If the inventive wordplay and jaw-droppingly dextrous flow of Jay-Z’s gangster-fied debut album, Reasonable Doubt, established him as one of hip-hop’s brightest young stars, the sizeable commercial success of its flashier, P-Diddy-assisted follow-up, In My Lifetime, Vol.1, enshrined the Brooklyn native as one of the genre’s biggest pop crossover artists. Looking to build on the positives of both releases for his third long-player, 1998’s Vol.2… Hard Knock Life came with a harder production aesthetic that retained the pop hooks of its predecessor.
Key to the album’s success was Jay-Z’s astute choice of collaborators. If the production credits now scan like a Who’s Who of 90s hip-hop greats, the depth of quality speaks less about the budget involved than the Jiggaman’s unerring eye for spotting young talent at the dawn of their celebrated careers.
Alongside old hands such as DJ Premier and Erick Sermon are a youthful collection of sonic architects who, collectively, deliver an invigorating array of genre-pushing, state-of-the art productions. Swizz Beatz weaves a tense patchwork of deep bass and alarm-signal synth stabs offset with crisp beats on “If I Should Die,” while on “Money, Cash, Hoes” (which finds Jay trading lyrical bars with the then up-and-coming rapper DMX) he provides a remarkable sonic soup of chaotic Wurlitzer slashes and razor-sharp beats. Irv Gotti brings a low-slung Southern bounce on “Can I Get A…,” and a youthful Jermaine Dupri provides both the beats and a lyrical foil to Jay-Z on the strutting “Money Ain’t A Thing.” Timbaland supplies two sterling examples of his trademark stuttering rhythms on “Ni__a What, Ni__a Who (Originator 99)” and “Paper Chase.”
Over this disparate collection of production styles, Jay-Z is at his mercurial best, delivering deft, playful rhymes marked by a remarkable flow that confirmed him as hip-hop’s most gifted rapper. Led by the chart-busting lead single, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” – which ingeniously repurposed a chorus from Broadway showstopper Annie as the hook-laden centerpiece of a classic Jigga rags-to-riches story – the album, released on September 29, 1998, was a runaway success. It entered the Billboard 200 chart at No.1 (the first of his albums to do so) and, selling over five million copies (his most commercially successful album to date), turned Jay-Z into a superstar.
With Vol.2… Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z found a happy medium between street-tough gangsterism and hook-heavy commerciality: the perfect vehicle for his melding of pop and rap. It was a template that he would mine to huge success over the coming years.