Today marks the 54th birthday of one of Brooklyn's finest, Jay-Z, the hustler-turned-rapper from the Marcy Projects who grew out of the shadows of Jaz-O, Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. to stake a credible claim to being the best rapper alive for more than a decade.

Over a career that has spanned nearly 30 years and 13 No. 1 albums, Jay has helped redefine the borders of rap, collaborating with singers, pop stars, designers and corporate execs to form one of the most varied and lucrative resumés the music industry has ever seen. But for Jay, it's always come back to the music; even when he officially "retired" after releasing The Black Album in 2003, he couldn't stay away, making his official triumphant (of sorts) comeback with 2006's Kingdom Come. He hasn't slowed down since.

To help celebrate Hova's birthday on Dec. 4, XXL highlights his best songs, laid out roughly in chronological order. Happy birthday, Jay. Keep up the hustle. Dan Rys, Eric Diep, Miranda Johnson, Christina Kelly, Sheldon Pearce, Mike Madden and PChopz

"Can't Knock The Hustle” featuring Mary J. Blige
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)

The track that kicked off Jay's debut album, "Can't Knock The Hustle" became a catchphrase that has endured throughout the years. He grabbed Mary J. Blige to sing the hook—an inspired choice—and launched the whole manifesto with a monologue sketching the myth of Jay Z through a Scarface lens, letting everyone know that he couldn't be messed with.—Dan Rys

"22 Two’s"
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Reasonable Doubt-era Jay Z was a lethal technician, an MC so proficient that his flows and schemes seemed conversational. There is no finer example of his exemplary lyrical skill than the homophone-flipping “22 Two’s,” which lays out 22 different uses of the words “to,” “too,” and “two” in a display of phonetic mastery. Ski Beatz provided the Brooklyn boy with a dark, hi-hat heavy track to lace, and Jay came through in spades with one of the most effectively structured first verses in rap history. The second verse isn’t one to sleep on, either. —Sheldon Pearce

"Feelin' It"
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Reasonable Doubt saw Jay exuding an ineffable cool, a confident, low-key swagger, and this is one of those songs that fits that feel perfectly. Hova reminds everyone that he's not just making this up—he's the realest out, though he can't help but have a few reservations about the drug game. And, of course, his mother gets a shoutout, a reassurance that all her fears were just nightmares, Mom. Things were always going to get better after that. —DR

"Can I Live?"
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Irv Gotti’s draping beat is like something Curren$y would rap over 15 years later, but “Can I Live?” is one of the more definitive rap songs of the 1990s, a reflection about watching your own back. “I’d rather die enormous than live dormant,” decides Jay, just beginning to make his way in the high-stakes but increasingly dangerous rap industry. Lucky for us, the success of Reasonable Doubt wouldn’t be his last. —Mike Madden

"Brooklyn’s Finest" featuring Notorious B.I.G.
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)

What better way to intro a Jay and Biggie collab than with a slight remix to the iconic words of Al Pacino in Carlito's Way? “OKAY, I’M RELOADED!/You motherfuckers think you big time?/Fuckin’ with Jay Z, you gon’ die, big time!" The Brooklyn kings spend the entire track literally boasting about their undefeated repertoires of being the best lyricist. —Christina Kelly

"Dead Presidents" (I and II)
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Reasonable Doubt saw Jay lift hooks from a number of other rappers, from Snoop to A Tribe Called Quest to Nas, who lent the hook to maybe Jay's best song of all time. It would later come to be another thorn in the two rap gods' early-2000s feud, but the track, the first single off Jay's debut album, became iconic as one of his earliest songs that helped tell the story of his early days. The creeping paranoia, earnest storytelling and raw representation of trying to navigate the drug game—combined with Nas' money-chasing hook—made it one of his first songs to go Gold, and a staple in his catalog as well. –DR

“Coming of Age”
Album: Reasonable Doubt (1996)

Hailing from Jay's first album, this song introduced the world to Memphis Bleek. Giving the world an inside look at life in the Marcy projects, the track shows off the early signs of both Jigga and Bleek's talents. —Miranda Johnson

"Where I’m From"
Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)

Jay painted some of the most detailed pictures of the hood with “Where I’m From,” where he tells of the ills and thrills of growing up in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Rapping over the Amen-Ra and The Mad Rapper-produced track, which is undeniably one of the most iconic hip-hop beats of all time, Jay Z really solidified himself as a hip-hop legend, even alluding to status in his lyrics: “I’m from where niggas pull your card, and argue all day about/Who’s the best MCs, Biggie Jay Z, or Nas.” Sound familiar, Kendrick Lamar fans? —CK

“Can I Get A...” featuring Ja Rule and Amil
Album: Rush Hour Soundtrack (1998)

Remember when movie soundtracks were a thing? Of course you do, and there is no way you could forget this classic Hov cut featuring Amil & Ja Rule from the Rush Hour soundtrack. Jay floated on his verses and the hook is something of pure brilliance that most will still recite to this day. —PChopz

“Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)" featuring Big Jaz
Album: Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life (1999)

Long before Magna Carta...Holy Grail, Jay Z and Timbaland were crafting transcendent rap hits of the late 1990s. “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)" was the first. When Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life dropped in late 1998, Hov was already the commercial success that had abandoned his slick-talking, lyrically dexterous approach to rap for a more universally palatable one, but he stepped back into his old role to fill the spacious, unorthodox Timbo beat. “Nigga What, Nigga Who” is a display of lyrical acrobatics that showed Jay still hadn’t lost his touch, and as his syllables tumbled behind each other he flashed a bulletin to the the rap universe that he still wasn’t to be trifled with.—SP

"Money Ain't A Thang" featuring Jermaine Dupri
Album: Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life (1999)

This song reigned in 1998, even receiving a Grammy nomination at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards. Although Jay Z's verse is just a feature on the track that appeared on Jermaine Dupri's Life in 1472, the record ultimately appeared as a bonus track on Jay's Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. —MJ

“The Dynasty (Intro)”
Album: Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

Has a better song ever been recorded than to walk into a room to? We really don’t think so as Jay Z and Just Blaze gave us yet another classic with the Intro to The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. This is one of those songs that makes you feel like you’re on top of the world and we thank Hov for that. —PChopz

"1-900-Hustler" featuring Memphis Bleek and Freeway
Album: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

Arguably one of the best hustler’s anthems ever to be put out by the East Coast, this Bink!-produced track hosted not only Jay but also fellow Brooklyn native Memphis Bleek and Philly native Freeway.  A great Roc-A-Fella collaboration, this being the first for the then newly-signed Freeway, "1-900-Hustler" provided not only great lyricism from all parties, but a playful dialogue that let the people know what it takes to be a real bonafide hustler. —CK

"Big Pimpin’” featuring UGK
Album: Vol. 3... Life And Times Of S. Carter (2000)

Around the time his daughter was born, Jay said “Big Pimpin’” is one of the songs he doesn’t want Blue Ivy to hear. It begins, after all, with deliberate misogyny: “You know I thug 'em, love 'em, fuck 'em, leave 'em/But I don’t fuckin' 'need em.” No matter the topic, though, the Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter smash would’ve made major waves if only for Timbaland’s beat, a swinging and spidery thing built from a piece by Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi. As for the Underground Kingz, Pimp C inevitably shines—the track literally has his name on it—while Bun drops off a particularly funny verse. “Go read a book, you illiterate son of a bitch, and step up your vocab,” advises the guy who just used the five-syllable monster “impresario.” —MM

"I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" featuring Pharrell
Album: Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

The bouncy Pharrell beat propels the hit-maker's famous hook, which became so popular on its own that Jay was almost relegated to featured artist stature on his own song. But Hova held his own, weaving a tale that was apparently lifted from a true story that occurred during an after party following a Mary J. Blige show. The video was star-studded enough on its own as well, incorporating most of his Roc-A-Fella crew. —DR

Album: The Blueprint (2001)

“You little fuck, I got money stacks bigger than you,” Jay aims at Mobb Deep’s 5-foot-6 Prodigy over one of Kanye’s signature sample flips, the Doors’ rumbling 1968 track “Five to One.” It’s the most venomous Hov has ever sounded, but it’s not the end of his mirth. He also fires shots at Nas, conceding that Illmatic is a classic but implying that It Was Written, among others, was seriously lacking. The compliment makes the diss seem that much more sincere—like he’s spent enough time considering his opponent’s catalog to sympathize that it isn’t all bad. This track did lead to Nas' "Ether," marking it as one half of the best two diss tracks ever. —MM

"Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)"
Album: The Blueprint (2001)

Fewer opening lines are so often reused than this, with its iconic opener, "First the Fat Boys gon' break up / Now every day I wake up / Somebody got a problem with Hov." It's an iconic smack in the face to all his haters and detractors—be they young, old or among his peers—asking why they hate him when he went out and succeeded just like he, and Biggie, had predicted. The Bobby Blue Bland sample was one of the first indications that a young producer named Kanye West was here to stay. —DR

"Renegade” featuring Eminem
Album: The Blueprint (2001)

When speaking of “Renegade” you’re talking about hip-hop royalty, as Jay Z and Eminem trade lines in such a memorable way that there are still debates on who bodied who on the song. We won’t dive into that topic right now, but we will show appreciation to how classic this song is to this very day. —PChopz

"Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”
Album: The Blueprint (2001)

It takes a certain amount of gall to sample a timeless Jackson 5 record, but as we’ve learned in the years since “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” became the lynchpin of Jay Z’s best album, The Blueprint, that little up-and-coming producer named Kanye West was filled to the brim with self-assurance. His confidence in his own innate abilities was put on display via the track’s seamless incorporation of “I Want You Back” and matched in full by Hov’s gracefully fluid delivery and charisma. The God MC recounts tales from his drug dealing past, positions himself as an industry maneuverer, and details the inner workings of the Marcy projects in one fell swoop over 'Ye’s sonorous kick drums. There is no better tandem in rap, and as Jay proudly coronated the record an anthem (and it was), Kanye silently introduced himself as one of the most dangerous forces in hip-hop. As for Jay: What else can I say about dude? He gets busy. —SP

“Girls, Girls, Girls”
Album: The Blueprint (2001)

This was most certainly a staple song of 2001. Reflecting on his encounters with women at the time, Jay Z goes through his likes and dislikes of just about every race of women. A sample of "There's Nothing In This World That Can't Stop Me From Loving You," Jay has also mentioned in the past that the song features uncredited background vocals from Michael Jackson. —MJ

"Hola Hovito”
Album: The Blueprint (2001)

Jay channeled his inner cholo on this guitar-strung beat, produced by none other than Timbaland.  In this joint, Jay addresses the ladies, his 'hood, and the haters in one swift, easy flowing track. “Naw even though y’all hate, I love y’all muh’fuckers/”Friend or Foe,” y’all all my muh’fuckers.” —CK

“03 Bonnie & Clyde” featuring Beyonce
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (2002)

Tupac’s original version of “Me And My Girlfriend” was more about the pistol on his side than his actual boo. Hov and Bey changed it up a bit with a romantic story in the same vein as Bonnie and Clyde. "'03 Bonnie & Clyde", which was Jay’s highest charting single at the time, was a perfect R&B crossover that still gets love from DJs to this day. “You ready B? Let’s go get ‘em.” —ED

Album: The Black Album (2003)

Produced by Kanye West, this song appeared on Jay Z's Black Album. As Jay Z battles dark forces on the track, in 2003 this song was certainly a favorite on Jay Z's eighth studio album. —MJ

"December 4th”
Album: The Black Album (2003)

On this record Jay Z gives listeners a brief recap of life from the start. Detailing life from a little boy to the start of his rap career, Jay Z shows off his commendable storytelling skills on the track. —MJ

"My First Song"
Album: The Black Album (2003)

An old blues sample underlies the opening Biggie interview, in which the Notorious one dishes out advice he learned from Puffy on how to keep things fresh. And Jay certainly does, unleashing a double-time flow that rarely cropped up in his repertoire again. The outro features Jay shouting out his cohorts while closing out what was, at that point, to be the final song on his final album. Another track where Jay just kept it fresh. —DR

"Public Service Announcement”
Album: The Black Album (2003)

“PSA” is deemed to be an interlude on the tracklist, but few songs on The Black Album are as fleshed-out. Just Blaze’s screaming organs and crawling piano lines are intimidating enough, and with Jay’s sagacious lyrics, the whole things congeals as a testament to his corner-office sovereignty. “I just rolled the dice trying to get some change,” he raps, thinking back to his earlier days. You get the feeling that luck, as opposed to skill, has little to do with it. —MM

"99 Problems”
Album: The Black Album (2003)

Quite frankly, “99 Problems” is an American Classic. It may be the most recognizable rap hit of the 21st century, or at least one of a select few, but its true feat is balancing weighty social commentary and still managing to position itself as a breakout commercial success. The expertly crafted record has a lot of moving parts; produced by Def Jam guru Rick Rubin, it interpolates both Ice T’s song of the same name and Bun B’s verse on UGK’s “Touched,” samples the beat breaks from Billy Squinter’s “The Big Break” and Mountains’ “Long Red,” and features a rather gnarly guitar riff. “99 Problems” dissects the meaning of the word “bitch” by peeling back its many different interpretations without once using it in the way for which it is often vilified—as a derogatory term for a woman. It is a true exercise in cleverness from one of the craftiest MCs of all-time, and its position within the rap canon—most would agree—is unquestionably high. —SP

Album: The Black Album (2003)

“Who you know better than Hov? Riddle me that,” Jay opened in what once served as his farewell to the rap game, and as many have opined to this day, the answer still remains “no one.” “Encore” was a magnificently orchestrated celebration of Jay Z’s success, a curtain call for one of the greatest rappers to ever do it. He exudes the confidence of a savvy old vet reveling in all he has accomplished backed by triumphant horns and a résumé that upholds his claims. The game proved to be far too enticing to ignore, and Jay inevitably returned to his rightful place as rap royalty, but “Encore” still holds its value as an amazing swan song marking the apex of a legendary career. —SP

"Song Cry"
Album: The Blueprint (2001)

A classic Jay lament, "Song Cry" follows a similar formula to his emotional, soul-soaked odes to lost love, with this one of the most poignant. He name-checks Biggie, nods to his ever-exploding fame (and blames his infidelity on it), and then, finally, absolves himself of blame, justifying everything because his girl was actually the one cheating. Among many classic lines, a big one in the Jay catalog: "They say you can't turn a bad girl good / But once a good girl goes bad, she's gone forever."—DR

“Justify My Thug”
Album: The Black Album (2003)

Jay Z over DJ Quik production was bliss to our ears on the Black Album standout “Justify My Thug.” Hov flexed his lyrical prowess that has defined his career and Quik did the damn thing with the entire beat, including the incredible use of the unique samples. —PChopz

"Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)...”
Album: American Gangster (2007)

Diamonds are always forever in Jay’s eyes. Taking pride in the label he built from the ground up, “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…)” displays all the attributes a Roc Boy should have. Backed by a brass band, Hov goes in about his beginnings as a street hustler, thanking everyone who helped him succeed in his journey. He continues the celebration with a hook that oozes with confidence. “You don’t even gotta bring your paper out / We the dope boys of the year, drinks is on the house." —Eric Diep

“Success” featuring Nas
Album: American Gangster (2007)

Off his 2007 American Gangster albumJay drops his street bravado for a moment to briefly assert his lucrative position as a top-earning contender in the game in this appropriately named track. “I got watches I ain’t seen in months/Apartment at the Trump; I only slept in once." Hey, if you got it, why not let ‘em know?—CK

“Fallin’” Featuring Bilal
Album: American Gangster (2007)

Another track off American Gangster, Hov humbly concedes his love for the lavish lifestyle, and discusses the risk of becoming too indulgent in it all. “Guess it’s two sides to what/Substance abuse is/Can’t stop, won’t stop/Addicted to this new shit.” —CK

“Ignorant Shit” featuring Beanie Sigel
Album: American Gangster (2007)

At this point in his career a majority of Jay fans can agree that American Gangster is one of his most underrated albums. On “Ignorant Shit” Jay and Beans trade bars on one of Just Blaze’s greatest beats ever. This cut really made us appreciate those golden Roc-A-Fella years. —PChopz

"I Know” featuring Pharrell
Album: American Gangster (2007)

Jay Z and Pharrell on the same track is never a bad thing, and the combination on the American Gangster cut “I Know” was astonishing. Mixing together both of their smooth styles on this track is just as epic as Zoe Kravitz was in the stimulating visual. —PChopz

"30 Something”
Album: Kingdom Come (2007)

Not only is this a great song but it's also a rarity in hip-hop. As Jay Z spawns together a tune about his Maturity, he openly embraces the wisdom and values he's acquired over time. Of course also adding in an occasional brag or two, on the track Hov finds a way to make aging something to look forward to, which is unheard of in hip-hop. —MJ

"Show Me What You Got"
Album: Kingdom Come (2007)

Jay didn’t fool us when he said he was going to retire from rap. After a handful of outstanding tracks, Jigga came back harder than ever with “Show Me What You Got.” The sample of Public Enemy’s classic track coursing through his veins, Hov makes a strong case that he never left the game. —ED

"Brooklyn, We Go Hard” featuring Santigold
Album: Notorious Soundtrack (2008)

Adopting a Jamaican flow, Jay Z gives it all he’s got for BK. With Santigold by his side, he flexes about black hoodie rap and living the hard life. It’s not all tough talk though as he also boasts about bringing the Nets to his hometown. You can’t knock the hustle.—ED

“Run This Town” featuring Kanye West And Rihanna
Album: The Blueprint 3 (2009)

Jay, 'Ye and Rih on the same track? It doesn’t get any bigger than this. The trio delivered “Run This Town,” which finds Big Brother and his protegé murdering the track with some fiery verses. Although, you can’t deny ‘Ye upstages his mentor a bit with snappy and clever lines that hit home. A little competition never hurt anybody. —ED

"Empire State Of Mind" featuring Alicia Keys
Album: The Blueprint 3 (2009)

Jay and Alicia Keys dedicate a song to the Big Apple in “Empire State Of Mind.” If you have never been to New York, the duo gives it a proper shout out. While Jay is putting in for his city, Keys’ soaring vocals deliver the catchy hook about the city of big dreams. It’s an homage that many New Yorkers have waited for. —ED

“Niggas In Paris” with Kanye West
Album: Watch The Throne (2011)

The magnitude of “Paris” is too big to ignore. Jay and Kanye go ape shit over a menacing beat by Hit-Boy. Even with the back and forth boastful verses, the cut is memorable for a sampling of diagloue from Blades Of Glory. It’s an all-around banger. —ED

“Glory” featuring Blue Ivy Carter
Album: Self-Released (2012)

Becoming a father for the first time is an amazing feeling. In one of those rare occasions, Hov let loose a free song celebrating the birth of Blue Ivy Carter. Produced by The Neptunes, the somber instrumental gives him all the room to describe his emotions about his newborn. The child of Destiny’s Child gets mad love here.—ED

"FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" featuring Rick Ross
Album: Magna Carta... Holy Grail (2013)

Rick Ross might have taken an L for giving this to Hov, but rest assured these end up sharing the the spotlight on this party-starter. Fuck with them, you know they got it. —ED

“Crown” featuring Travi$ Scott
Album: Magna Carta... Holy Grail (2013)

You in the presence of a king, scratch that you in the presence of a God. Backed by the production of Mike Dean and WondaGurl, Jigga fights off all the demons who try to take his crown. He’s still bulletproof. —ED

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