If you don’t care to read the longer-than-expected backstory of how I came to write this article, then just scroll down to the list. I ain’t mad atcha.
As you all know, Jay-Z recently launched Tidal, a high fidelity music streaming service that aims to put the power of streaming monetization in the hands of artists (or something?). Tidal has caught flack from just about everybody with an opinion for one reason or another, and after the beleaguered service quickly fell out of Apple’s Top 750 on the App Store, its owner decided that it was time to do some out of the box marketing.
What did Hov have in mind, exactly? A live performance extravaganza for the ages, dubbed the “Tidal B-Sides Concert,” in which Jigga Man would play two hours of his best deep album cuts, legendary freestyles, and fan favorites, while foregoing any and all singles. It was to be the show that every diehard Jay-Z fan has been waiting for their entire lives. And then it was to be available for free streaming on Tidal the next day.
Basically, Jay was sick of being the bad guy. He needed some good karma to come his way, and what better way to receive it than to give his day one fans the concert experience of a lifetime, all the while emphasizing the free aspect, and of course giving Tidal plenty of love during the show.
So how was the actual show?
It was everything I wanted it to be and more. Everything about it was surreal. Jay absolutely crushed it. His band, 1500 Or Nothin’, did a tremendous job of reinterpreting his songs live, and Hov himself didn’t skip a beat. He might have missed one or two lyrics the entire two hours, and we’re talking about performing somewhere around 50 songs that he presumably hadn’t performed live in ten years or more. The man was in a Jordan-esque zone (definitely not a coincidence that he was donning an MJ jersey), and despite how trash his recent material has been, or how much hate he’s been receiving about Tidal, I was immediately reminded why I fell in love with his music in the first place.
One of the show’s most special moments came about midway through, when Jay brought out Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, and Freeway for an on-stage Roc-A-Fella reunion. The crowd went haywire in New York, I went haywire at home, and for about ten minutes we were all reminded of just how great the Roc-A-Fella Records heyday really was. That label has cranked out some hits, man.
But as I watched Jay, Beans, and Bleek rip through “You, Me, Him & Her,” I got to thinking. How many hits does The Roc really have? Of course there’s Jay and Kanye’s entire catalogs, but that isn’t enough. Two men a stellar label does not make. Should Roc-A-Fella be considered as a serious contender when talking about the most dominant labels in hip-hop history?
So I decided to take a trip down memory lane and reinvestigate for myself. I took Hov and Yeezy’s discographies out of the equation and ranked the 30 best Roc-A-Fella songs made by somebody not named Shawn Carter or Kanye West. By the end of my research, it became crystal clear to me that The Roc is truly a historical rap label, up there with the very best (the list was only supposed to be 25 songs, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to any less than 30). Making this list was way harder than I ever could’ve imagined, and if former Roc prospects Big L and/or Lil’ Wayne would’ve signed with the label the task would’ve been, dare I say, impossible.
Throw ya diamonds in the sky if you feel the vibe.
Some rules before we get started:
1. The song must have been released while the artist was under contract with Roc-A-Fella.
2. The song can feature Jay-Z or Kanye West, but only if it’s a posse cut (three or more rappers).
3. Songs by non-Roc-A-Fella artists that were released on Roc-A-Fella compilation albums do not count (Streets Is Watching Soundtrack, Backstage Soundtrack, any of DJ Clue?’s Professional albums, for example).
Got it? Good, let’s get it.
30. Freeway f. 50 Cent — “Take It To The Top” (Prod. JR Rotem) (2007)
“Home I ain’t gettin’ no dough, I can’t be sittin’ in there/ So what if they boyfriends be home baby I’m different than them/ I bring them Benjamins in, look at the kitchen in there.” — Freeway
Coming off one of the last Roc-A-Fella releases ever, Freeway’s underrated second album Free At Last, “Take It To The Top” is a jiggy two-step number that finds Free consoling his girl about his hectic life on the road. 50 Cent is in full-on “Window Shopper” mode on the melodic chorus, and his sing-songy flow (the same one he ridiculed Ja Rule to death for using) perfectly accents the tone of the record.
29. Young Gunz f. Denim — “Life We Chose” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2004)
“Even though it hurts some days, this is the game we chose to play/ Not everything in life is gold but it will be okay.” — Denim
Young Chris and Neef are an oft-overlooked piece of the Roc-A-Fella puzzle, but they released two solid albums on the label, each with stellar production. “Life We Chose” is a vintage mid-2000’s Just Blaze banger, with equal parts soul and knock. The YG’z utilize the beat to great effect, speaking on changes that come with the transition from the streets to the booth.
28. Peedi Crakk, Beanie Sigel & Young Chris f. Lil’ Cease — “G.A.M.E.” (Prod. Henny Loc) (2003)
“My choppa clips hold a hundred copper sticks, and I’m G-A-M-E with the thing off safety.” — Beanie Sigel
At one point, Roc-A-Fella had so many Philly rappers that they formed a seven-person group called State Property, which subsequently dropped two cult classic films with accompanying soundtracks. “G.A.M.E.,” a highlight off State Prop’s Chain Gang Vol. II, features arguably the three best rappers from the crew, and even a washed up Lil’ Cease can’t mess up the fire production.
27. Beanie Sigel f. Melissa Jay & Rell — “Change” (Prod. Ty Fyffe) (2005)
“You think I’m up in the hood, up to no good/ gotta come home to you blastin’ L Boogs/ ‘When It Hurt So Bad’ why it feel so good?” — Beanie Sigel
Maybe one day I’ll write a piece about how alarmingly underrated Beanie Sigel’s third album, The B.Coming is. It’s a classic from front-to-back, the rare mainstream rap record that foregoes accessibility in place of heavy-hearted soul and sonic cohesion. It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten full years since Beans was actually an asset to Jay-Z, and “Change” shows exactly why that was.
26. Cam’ron — “Bubble Music” (Prod. Stay Gettin’) (2004)
“Mami all on me cause I’m touchin’ her belly/ I’m on butter Pirellis/ Whip purple and yellow, hello that’s butter and jelly/ I flip butter on cellies/ All right in front of the deli/ Holly, Lilly to Kelly all spent ones on the telly.” — Cam’ron
Perhaps the toughest part about crafting this list was resisting the passionate urge within me to make every song a Cam song. Roc-era Killa is basically the perfect street rapper; crazy gully, dumb witty, so threatening but so inviting. Just like every other song on Purple Haze, “Bubble Music” is one long quotable that reminds you why Harlem needs to be recognized as its own borough.
25. Twista f. Memphis Bleek, Young Chris & Freeway — “Art & Life (Chi-Roc)” (Prod. D-Roy, Mr. B & Mike Caren) (2004)
“N***** servin’ 50s and 100s , when I see you and I’m on yo tip/ Twista and this East Coast regime, it’s that Chi-Roc shit.” — Twista
Twista was as close to being on Roc-A-Fella as one could be without actually being signed. In fact, Dame Dash was close to signing him, but couldn’t get him released from his binding Atlantic contract. Nonetheless, “Art & Life” is not to be confused with anything less than a Roc affair. Four emcees going for broke with no hooks and relentless bars over epic strings and guitars.
24. Freeway, Omillio Sparks & Peedi Crakk — “Ring The Alarm” (Prod. Unknown) (2003)
“Drinkin’ liquor gettin’ brain in my waterbed/ feelin’ like a scholar all thanks to your daughter head.” — Peedi Crakk
Peedi Crakk always had a really awkward flow, and it shines brightest on stop-start beats like this one that can match its awkwardness. Add one of Omillio Sparks’ hottest ever verses, plus a hungry and in-his-prime Freeway, and “Ring The Alarm” makes for a forgotten street mixtape classic.
23. Jadakiss — “Who Run This” (Prod. Baby Grand) (2008)
“Raspy voice killa/ the illest of the illa/ fly gangsta n**** stay blowin’ a vanilla/ life’s a bitch and if I ever meet her I’ma tell her/ give it to anybody on beat, a cappella.” — Jadakiss
Jadakiss had a brief stint with Roc-A-Fella for his third and as-of-yet his last album (but hopefully not for long), The Last Kiss. “Who Run This” was a pre-album teaser to heat the streets up, which it did by way of simplicity. With Jay-Z riding shotgun, gassing Jada up in between verses, Kiss does what he does best by spitting bar after bar of slick street talk over a grimy breakbeat. Nobody can make you feel him like an in-his-zone Jadakiss.
22. Dame Dash f. Cam’ron & Jim Jones — “I Am Dame Dash” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2002)
“In ’87 dog, my man Dame was a cake copper/ Eighth chopper/ now he got a gray chopper/ Harlem, Brooklyn, Philly, the whole state’s proper/ Shrimp, steak, 42nd they ate lobsters.” — Cam’ron
Dame Dash has been bragging about how he’s not a rapper since the beginning of The Roc, and “I Am Dame Dash” pushes that statement to its creative apex. Dash recruits his fellow Harlemites Cam’ron and Jim Jones to narrate his hustling days for him, over a Just Blaze banger that can only be described as audio sun spots. Once again — and I can’t emphasize this enough — Harlem never loses.
21. Memphis Bleek f. Denim — “Smoke The Pain Away” (Prod. 9th Wonder) (2005)
“That’s how it work for me/ puffin’ on the purple hit the booth with my eyes burgundy/ I spit the truth on how the Earth be/ and all the bullshit I go through like dirt weed.” — Memphis Bleek
I had to include this joint on the list to let the people know that 9th Wonder is responsible for more Roc-A-Fella magic than just “Threat.” “Smoke The Pain Away” suffered the same fate as the rest of Memphis Bleek’s 534 album, getting completely overshadowed by the inclusion of the Jay-Z solo classic that is “Dear Summer,” but it’s a slept-on classic in its own right. Bleek rides the crackin’ 9th Wonder snares into the sunset with this soothing smoker’s anthem.
20. Cam’ron f. Memphis Bleek & Beanie Sigel — “The ROC (Just Fire)” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2002)
“I’m fuckin’ secretaries/ all for information, it ain’t necessary/ They in love like the 14th of February/ play ’em like April 1st right before I slide off/ it could be March 2nd, sounding like July 4th.” — Cam’ron
A full one-third of the songs on this list share the distinguished honor of being backed by Just Blaze instrumentals, and that number could be much higher if not for my appreciation for variety. Cam’ron’s Roc debut, Come Home With Me, features four of the most classic Blaze beats known to man, but “The Roc” makes the cut because I’m a sucker for crew love. Bleek and Beans both go in as hard as they can, but it’s pointless to debate who has the best verse when you allow Killa to bat cleanup on a beat this nasty. See above.
19. Beanie Sigel — “Nothing Like It” (Prod. Kanye West) (2001)
“I spit words that skip through air/ Let the words of a true thug hit your ear/ It change colors like blue blood when it hit the air/ It’s nothing like it…” — Beanie Sigel
The intro to Sigel’s sophomore album, The Reason, “Nothing Like It” marks the first Kanye West-produced track on the list so far. Yeezy once joked that he “keeps all the good beats to himself,” but it’s songs like this that beg to differ. Beans proves that the success of The Truth was no fluke, reestablishing himself as the second gun in Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella army.
18. Memphis Bleek f. Beanie Sigel & Jay-Z — “Hypnotic” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2003)
“Pass the dutchie if you wiz-ill/ Take one to the grizz-ill/ Tell me how you fiz-eel.” — Jay-Z
Bleek, Beans, and Hov must’ve been bored with the typical thug talk during this particular studio session, because “Hypnotic” sounds like the closest thing we have to Roc-A-Fella on acid. The three compatriots get super meta on us about how “Hypnotic” their styles are, flossing over a Just Blaze beat that sounds like the lazy cousin of what Dr. Dre cooked up for The D.O.C. on “The Formula.” Somehow, it all works amazingly well, and oh by the way ever since I wrote that “Roc-A-Fella on acid” thing I can’t stop thinking about how much I want to see a tripped out Memphis Bleek trying to explain the meaning of life to Jay-Z.
17. Jadakiss f. Faith Evans — “Letter To B.I.G.” (Prod. Needlz) (2009)
“People in power is queer/ I could go on for a year about how it would be if you were still here/ The game got cheaper/ rappers is more commercially successful now but their hearts a lot weaker.” — Jadakiss
The Lox have always been the staunchest of Biggie legacy-bearers, having formed a close relationship with the King of New York in the year before his death. “Letter To B.I.G.” is a simple, heartfelt salute to Jadakiss’ fallen friend. It boasts a great hook by Big’s widow Faith Evans, and one long, awesome Jada verse that detail everything from his views on how the game would be different if Biggie was still alive, to Big’s son CJ looking more and more like his pops.
16. Cam’ron f. Daz Dillinger — “Live My Life (Leave Me Alone)” (Prod. Precision) (2002)
“All my n***** got M-16’s kid/ and all we do is watch MTV Cribs/ Learn not to in fury the victim/ Purely stick ’em/ Break through your security system.” — Cam’ron
Cam’ron not only got permission from Daz Dillinger, the producer of 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah,” to recreate the beat for him, he actually got Daz to handle chorus duties as well. What ensues is three minutes of vintage Killa Cam shit talk, as he masterfully transforms the West Coast classic into his own mission statement. It’s a Harlem thing dog, you’ll clash with mobsters.
15. Cam’ron & Juelz Santana — “I Love You” (Prod. Heatmakerz) (2003)
“I sit in the lobby/ Look at my ovie/ Have visions of Gotti/ Visions of lotties/ Pictures of Blood(shed), scenes of (Big) L, I wanna see my son piss in that potty.” — Cam’ron
There’s about 23 songs on Diplomatic Immunity that could’ve made this list, and yes, there are 23 songs on Diplomatic Immunity. But “I Love You” seemed particularly list-worthy because it embodies everything that made The Diplomats great in the mid-2000s: Cam’ron and Juelz Santana trading gully bars over a soulful Heatmakerz sample. Dipset loves you, and you should love them right back. It’s as simple as that.
14. Beanie Sigel f. Scarface — “Mom Praying” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2001)
“And as hurt as I was, I had to smile witcha/ And thank God that we crossed paths cause you one strong sister/ And I’m never gon’ forget ya/ Heaven sent us an angel and the world gon’ miss ya… mama.” — Scarface
It’s a crying shame that Mack & Brad, the Beanie Sigel and Scarface collab-album never happened. The two have shared the mic on six different songs, and all of them are superb. “Mom Praying” happens to be one of my favorites. Scarface’s verse dedicated to his mother’s memory is especially powerful.
13. Freeway f. Peedi Crakk — “Flipside” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2003)
“We rip crowds, whole lotta volume and a little bit of bass is all it takes to make the place GET WILD.” — Freeway
“Flipside” is perfectly indicative of an early-to-mid-2000’s club banger in every way. Every Just Blaze beat is stupid in its own right, but this one is particularly dumb. Free and Peedi do the infectious track justice with a live wire duet that could get anything with a pulse to spazz out.
12. Jadakiss f. Ayanna Irish — “Can’t Stop Me” (Prod. Neo Da Matrix) (2009)
“I’ma call it confidence cause I ain’t cocky/ I just know one thing, they can’t stop me.” — Jadakiss
Like every Jadakiss album, The Last Kiss has its ups and downs, but the ups are always pure fire. “Can’t Stop Me” is nothing short of epic, as it finds Jada in his purest and most comfortable zone. He reasserts his sustained dominance over the rap game and throws hella shade at every rapper who doesn’t have hood credit. The lesson here: if you drive papi crazy then the industry is never gon’ stop you, baby.
11. Memphis Bleek — “Volume 2 Intro (Hand It Down)” (Prod. DJ Premier) (1998)
“First gun, two bullets/ N***** know I do pull it/ N***** tryna kill me dog, who wouldn’t? Screw Gooden/ I pitch in the PJ’s/ Lit off the EJ.” — Memphis Bleek
I find it quite comical that Jay was already considering retirement after only his third album, claiming that there “ain’t enough money in this game to keep me around,” and even more comically claiming that “Bleek’s gonna be a good rapper… new, IMPROVED Jay-Z.” I guess all of that retirement talk got put on hold after Hard Knock Life went on to sell five million records and catapulted Hov to superstardom though, huh? Regardless, this “passing of the torch” moment is a great one, as Memphis Bleek goes to town over some dirty Primo production and kicks off Vol. 2 in a major way.
10. Cam’ron f. Juelz Santana — “Oh Boy” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2002)
“It’s the D-I-P (boy), plus the R-O-C (boy)/ You’ll be D-O-A (boy)/ Your moms will say (oh boy!)” — Cam’ron
OH BOY. We have entered the top ten ladies and gentlemen! Pull your Rocawear velour suits out of the closet, because it’s only indisputable classics from this point forward. This is the track that not only put Killa Cam on the map for good, but also popularized the trend of rappers crafting verses around a singular word or phrase that’s found in the sample of the beat. But you already knew that. There’s nothing really to say, just press play and feel the joy.
9. Beanie Sigel — “The Truth” (Prod. Kanye West) (2000)
“Ain’t nothin’ changed with Sig, I’m still stuck in the kitchen/ So what I’m signed, that’s fine, still stuck in position.” — Beanie Sigel
“The Truth” is the first song on Beanie Sigel’s debut album of the same name, and thus serves as a mission statement of sorts. It’s also the first major beat placement of Kanye West’s career, and may still be the gulliest thing Ye has produced to this day. Beans goes ham over the pounding organs and keys, and the end result is a Roc certified street classic.
8. Cam’ron — “Killa Cam” (Prod. Heatmakerz) (2004)
“I’m from where Nicky Barnes got rich as fuck/ Rich and A hit the kitchens then were pitchin’ up/ Rob Base, Mase, Doug E. Fresh switched it up/ I do both, who am I to fuck tradition up?” — Cam’ron
The fact that “Killa Cam” is only eighth on this list speaks volumes to Roc-A-Fella’s dominance. It’s a perfect record, one that can and should be played in any fuckboy-free environment. I personally think this should be the song that presidents play when they step off Air Force One every time they triumphantly return to America after a diplomatic mission, but that’s just me being
corny punny. How epic are those voices, though?
7. Beanie Sigel & Freeway — “Roc The Mic” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2001)
“Roll with Dash’s, move like Cassius Clay/ Move yay like caskets, there’s a will there’s a way/ Obey my thirst move yay through traffic.” — Freeway
“Roc The Mic” was accessible enough to become a minor Billboard hit, peaking at no. 55 on the Hot 100. That fact truly makes me miss the days when two grimy street rappers like Sigel and Free could get steady radio rotation, but I guess complaining won’t do me any good. Once again, Just Blaze laces the track with the type of lava that gets any party jumping, and the video holds its own special place in history as one of the pinnacle moments of rap’s jersey era.
6. Cam’ron f. Kanye West & Syleena Johnson — “Down & Out” (Prod. Kanye West) (2004)
“Cop me Air 1’s, hun, lime and red/ You got pets? Me too, mine are dead/ Fox, minks, gators, that’s necessary/ Accessories, my closet’s a pet cematary.” — Cam’ron
As soon as Cam’ron playfully croons “bayyybay,” and subsequently asks, “Kanye, this that 1970’s heron flow, huh,” you just know that shit’s about to go down on this Purple Haze standout. You can just feel it. The strings are lush, the drums are hard as fuck, and the vocal sample is simply heavenly. “Down & Out” is a top ten Kanye beat to this day. Cam handles the rest with a lyrical barrage that only he could pull off, rambling ever so confidently about exclusive sake drinking spots, having enough guns in his car to make someone believe that they were included in the sale, and his own special way of playing Simon Says. I love you Cam’ron, there’s nothing else to it.
5. Dame Dash f. Kanye West, Beanie Sigel, Cam’ron, Young Chris & Twista — “Champions” (Prod. Kanye West) (2002)
“I done seen jealousy make n***** do t-terrible thangs/ How’d that song go I did with Hov? Oh yeah, shit’ll never change.” — Kanye West
When it comes to all-time great posse cuts, you would be a damn fool to exclude “Champions.” The best song on the soundtrack to Paid In Full, every member of Dame Dash’s ‘Dream Team’ thoroughly shreds Kanye’s Queen-sampled beat, but it’s really Dame’s own between-verses shit talk that gets me the most amped. It’s nothing short of prophetic when he boldly claims, “God damn, Kanye! I bet n***** didn’t know you could rap, huh? This the producer of The Roc, he rap better than most rappers!” If only the world knew how true that statement would soon become.
4. Cam’ron & Juelz Santana — “Dipset Anthem” (Prod. Heatmakerz) (2003)
“He understood me quite clear/ Then that thang banged out and rang out the side of his right ear/ And I got back to my business, back to my bitches/ Back to the kitchen, that pyrex vision.” — Juelz Santana
I never thought that I would ever be in a position to make a list about rap songs that includes “Dipset Anthem” and withhold it from a top three position, but here I am doing just that. The first single off Diplomatic Immunity could easily be number one, but so could any number of these records. Cam and Juelz incinerate the Heatmakerz production with gully bars and a classic chorus that interpolates the Geto Boys classic, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” Any Dipset playlist starts and ends here.
3. Beanie Sigel — “Feel It In The Air” (Prod. Heavy D) (2005)
“I hear this voice in the back of my mind, like ‘Mack tighten up your circle’/ Before they hurt you/ Read they body language, 85% communication nonverbal.” — Beanie Sigel
Kicking off Beanie Sigel’s classic The B.Coming, “Feel It In The Air” is one of the best album intros of all time. Beans perfectly captures the atmosphere of the beat, narrating a story about the paranoia surrounding a drug dealer’s worst nightmare: dealing with a partner who’s snitching. Kicking your album off with a song this great runs the risk of stretching yourself too thin too soon, but as Sigel was well aware of, the rest of The B.Coming holds up just fine. Rest In Peace Heavy D.
2. Cam’ron & Jim Jones — “I Really Mean It” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2003)
“Lock my garage/ Rock my massage/ Fuck it, bucket by Osh Kosh B’gosh/ Golly I’m gully, look at his galoshes/ Gucci, gold, platinum plaque collages.” — Cam’ron
“I Really Mean It” is the best of the best; the best song on Diplomatic Immunity; two of the best Cam’ron verses ever; one of the best Just Blaze beats ever; one of the best bangers in rap history; the best use of ‘chipmunk soul’ this side of “Slow Jamz.” You just can’t listen to it without feeling yourself, and at the end of the day, what else do we listen to rap music for (I kid, conscious J. Cole fans)?
1. Freeway f. Jay-Z & Beanie Sigel — “What We Do” (Prod. Just Blaze) (2003)
“Bang like T-Mac, ski mask air it out/ Gotta kill witnesses cause Free’s beard stickin’ out/ Y’all don’t want no witness, shit/ We squeeze hammers, mang/ Bullets breeze by you (bayou), like Louisiana, mang.” — Jay-Z
The lead single off Freeway’s debut album, Philadelphia Freeway, “What We Do” defines the Roc-A-Fella era like no other. When it’s all said and done, The Roc represented two things above all else: detailing what it means to be a young, black drug dealer in America, and the importance of crew love. “What We Do” connects with both motifs in the illest way possible, and if we would like to add a third to accompany them, it would be that Just Blaze is a top ten all-time rap producer.
This song is the ultimate hustler’s anthem: self-aware of the evils that come with the lifestyle, yet firmly rooted in its inherent truths. I can’t really say enough about how much I love it, so I’ll keep it simple: if you are in my general vicinity when “What We Do” comes on, then don’t even think about speaking to me because I’m not listening.