s ‘Never Let Me Down’)

There is a hint of irony in the fact that the two rappers Jay-Z is most often aligned with — Tupac and Biggie — are both deceased. It’s probably a fact that has Jay questioning his own immortality as evidenced by his rhymes, like this one. Though referring to himself as “Hov” — a reworked nickname of Jehovah — only adds to that irony.

19. “They say you can’t turn a bad girl good/ But once a good girl’s gone bad, she’s gone forever.” (‘Song Cry’)

This one line was all it took to transform singer Rihanna‘s entire career. Prior to hooking up with the Roc, RiRi was a Caribbean queen, infusing her roots into her music. While she still does, adopting the philosophy of Jay’s line into her album ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’ gave her career a much needed facelift. Thanks, Jay!

18. “N—-s tryna subtract my life, my mathematics is precise/ I carry the nine, so f—ing with me just ain’t the answer.” (‘This Life Forever’)

Most rappers struggle with taking one metaphor and applying it to the crux of an entire verse. Not Jay-Z. If he starts with a math metaphor he will finish with a math metaphor, adding a double entendre of carrying a nine in division with carrying a 9mm handgun.

17. “I’m so far ahead of my time; I’m bout to start another life/ Look behind you, I’m bout to pass you twice.” (‘Hovi Baby’)

While double entendres are mainly Jay’s forte, he’s also a master of metaphors. Mixing messages with braggadocio, Jay gets his point across. To say he’s so far ahead of his time he’s about to start another life, puts him so far ahead in first place the competition can’t even eat his dust.

16.”F— the system/ At Lady Justice I blaze nine/ Your Honor, I no longer kill my people/ I raise mine/ The soul of Mumia in this modern day time.” (‘Dope Man’)

Jay is the first to confess his drug dealing led to other people’s destruction, but these days his life has turned around. His legal hustle has allowed him to thrive and has employed many people in the process. He’s now fighting the good fight instead of causing a bad one.

15. “Life is but a dream to me/ Gunshots sing to me/ These other guys with lullabies don’t mean a thing to me.” (‘Beach Chair’)

You may catch him in a designer suit these days, but Jay reminds everyone that he’s as hard as they come. Comparing gunshots to music and other rappers’ tracks as “lullabies” are proof that he maintains his roughness and thinks the others are all soft.

14.”Never read the Qu’ran or Islamic scriptures/ Only Psalms I read was on the arms of my n—-s.” (‘Intro’ From ‘The Dynasty: Roc La Familia’)

Young people often turn to Jay-Z lyrics now to understand how to navigate their own life’s compass. When the rhymer was a youngster, he had the older hood dudes to look up to, with biblical references tatted on their arms. No “decoding” on that one.

13. “I’m like hold up, who you smacking on?/ I’m only trying to eat what you snacking on.” (Dead Prez’ ‘Hell Yeah (Remix)’)

Jay-Z’s collaboration with Dead Prez shocked the masses. Brought together by mutual friend, writer dream hampton, the union seemed unlikely but a perfect fit. As Dead Prez romanticizes credit card fraud, Jay likens rap music in the suburbs to drugs in the hood.

12. “I keep my enemies close/ I give ‘em enough rope/ They put themselves in the air/ I just kick away the chair.” (‘Dig a Hole’)

Through the years, a number of rappers have taken shots at Jay-Z. He responds maybe an eighth of the time and the rest he lets expose themselves. While this line doesn’t specifically pertain to just the haters on wax, it definitely applies to them.

11. “I’ve got “99 Problems” but a b—- ain’t one.” (’99 Problems’)

As the song progresses, the word “b—-” takes on different forms, both male and female. This is another example of how one line in a song encapsulated the entire message. Now, people use it everyday to shrug off anyone — or thing — that they refuse to acknowledge as “problems.”

10. “If you tell me our schools gon’ be perfect when Jena Six don’t exist/ Tell him that’s when I’ll stop sayin’ b—-.” (‘Say Hello’)

Throughout the tenure of his career, Jay-Z has been targeted for the reason why the overall lack of lyricism has plagued hip-hop. We know that for the most part this is completely untrue, but here Jay says society is the reason why society is corrupt; not him.

9. “Flyer than a piece of paper bearing my name/ Got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain.” (‘P.S.A.’(Public Service Announcement Interlude))

For years it was a mystery as to whether or not Jay-Z and Beyonce were an actual item. Even when the two were married, the formalities remained a disbelief. He always manages to cleverly mention her though (read: ‘Death of Auto-Tune’ where he rhymes, “Bring a blonde, preferably with a fat a– who can sing a song.”)

8. “They say it’s celestial/ It’s all in the stars/ Like Tony La Russa on how you play your Cards.” (‘American Dreamin’)

Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, wasn’t the only one who played his “Cards” well. Jay-Z became a self-made millionaire by applying basic business philosophies to his own career “blueprint”. The results? Well, that’s a little obvious.

7. “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man.” (Kanye West’s ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix))

Many rappers have been able to brand themselves. However, Jay-Z was the one to turn rappers into mini-empires. By making himself a business — through fashion, film, cars, drinks and clubs — music tied it together, but each entity fed off one very valuable man.

6. “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically, Talib Kweli/ Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/ But I did five mill’ — I ain’t been rhymin like Common since.” (‘Moment of Clarity’)

When Jay admitted to rhyming beneath his station, fans and haters alike went wild. He highlighted the fact that rhymes solely based upon lyricism don’t make money, so he adapted by “dumbing down” his content. Even in the midst of diluting his rhymes, his lyrics are still heavy.

5. “I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them/ I jack, I rob, I sin/ Awww man, I’m Jackie Robinson/ Except when I run base, I dodge the pen.” (‘Brooklyn (Go Hard)’)

Leave it to Jay to deconstruct the name of a baseball legend — Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era — and turn it into a level of criminal activity: “I jack, I rob, I sin.” Then he closes the line with dodging (like the Dodgers) the pen (both the baseball pen and prison). Brilliant.

4. “I’m from the place where the church is the flakiest and n—-s been praying to God so long that they atheist.” (‘Where I’m From’)

Jay always sends a nod to the Marcy projects no matter where life takes him. However, that same breeding ground is still filled with suffering and the Brooklyn MC reminds us of that. He may have pulled himself out, but others are still stuck in the struggle.

3. “It gets tedious so I keep one eye open like CBS/ You see me stressed right? Can I live?” (‘Can I Live’)

Jay-Z’s image to word association comes second to none. As the CBS logo displays one open eye, Jay associates that to having no time to rest and always having an eye open. That level of universal distrust has followed Jay throughout his entire career.

2. “We don’t believe you/ You need more people.” (‘Takeover’)

An entire diss track against Nas, and this line was the nucleus. A combination of skepticism and arrogance, this line has become the ultimate declaration for all of the Doubting Thomases out there when it comes to questioning the legitimacy of anything.

1. “We used to fight for building blocks/ Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killin’.” (‘D’Evils’)

Jay-Z has never been one to deny his past. His early days as a drug dealer ultimately funded his early rap career that brought him to this very point. His superstardom allowed other rappers to shine without slinging rocks: “Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.”

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