20 Years Ago: Jay-Z’s ‘Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life’ Turns Him Into a Rap Superstar
On Sept. 29, 1998, Jay-Z dropped the album that made him a mainstream star, Vol 2. Hard Knock Life.
Jay was already force in hip-hop, having made a big splash with his polished, street-slick 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt. But in 1998, with the release of his third album, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, Jay moved beyond being viewed as one of the best lyricists in rap— he became one of hip-hop's biggest stars, in the process garnering a wide crossover audience off the strength of the album's lead single, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)." Although the song only peaked at no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, you couldn't escape it on radio.
The track, produced by Mark 45 King, was incredibly catchy, anchored by a hook that sampled "It's the Hard Knock Life" from the 1977 musical Annie. The crossover success of the song—it was Jay's first to make a significant impact internationally— proved that Jay wasn't just an above-average street storyteller, but had the star power and charisma to help push rap to the next level.
While Vol 2.... Hard Knock Life isn't Jay's best by any stretch of the imagination, it's definitely one of his most significant, if only because it's arguably the record that transformed him from a great rapper into a rap superstar. "Hard Knock Life" was Jay's first bonafide pop hit.
"I feel like, that song, that record, that album took Jay to another level," DJ Clue told MTV News in a 2012 story about the making of the album. “It was just so pure,” Jay added.
The song arrived at the right time. In 1998, the mood in hip-hop was ripe for a new star. Biggie and Pac were gone, and a new era, one dominated by bling and opulence was on the rise. Jay, with his textured voice, easy flow that oozed business intelligence beyond the block and an appreciation for the finer things, filled the bill. He pulled from the best aspects of his friend Biggie's flow, and merged them with his own experiences to carve a new lane for himself.
But Jay was still coming into his own sound production-wise, something that he's grappled with throughout his career. He's always known how to pick good beats, but it's rare to listen to an instrumental and immediately associate Jay with the track. To that end, in 1998, Jay sought the sound of one of rap's biggest names, in the hopes of having his beats carry a similar energy.
But it wasn't Dame Grease that Jay got. Instead, Jay ended up working with a teenage Swizz Beatz at the suggestion of Darrin “Dee” Dean, Co-CEO of DMX’s label. Jay admits he wasn't feeling it at first.
“I’m like, ‘Nah don’t try and play me with the nephew,'" he recalled.
However, giving a young Swizz paid off, and together, they crafted three solid tracks on the album, including "Money, Cash, Hoes" featuring DMX, and secured a relationship that would stretch for years, through some of Jay's biggest hits to date.
“He came in, he played those songs. We went from my office to the studio, we made four records … From there, the body of the album was in place," Jay remembered.
The album arrived in stores on the same day as three other hugely significant rap records—OutKast's landscape-changing Aquemini, A Tribe Called Quest's final record for 20 years, The Love Movement, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli's exciting introduction as Black Star. But Vol. 2 outsold all of those, not just on the strength of "Hard Knock Life," but also because of its other radio-friendly singles, the Timbaland-produced "Nigga What, Nigga Who" (changed to "Jigga What" for radio) and the Irv Gotti track, "Can I Get A..." featuring Ja Rule and Amil.
Vol 2, which clocks in at a concise 12 tracks, remains Jay's most commercially successful release to date. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 350,000 copies in its first week and 5 million copies total. It also won Best Album at the Grammys, although Jay boycotted the ceremony because the rap categories weren't televised at the time.
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