Jay-Z Channels Nirvana: A Look Back at His 7 Most Unexpected Samples

Sources include a Broadway musical, the soundtrack to an Egyptian movie, and a Will Ferrell comedy

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Of the 16 tracks on Jay-Z’s new  Magna Carta… Holy Grail, one in particular (the lead-off track) has received special attention for its take on a song far outside the Jigga Man’s wheelhouse. “Holy Grail,” which features Justin Timberlake on vocals, includes a pretty major nod to Nirvana’s 1991 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But it doesn’t sound like the the full-bodied and familiar samples we’re used to hearing in rap songs. Instead, a cabal of producers reworked the track by having Jay-Z sing the iconic chorus on top of a distorted version of the track. Listen here:

This surprising inclusion of a decidedly non-rap song inspired us to take a look back at some of Jay-Z’s most unexpected samples, from the subtly unique to the more blatantly attention-grabbing.

“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” – 1998

[ Sample: “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from the Broadway musical Annie ]

Less than 15 seconds into this track, we hear the angelic voices of a Broadway cast singing the classic Annie anthem. No one saw that coming, but if anyone could make this work, it’s Jay-Z. Fifteen years later, this arguably remains Jay’s most unexpected — and effective — sample.


“Big Pimpin’” – 2000

[ Sample: “Khosara, Khosara,” composed by Baligh Hamdy ]

Producer Timbaland wove a ’60s-era Egyptian tune into this smash hit — a move that wasn’t just surprising, but also, it turns out, legally actionable. The composer’s nephew sued Jay-Z last year, seeking a portion of the rapper’s revenue earned from the song.


“Takeover” – 2001

[ Sample: “Five to One” by the Doors ]

Hov recorded this as a diss track aimed at his rival Nas, as well as Prodigy from Mobb Deep. But rather than enlisting the help of their hip hop predecessors, producer Kanye West turned to a gritty 1968 Doors tune, adding a little rock-and-roll edge to the aggressive track.


“Minority Report” – 2006

[ Sample: “Non Ti Scordar Di Me” by Luciano Pavarotti ]

This track — a rumination on Hurricane Katrina, its aftermath, and the government’s response — opens with the somber notes of a Pavarotti tune. This brief combination of American hip-hop and Italian opera results in a strangely assonant, haunting intro.


“Jockin’ Jay-Z” – 2008

[ Sample: “Wonderwall” by Oasis ]

This lesser-known track, originally intended for the album The Blueprint 3, borrowed lyrics from the iconic Oasis tune and is credited as a sample. But it wasn’t all in good fun. Before singing the lyrics, Hov raps, “That bloke from Oasis said I couldn’t play guitar / Somebody should have told him I’m a f—ing rock star.” The Oasis reference here is certainly surprising — though perhaps less so when we learn it’s part of a minor feud.


“On to the Next One” – 2009

[ Sample: “D.A.N.C.E.” by Justice ]

This tune, produced by Swizz Beatz, draws from a 2007 single from the French electronic duo Justice. But this sample’s a bit more subtle — and many Jay-Z fans were surprised when they learned where that extra layer in the beat originated.


“Ni**as in Paris” – 2011

[ Sample: Dialogue from Blades of Glory ]

So, this isn’t a musical sample, but it’s certainly a surprising one. This Kanye/Jay-Z hybrid featured dialogue from the 2007 film Blades of Glory — perhaps most notably Will Ferrell’s line: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative. It gets the people going!”