20 Years Later: ‘Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life’ and the Rise of Jay-Z

September 29, 1998 was a huge day for hip hop. Three classic albums dropped in one day. Outkast‘s ‘Aquemini’, ‘Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star’ and Jay-Z‘s ‘Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life’. When I think about Jay’s albums now, all I can say is WOW!

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Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life’ was the album that solidified Hov, and was/still is Jay-Z’s biggest selling album to this day — selling over five million copies worldwide. Like many of us, I feel ‘Reasonable Doubt’ is his greatest work. And in my opinion, I think ‘In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’ is his most unappreciated album. But Vol. 2 was like Jay-Z said, “I’m not going anywhere no time soon. Get used to me”. Jay-Z rhymed with a confidence and energy I didn’t hear in his previous albums. In the summer of ’98, the stage was set for Jay-Z as he had the clubs jumping with two hits: “Money Ain’t A Thang” with Jermaine Dupri, in which Hov recieved a Hip Hop Quotable in The Source magazine for the first verse, and “Can I Get A…” featuring Amil and a soon to be megastar, Ja Rule. Hov also had the streets with his guest verse on the M.O.P. banger, “4 Alarm Blaze”. During an interview with Pete Lewis, Jay-Z spoke about Hard Knock Life by saying:

“Primarily I see myself as so much more than a rapper. I really believe I’m the voice for a lot of people who don’t have that microphone or who can’t rap. So I wanted to represent and tell the story of everybody who’s been through what I’ve been through, or knows somebody that has. I also wanted to speak about our lifestyle to people who – though they may live, say, in the suburbs and not be part of that world – still want to know about it and understand it.” 

To get the Annie sample cleared for the title track, Jay-Z wrote a letter to the composers Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. In the letter, Jay stated how much Annie meant to him growing up and how he used to watch the Broadway show. He stated it was a small lie that had big results.


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Memphis Bleek set the album off with the DJ Premier produced “Hand It Down”. “Screw Gooden, I’ll pitch in the PJ’s…” is still one of the slickest lines I’ve ever heard. Bleek would also appear on “It’s Alright” and “Coming of Age (Da Sequel)”. The crazy thing about “Coming of Age (Da Sequel)” is that the conversation taking place in the song is all in each others heads – picking up where they left off on the original record from ‘Reasonable Doubt’.

On the Erick Sermon produced “Reservoir Dogs”, Jay got some of the hardest spitters in the game for that one song: The LOXSauce Money and newly signed Beanie Sigel. To this day, I can’t say who had the best verse. Everybody was coming to catch a body on the beat.

On the Timbaland produced “Nigga What, Nigga Who”, you found Jay-Z trading rapid tongue verses with his mentor Jaz-O.

On the Stevie J produced “Ride or Die”, Hov took time out of his busy schedule to send jabs at Ma$e and anyone else who thought they wanted smoke with the Jiggaman. In a few bars he let it be known that he’s ready for whatever with whoever:

“Always gotta be the weakest nigga out the crew / I’ll probably make more money off your album than you / see the respect I get everytime I come through / check ya own videos, you’ll always be number 2 / niggas talking real greasy on them R&B records / but I’m platinum a million times nigga, check the credits / S. Carter, ghostwriter, and for the right price I can even make your shit tighter…”

I don’t think Betha ever replied back! But the monster on that album was the Swizz Beatz laced “Money, Cash, Hoes” with DMX. X and Jay-Z collabos never fell short of epic. I don’t know if they were both in a zone on this, or that competitive spirit they had in them kicked in since that legendary battle in the Bronx. Whatever the case, they made history. Here’s the remix video featuring Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, and DMX:

Other standout tracks include, “If I Should Die”, “A Week Ago” featuring Oakland legend Too $hort, and my personal favorite off that album, “It’s Like That”.

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The album received 4 1/2 Mics in The Source. Big Pun said, “the album deserves 5 Mics. It was incredible”. Rolling Stones ranked it #46 on the top 100 albums of the 90’s. After that Jay kept the bangers coming and helped take hip hop to another level.