If you heard The Black Album, you know December 4th is Jay Z’s birthday. Jay is a mastermind of his craft, one who’s respected as much for his art as where it got him. But there was a time before dropping albums via Samsung apps when Hova would descend upon the masses and bless them with a mixtape freestyle or two, just to let everybody know he can still eat your food.
On S. Carter’s 45th birthday, we take a look at some of his lesser known bars throughout the years. From Whoo Kid tapes to impromptu radio sessions, these are the 11 Best Jay Z Freestyles You’ve Probably Never Heard.
“Criminology / M.E.T.H.O.D. Man”
“Never cross the black cat with the riches / I’m leaving Stevie sayin’ “No wonder y’all superstitious”
Jay is known to occasionally reheat bars from this or that verse, and you could argue his first verse fits better over this beat, but to hear Jay and RZA connect over classic Wu-Tang production is a treat regardless.
“Eye For An Eye”
“Roc-A-Fella’s capo, inflappable, test my weight in the Apple”
If you ever wanted to hear Jay Z over G-Unit beats, now’s your chance. This was a one-off verse Jigga threw to Whoo Kid that was on at least two different mixtapes circa 2004. You can tell his rhymes were starting to mellow with age, despite lines like “My burner give n*ggas permanent heart murmurs.” A Chaka Demus reference here, a Prince reference there, and it’s an apt post-retirement verse from Jigga.
“Time’s ‘Most Influential’ was impressive / Especially ‘cuz I wasn’t in the artists section”
Jay and Green Lantern were supposed to do that Presidential Invasion mixtape around the time of Obama’s election, and while it never happened, at least we got this masterpiece. Every line is slick, from the name-dropping intro bars to the image of his face pushed against the ceiling while his knees are on the floor. This is Jay at his best, a rapping CEO who still knows how to best everybody under him. Plus, hearing him over this classic Neptunes beat never gets old.
“Back From France”
“Even in my absence, my presence is felt / That gotta tell you I’m the king, dog, if nothing else”
Fresh off a European trip, Jay sounds as decadently arrogant as ever. The second part of this is flawless flossing – “Young H.O. fresh from Italy, trip financed by my best ability” – but the best part is his shot at Nas. “While y’all was runnin’ ya mouth about Summer Jam / I was in flip flops in the south of France.” His effortless shrug is fit for a king. “Explain to me why I wanna be you again / You on the radio crying, I’m learning to swim.”
“Mobsters opt to not get in beef / There’s no business in it, it only brings police”
One of the best Rap City verses of all time…and it’s only a handful of bars. That entire section from :40 onward is just f*cking perfect. “Wanksters want beef and they name in the street / Most time end up with they brain where they feet should go.” Again, hearing Jay spit razor sharp gems like this on a promo run for The Black Album only adds to his natural aura.
“Dear Summer” Freestyle
“I don’t give a sh*t about cars or chrome rims / I got apartments I could put your home in”
Jay can end careers on the margins of records. Before “Dear Summer” hit, he went on the radio and spit it over Black Rob’s “Can I Live,” but precluded it with what felt like improvised bars. The subliminals towards Cassidy and Game are there, as Cass was pushing “I’m A Hustla” at the time and Game was throwing veiled shots at the crown as usual. Yet with only a couple bars, Jay rendered all that irrelevant. That’s how powerful he was at the time.
“Hov got flow, though he’s no Big and ‘Pac / But he’s close, how I’m ‘pose to when they got me fighting ghosts”
I used to play this song every morning. It’s the single most motivational rap thing I think I’ve ever heard. Later some terrible wretch of a person glommed the first verse onto some Coldplay garbage and my heart burns just thinking about it, but we’ll always have this artifact. There aren’t any rappers out who could do something like this anymore.
“Every day I wake I see a wake, so I vacate where it’s safe at / No I ain’t scared, I’m just afraid that, I’ll kill you and wind up giving all this paper that I made back”
Another buried jewel from the intended Presidential Invasion tape where Jay pulls a Weezy by rendering T.I.’s original insignificant. That breathy flow of his is in full effect as he slides in and out of different rhyme schemes. This was at the tail end of Jay’s last lyrical hurrah. No love for us Bad Boys, take that.
Funkmaster Flex Freestyle
“I paint pictures beautifully but n*ggas is nearsighted / Don’t worry about plagiarist, it’ll take ’em years to bite it”
This quick ’97 freestyle is like a light driveby on the industry. Jay is the complete package – he can stunt in a Range and then talk about getting messages from a psychic in the same short span of time.
“Now I’m a kilo in the game like I was before / My life repeatin’ like words in a corridor, ‘hello, hello….”
Remember Aztek? Oh well.
Most of the time Jay challenges himself to spit over Southern production, it works. His flow is so flexible, he can dumb it down and still sound enchanting. Who would ever think of rhyming about how words echo in a hallway, and use it as a metaphor for how his rap game is kinda like his crack game? And that flow in his next verse is crazy.
“If we the people was given free will from God / How could he give you free will without giving you evil?”
We saved the best for last. This is from a 2001 Whoo Kid mixtape called Escape From New York, and it might be one of the best underrated Jay verses of all time. This was post-9/11, and if you were around, you knew Jay’s music, especially The Blueprint, had a special resonance in the wake of that tragedy. To hear him talk about spirituality is always refreshing, but he sounds vulnerable, almost fragile here, yet still defiant. By the time he’s done, you start to get a sense of how big he’ll be long after he’s gone.