By Michael Endelman
Updated November 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

GET REASONABLE DOUBT (Roc-A-Fella/Priority, 1996) Jay-Z emerges as a fully formed talent on his stunning debut. He muses about the glory and grit of the hustler lifestyle, bringing a surprisingly thoughtful and humane view.

GET VOL. 2…HARD KNOCK LIFE (Roc-A-Fella, 1998) Fueled by the ”Annie”-sampling title track, ”Vol. 2” speeds Jigga’s transformation from gangsta-rap hero to pop icon. Beats by producers like Timbaland ensure his continued presence on dance floors.

GET VOL. 3…LIFE AND TIMES OF S. CARTER (Roc-A-Fella, 1999) The big-pimpin’ CEO secures the best beats and cameos you can buy. The result: over-the-top hip-hop peppered with bluster and paranoia. The message: mo’ money, mo’ problems.

FORGET THE DYNASTY ROC LA FAMILIA (Roc-A-Fella, 2000) Outside of the charming Neptunes-produced single ”I Just Wanna Love U,” this is a brooding, mean-spirited, and mostly dull entry in the J-Hova canon, stuffed with forgettable posse cuts.

GET THE BLUEPRINT (Roc-A-Fella, 2001) Energized by a public feud with Nas, Jay-Z creates the sharpest CD of his career — stocked with moving recollections (”Song Cry”), humor (”Girls, Girls, Girls”), and roof-raising party jams (”Izzo”).

FORGET THE BLUEPRINT 2: THE GIFT & THE CURSE (Roc-A-Fella, 2002) Somewhere inside this overproduced two-CD set lies a great album. But as is, 2 self-destructs because of its more-is-more approach.