If Jay-Z had his way back in 1996, this list would be too brief to warrant compiling. The skinny kid from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects intended to drop just one album — a musical I was here statement — before partnering with a major label and falling back into a comfy executive role, becoming a vessel to launch hopeful Roc-A-Fella acts like Memphis Bleek and Christión into orbit.

But the industry had different plans. Def Jam, impressed with Roc-A-Fella’s early independent success, agreed to sign a joint venture with the young imprint on one condition: They needed seven albums from Jay. And now, two decades (and two dozen solo LPs) later, Jay-Z has become one of music’s all-time most important voices. His catalogue contains some of the most potent imagery and lucid storytelling about poverty and the desperation that it breeds, all while dominating mainstream pop music, in a delicate tightrope act that almost no one else has ever been able to manage for the span of time that Jay has. His merging of thinking-man street raps with commercial hits paved the way for artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole to do the same today.

Jay-Z’s adolescence coincided with the Reagan ’80s. He’d spend his time banging on the kitchen table at his 534 Flushing Avenue apartment, rhyming to the percussion he created. But as an adolescent, he put his hobby on the backburner and crack sales on the front. But he continued to develop his craft, taking stock of hip-hop’s evolving aesthetics and mastering hyperspeed raps in the vein of East Coast rap duo Das EFX. Jay moved in and out of rapper circles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, popping up on songs with his mentor, Jaz-O, and Big Daddy Kane. He’d adopt a slower, more conversational pace for his 1996 masterpiece debut LP, Reasonable Doubt, a project that was self-released after his undeniable talent was denied by every major label he approached.

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