Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has worn many hats since he hit the scene in 1996. He was the founder and CEO of the now-defunct Roc-A-Fella Records, CEO of Roc-A-Wear clothing, head of the streaming giant Tidal; and a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In short, he’s not a businessman. He’s a business, man. But, of course, he is most known for his impeccable skills as a chart-topping MC. His sophisticated use of rhyme and metaphors has led him to be one of the most decorated rappers in history, with a staggering 77 nominations and 22 wins at the Grammy Awards.
Jay-Z is obviously a force in the world of hip-hop, but he and R&B have added unique flavor to each other’s worlds for practically the entire duration of his career. Collaborating with some of the genre’s brightest stars, such as Mary J. Blige, the grit of Hov’s rhymes have served as the perfect complement to the smoothness of singers’ tracks.
On the icon’s 50th birthday, Rated R&B looks back on some of the world’s favorite pairings of R&B and Jay-Z. Without a reasonable doubt, these 15 jams by Jigga prove that he’s just as invaluable to R&B as he is to hip-hop.
1. “03’ Bonnie & Clyde” (feat. Beyoncé) —The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (2002)
Jay-Z summoned, “You ready, B? Let’s go get ’em!” And so it began. It seems the entire world caught on that this was way more intimate than just a collaboration.
Hov’s flirtatious rhymes on “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” painted him as way more smitten than fans were used to at that point, with his previous catalog sprinkled with anthems of the harsh-yet-cliche pursuit of “money, cars, cash, clothes, and hoes.”
Intertwined with Beyoncé’s coy croons of the familiar melody of Prince’s and, later, TLC’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” — it was in this moment that two of the biggest stars of the industry created an incomparable constellation.
2. “(Always Be My) Sunshine” (Babyface & Foxy Brown) — In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
In a time where the hottest rappers in the game were trading in the gun-toting persona of
gangster rap for flashy dance numbers, Jay followed suit for In My Lifetime second single — literally. Jay-Z tried on the shiny suits of his hit-making counterparts, Puff Daddy and Ma$e, and ultimately decided the get-up didn’t fit. The silky-smooth vocal stylings of Babyface may be timeless, but this was, perhaps, Jay-Z’s last time making an effort to ride the wave of the times.
3. “Best of Me Part 2” (Mya) — DJ Clue Presents: Backstage Mixtape (Music Inspired by the Film) (2000)
Was Jay-Z the original “Mr. Steal Your Girl?” He replaced rapper Jadakiss for the remix of singer Mya’s slept-on new millennium tune, lacing the Trackmasters beat with a cocky account of finessing someone’s girl right out of her Carolina-blue drawers! Oop!
4. “Biking” (Frank Ocean feat. Tyler the Creator) — Biking (Single) (2017)
This is just another example of Jay-Z doing whatever he wants to do with no remorse or consequences. Eclectic singer Frank Ocean may have used the metaphor of riding a bike to illustrate the cyclical nature of karma, but Hov used his 16 bars to flex his status as the Big Homie.
With quick quips like, “Life goes in cycles, what comes around goes around / So ‘fore it goes down, n*gga, get you some icicles! / Audemars before all of y’alls!” — this was Hov’s way of saying, “Nana-nana-boo-boo! I’m rich, and you’re not!” Ouch.
5. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” (feat. Mary J. Blige) — Reasonable Doubt (1996)
With a noticeably slicker approach to rapping about his drug-dealing days than that of his fellow rappers in 1996, it was only right that Jay-Z recruited the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige. Back then, Jigga would spit with a quick, multiple-syllable style (à la Twista) while draped in a Italian-mobster suit and fedora. Blige belted, “Maybe one day you’ll be a star.” No kidding!
6. “Crazy In Love” (Beyoncé) — Dangerously In Love (2003)
Young Bey and the R-O-C did it again. They made history just as Hov’s ad-libs suggested. In fact, “Crazy In Love” was donned the song of the century by Rolling Stone in 2018. Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh!
7. “Empire State of Mind” (feat. Alicia Keys) — The Blueprint 3 (2009)
“I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can!” The Marcy Projects-born lyricist used his rhymes to lead fans on a witty tour of the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. The Brooklyn Boy tapped Hell’s Kitchen’s soulful R&B princess Alicia Keys for the affectionate ode to their beloved Big Apple. But let us not forget when rapper Lil Mama jumped the turnstile on Hov’s and Alicia’s already-moving subway of a VMA performance, creating one of the most talked-about moments of the night. Perhaps the bum-rush only helped to propel the duet to number one on the Billboard charts, proving that there’s truly nothing Hov can’t do.
8. “Enough Cryin'” (Mary J. Blige) — The Breakthrough (2005)
Not only is Jay-Z a dope lyricist in his own right, but he’s also a masterful songwriter. He may not have been featured on the MJB tune, but he wrote the raps of Blige’s alter-ego, Brook Lynn. Jay managed to adapt the voice of a woman fed up with her bogus bae, and decidedly taking her power back — only proves the sophistication of his songwriting skills. From our hearts to his ears. No wonder they call him J-Hova!
9. “Excuse Me Miss” (feat. Pharrell) — The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (2002)
We can only imagine that the smoothness of Jay-Z’s and Pharrell’s approach on “Excuse Me Miss” is what it’s like to be courted by the wild rapper turned debonaire entrepreneur. His offers to wine and dine the skeptical lady of the hour are a far cry from the brash lyrics of “Big Pimpin’,” that’s for sure. Are these sweet nothings what earned the Queen Bey’s attention?
10. “Heartbreaker” (Mariah Carey) — Rainbow (1999)
When Mariah Carey calls, you answer. Jay-Z did just that when she tapped him for “Rainbow,” which ultimately peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here he goes again, bragging about the effect he has on his women. He even rapped alongside Mariah in the music video’s “Scarface” re-enactment. However, the scene was allegedly cut due to a contractual agreement Jigga made with Columbia Pictures. He was barred from appearing in a music video for two weeks after his “Girl’s Best Friend” video dropped. But, along with everything else on the internet, the scene resurfaced!
11. “Holy Grail” (feat. Justin Timberlake) — Magna Carta… Holy Grail (2013)
Apparently, we have Blue Ivy Carter to thank for this bop, featuring Justin Timberlake. Together Hov and JT contemplated the pitfalls of being a megastar, including fairweather fans and paparazzi. In the Magna Carta…Holy Grail era, Jay schooled us on how to work a bundle deal. This was a never-before-done deal with Samsung in which they bought a million copies of the album and digitally issued them to their phone users prior to the album’s release, automatically catapulting Jay-Z to the #1 spot on the charts. Thanks, Blue!
12. “I Miss U Remix” (Aaliyah) — S. Carter Collection Mixtape (2003)
The “I Miss U Remix” was one of the many times Jay-Z put the culture on his back. He shed his macho persona to send up a love letter to the late singer, Aaliyah, shortly after her death, eloquently voicing the pain of both Baby Girl’s fans and friends alike.
13. “Part II (On the Run)” (feat. Beyoncé) — Magna Carta… Holy Grail (2013)
The Carters are in their element when they are in each other’s presence. Jay even declared, “If it’s me and you against the world, then so be it.” Unbeknownst to us, during their 2014 tour of the same name, he later revealed in the song “4:44” that they were battling a rough patch in their relationship that nearly ended in divorce. “Who wants that perfect love story anyway?”
14. “Umbrella” (Rihanna) — Good Girl Gone Bad (2007)
“Umbrella” by Rihanna proved that the third time can be the charm that changes everything. Penned by The-Dream, Rih Rih served the catchy friendship anthem on a platinum platter, becoming one of the biggest pop songs of the decade. Jay-Z’s verse simply served as the parsley.
15. “The Best of Both Worlds” (Duet with R. Kelly) — The Best of Both Worlds (2002)
In the year of Surviving R. Kelly, a feature from the Pied Piper of R&B may be a scarlet letter – but in 2002, The Best of Both Worlds was an epic pairing, to say the least. Who could forget when the hottest rapper and singer planted their feet (in matching bubble coats) at the top of the Billboard charts together? The collaborative album sold 285,000 copies in its first week on the shelves, only cementing their star power.