Track Jay-Z’s Evolution Thru His Nicknames

So with the release of Jay-Z’s latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, I started to think about how long he’s been in the rap game (since 1996!) and it also hit me that he’s had to slowly reinvent himself as an artist just to stay relevant. For a rapper that can be very hard, hip-hop is a young mans game after all. But as Jay’s proven, it’s not impossible. One thing that became clear to me as I started to dig into his musical history – from the skinny kid of Reasonable Doubt to the married husband and father of MCHG – one key to Hova’s reinvention might be the frequency at which he changes and rotates the nicknames he often gives himself throughout his music. So I went back and looked at the lyrics to every song, on every official album he’s released since his debut and picked out instances where he granted himself a new alias. I played fast and loose with my own rules in this completely unscientific endeavor, but I think I found every example (except Iceberg Slim) of a nickname, what album/song it first shows up, and a lyric he used it in. So come Let’s track Jay-Z’s evolution, through his alias’!

*Albums with no mention of a new nickname. Those with ones already represented are also excluded. But I try and write a little something about the album anyway. Emphasis on “little.”

As always your comments on anything you see here are always welcome.


Jay-ZReasonable Doubt

This was the album that started it all. Technically speaking, “Jay-Z” is more of a nom-de-plume than a nickname, but given that we didn’t really know who the young up-start was in 1996, when “Doubt” dropped, lets just role with it like he was some punk kid trying to craft himself with a cool new moniker. Legend goes he picked the name from Jaz, an older MC he use to chill with in Marcy projects, where he grew up. Another tale says it’s just a shortened version of his original neighborhood nickname, Jazzy. Either way, on wax, he ended up with the artist name he’s widely know for now.  Hands down, “Doubt” this is my favorite album in the entire Jay-Z collection. The now classic debut LP had so much wit and class from the young man telling stories of “criminal melodrama,” as Charlie Braxton called it in an August 1996 issue of the Source. His style at this time was a little old school storyteller clever rhymes, with 90′s hood cool. Even now, writing this, I can hear tunes like “Politics As Usual”, “Can’t Knock The Hustle”, and “Can I Live” in my minds ear, without even playing it. That’s how indelible it is. After this record dropped, and received four mics from the one time hip-hop bible, there’s no way anybody could forget the name, “Jay-Z.”

Choice Song: Can’t Knock the Hustle
Nickname Shout: “It’s a damn shame what you’re not though, who me / Slick like a gato, fucking Jay-Z / My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me”


JiggaIn My Lifetime Vol. 1

The cover for Jay’s second studio release found him ditching the suits for a more street savvy, corner hustler attire: a thick heavy leather jacket atop a simple white tee. Just a year removed from his debut LP, Jay had an unmistakable maturity about him. You can clearly the ora of his now trademark cool demeanor shining through. This record wasn’t at well received critically as the first but the rapper still managed to keep the spotlight on him with nimble phrasing and vivid descriptive style. At the time EW gave it a B+, but fuck that. This is that album that gave us “Streets is Watching” – a song that perfectly balances the upbeat production of SKI, the Roc-a-Blok beatsmith who also worked on the first album with the street wise style of Jay’s flow. “The City is Mine” though, is the first emergence of the Jigga reference which is actually a lot earlier than originally thought Jigga even referred to himself by it.

Choice Song: The City is Mine

Nickname Shout: “Soon it`s the Jigga, I ain`t mad yeah, bite my shit / Sell half of what I sell because it`s not quite my shit / I`m the type to buy a Roley and just ice my shit”


Shawn Carter – Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life

Can you use your real name as a nickname? I don’t know, but I say yes. Anyway, it was back to suits on this 1998 release (Shawn would release his next four albums consecutively!) suits, cars and a glossier, flossier sound with production from Swizz Beatz, Timbaland and Jermaine Dupri. This was pure money hungry, ball-till-we-fall, shake a little something music. Believe or not this would rank number two on my Jay faves, specifically because at the reckless wealth flaunting going on on songs like “Money Aint a Thang”, “Money, Cash, Hoes” , And “Paper Chase” (see a pattern emerging?) However, it was the ballsy Annie (via Broadway) assisted, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” that set this album apart and blasted Shawn Carter into the crossover pop stratosphere landing him on top of the charts for five consecutive weeks. He caught a lot of flack for it, with critics like NME calling it “a periodically good..but by no means a great” album. But he road that train to superstar land and hasn’t looked back ever since.

Choice Song: Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)

Nickname Shout: “You know it’s hell when I come through / The life and times of Shawn Carter / nigga Volume 2″


Jigga-Man/S.Carter/Jay Hova – Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter

I know I’m cheating by including S.Carter on the whole nickname thing, but clearly you haven’t been paying attention, cause this is my thang, and I does what I wants. But seriously, I think it merits inclusion because this album is the first time he uses it – and he does it several times. So it’s in. Deal with it. And Jigga-man is a slight cop-out also but for the same reason as before, I’m throwing it in. (I couldn’t help thinking of it as a super hero whose power is dope rhymes and marrying bad R&B bitches.) I almost forgot Vol 3. even existed. The strange thing is, I’m familiar with many of the songs on this album, but the album, as a thing wasn’t in my consciousness. Considering Vol 3 has three of my all time favorite Jigga-man tracks – “Jigga My Nigga”, “So Ghetto”, and “Big Pimpin’ – I should be ashamed of myself. In any regard, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter was generally very well received and showed Jay Hova returning to a slightly gritty aesthetic, mixing the ballerific stylings of the previous album (Swizz Beatz and Timbaland make several production appearances) with the ever present storytelling prowess evidenced on Vol. 1. Back in 1999 when it came out, Rolling Stone said,”This is his strongest album to date, with music that’s filled with catchy hooks, rump-shaking beats and lyrics fueled by Jay’s hustler’s vigilance.” Generally speaking, it isn’t a huge pivot in another direction, just good old reliable err….Jay-Z.

Choice Song: So Ghetto
Nickname Shout:Yo.. career crook, nobody rap Brooklyn like me / Jigga-Man, Volume 3, I’m back lookin like me”

Choice Song: It’s Hot (Some Like it Hot)
Nickname Shout:
“Yo show closer, J-to-the-A-Y-Hovah / Place shutter down, who the fuck’ll fuck around?”

Choice Song: S. Carter (natch)
Nickname Shout: “S-dot-Carter / Y’all must try harder / Competition is Nada”


Young Hova/ Hova – The Dynasty-Roc La Familia

It’s hard to know where Hova was in his evolution when this record came out in 2000. One things sure, it’s when ‘Young Hova’ made its appearance and by this  point he was pretty far from the flow style found on RD. Even the album cover was a departure from the suit/dress down alternating thing he was doing. The all black accessorized with the bandanna and Latin gang font style of the title feels like a nod to the ‘family’ feel of the project. Guest appearance are almost exclusively from artists on his Roc-La-Familia team at the time; Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, and Amil. Whatever it is, it made for a great album from back to front. Although, Vol 3. is enjoyable (even if I did forget it existed), here Jay really does sound reinvigorated. Maybe that’s the point of “Familia” – a shot of youthful vigor.

Choice Song: Change the Game

Nickname Shout: “Young Hova in the house.. Jigga! Yeah / Crist’ sipper, six dipper, wrist glitter nigga!”

Choice Song: Get Your Mind Right Mami
Nickname Shout: “Fuck with Hova, he can take you out of your hell / Say bye to Reebok, say hi to Chanel / Say hi to Gucci, Prada as well”


Hovito – The Blueprint Album

At the risk of sounding like a total stan, Hovito hit his stride with this one right here. So many bangers on this album you can just press play and let the whole thing ride out. I hear tell that when a spanish word ends in “ito” it means young boy. So in a way, Jay basically found another way of saying “young hova.” I’ll allow it.

Choice Song: Hola’ Hovito

Nickname Shout: “They say hola’ hovito / That’s what they sayin when I roll up with my people”


*Best of Both Worlds (not a single new or derivative nickname on this album. By the way, I really loved it too. Okay. I’m a stan.)


Hovi – The Blueprint, Vol. 2: The Gift and the Curse

This album, although not completely successful as a cohesive piece, is pivotal in the Jay’s progress. It feels like the first time he tried to take some risks (“I Did It My Way” comes to mind), unfortunately not everything works. What’s important is that by this album everyone should be aware they’re not going to get the old Hovi back. He’s on a one way track with everything – rhyming style, sound – except content. The little bursts of experimentation in songs like “Guns & Rose” and the aforementioned, “I Did It My Way”, feel stillborn. Yet, this is this album is the definite point we can mark the birth of artsy Jay. To underscore this, I remember when he was doing promo for this album and randomly catching him of, I think it was 60 Minutes or another one of those respected news magazine shows, and Jay was playing the Frank Sinatra vocals for the stuffy news person interviewing him. There’s no way anyone who’d followed Jay’Z's career could not chuckle to themselves at how far he had come. He was now part of that funny class of New York glitterati snobs take seriously.

Choice Song: Blueprint 2

Nickname Shout: “Yup! Hovi’s home, the global phone / The world is back in order the number one rap recorder is back”


*The Black Album (with TBA, Jay takes what he started with the Blueprint and advances it. This one never really worked for me. It may deserve a second look though. “99 Problems” of course the stand track.)

*Unfinised Business (R. Kelly drama. Not worth going over)
*Collision Course (Linkin Park mashup)


Hovie Hov / Jay-Zeezy – Kingdom Come

On Kingdom Come we have an almost sullen Jay whose doing some serious introspection. He takes the time address some controversies and even tries to give the world a hug on the Neyo assisted “Minority Report.” Again, you can see where he’s trying to go, but he just doesn’t get there, sorry Hovie Hov


Choice Song: Show Me What You Got

Nickname Shout: “Hovie Hov is the coldest / I’m just getting better with time / I’m like Opus”

Choice Song: 30 Something

Nickname Shout: “Show young boys how to do this thing / The maturation of Jay-Zeezy, ha”



*American Gangster (Rolling Stone via 2006 review “As he admits several times on the album, the only reason there’s a new one is he didn’t know what else to do — a reasonable doubt indeed”)

*The Blueprint 3 (Just when you count him out, Jay made it through the forest. With TB3 he once again proved he can balance competing masters. The artsy Ideal he reached for with the previous efforts get diluted just enough for Hova to have some fun (Run This Town) )and still manage to say something meaningful about his place in the game (A Star Is Born.)


King Hov – Watch The Throne

There was a two year gap between this album and the last one. Which seems to be a new thing for the Jigga-Man. The dude seems to like working in patterns. (it was also two years between American Gangster and The Blueprint 3.) Watch The Throne feels like a coming out of sorts. It has a confidence that was lacking in the previous album. That self absurdness helps to mask the heavy themes on the album which, succintly put is: he who wears the crown, has a lot of shit on his shoulders. In other words, Jay along with his buddy Kanye “may be obsessed with their own king-size lives, but the tone here is serious, sober, [and] weighty.”


Choice Song: Illest Motherfucker Alive

Nickname Shout: “King Hov, I’m exactly what the f**k you think 11 in a row”


*Magna Carta Holy Grail (No new nicknames on MCHG. So here’s a final quote from a review from Grantlandd: “It’s not good so much as fine. But Jay-Z doesn’t have to win me or anybody else over.”)

  • Ashley Barlowe

    I’m a lifetime fan of JayZ. At 16 years old, I can remember specifically awaiting the debut of “this new New York MC” while working in a record store in ’96. I bout ‘Reasonable Doubt’ (on cassette) the day it was released. Automatic fan you might say. Your observations and opinions here are pretty good. However, I feel it’d be great had you paid more attention to grammar, spelling & constructed a better timeline. I’m not trying to be a “nazi editor” but when I see good work or work that has massive potential to be great, I become even more critical. So, I stick by my notes, with which I am coming from a 100% noble place. This was informative & well thought out. I’ve never read any other work you’ve done (assuming it exists). It’d be nice to see something like this done for other great Hip Hop artists (i.e., Nas, KRS, Tribe, etc.)
    I’d love to talk shop one day. My email is in my info.
    -Ashley Barlowe

    • Spadaque


      Thank you so much for reading this post. I really appreciate your constructive criticism and I’ll go back over it to make any corrections. As for the timeline, I really don’t understand how you mean I could have constructed a better one – I went from his first solo album to his most recent solo effort and I think that works fine. Again, thanks for checking it out, we love it when our community interacts with the work we do here, keep it up.

      Oh, and I would love to contact you and learn about some of things you would like to see on the site in the future.