A Look Back: Jay-Z's Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life

It was 1998 and the hip-hop world was just a few years removed from the untimely deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. Bad Boy was still in the midst of its run as to records sales, videos, radio play, etc. Jay-Z had released his sophomore album, In My Lifetime Vol. 1 a year prior while trying to capitalize on the ‘Jiggy Era’. While that album didn’t fare so well in critics eyes and also the backstage conditions on Puff Daddy’s “No Way Out” tour lead to his departure. (Really his dressing room was bathroom that he had to split with Usher.) So on a stop of the tour, he heard the instrumental of “It’s A Hard Knock Life” and wanted to use it. If you heard/read interviews or better yet read Decoded, then you know the story of how he got the sample approved. Thus birthing the record “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”.

From standin on the corners boppin
to drivin some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen
For droppin some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard

It was my senior year of high school and I remember buying the album on cassette. I swear you new generation folks don’t know how good you have it now. I had a brand new Sony Walkman and I played this tape back and forth. Memphis Bleek got some burn on the album appearing on the album’s intro track as well as “Coming Of Age (Da Sequel)” and “It’s Alright”.

“Nah this ain’t Jigga it’s your lil nigga Bleek
Reportin to these motherfuckers live from the street
Game I peeped those, my mind so advanced
At nine I used to geese hoes for Easter clothes” – “Intro”

We hadn’t heard from Malik since Reasonable Doubt and his verses really didn’t shake any ground in m opinion but it was good to see Jay-Z still giving the young MC a chance to shine on the album. Speaking of allowing others to get the chance to shine, Jay-Z had a female rapper by the name of Amil on two tracks. “Can I Get A…” which also featured Ja Rule was also featured on the Rush Hour soundtrack. Beanie Sigel who was recently signed to the label, appeared on the posse track “Reservoir Dogs” which also featured The LOX and Sauce Money. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life also had guest features from Da Ranjahz (“If I Should Die”) and also Bay Area rapper, Too Short (“A Week Ago”).

This album was clearly the commercial turn that Jay-Z was looking for in his career. When the album was getting ready to drop, four singles (“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, “Can I Get A..”, “It’s Alright” and the Jermaine Dupri featured “Money Ain’t A Thang”) were already getting radio burns. So it had the commercial appeal even before it’s release.

Although, the Bad Boy sound wasn’t present on this album, Jay-Z did nab one of the Hitmen, Stevie J to produce “Ride Or Die”. On this track, he took a few shots at Mase that had rumors of beef rumbling beneath the surface.

Always gotta be the weakest nigga out the crew
I probably make more money off yo’ album, than you
You see the respect I get everytime I come through
Check your own videos, you’ll always be number two

Once we start getting to the heart of Vol. 2, we get into “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator ’99)” which featured Jaz-O and Amil. Jay-Z went back to his rapid fire flow which he was known for earlier in his career. This would be the last video that we would see Jay-Z and Jaz-O together in as a personal drama ended the friendship.

“So all I do is rap and sex, imagine how I stroke
See how I was flowin on my last cassette?
Rapid-fire like I’m blastin a Tec, never jam though
Never get hot, never run out of ammo”

“Money, Cash, Hoes” which featured DMX was a favorite on the album. While it wasn’t an official single on the album, it did get spins on the radio.

Us the villains, fuck your feelings
While yall playa hate we in the upper millions
Whats the dealings (huh) its like New York’s been soft
Ever since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings

That last bar got under some NY rappers skin (read: Prodigy) and caused some words to get said in magazines and on other records. Foxy Brown popped up on “Paper Chase” where the two MC’s rapped about taking over small towns to move that work.

“Gotta find a nigga sellin all them ounces and shit
Tell them get down with the click or get found in a ditch
See I drop down and strip, I turn around and spit
Not to hit em, just to let em know the sound of shit”

Causal Jay-Z fans may look to this as one of his greatest albums released. Real fans know this is where the tide turn. Even Jay-Z himself said on “Moment Of Clarity” that when when he ‘did 5 million’ that he hasn’t been rhyming the same. Well it was a line about Common but you know what I mean. Vol. 2 is one of those albums that I can play at an given moment and it still sounds as fresh as when it was released on 9/29/08.