20 Years Ago, Jay-Z's 'Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life' Became the Blueprint for Pop-Rap Stardom

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Jay-Z

The first 15 seconds of Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life (The Ghetto Anthem)” sound like the song is assembling itself in real time: First, a rolling, clanking beat. Then a snippet of Jay-Z’s warm-ups and last-second tuning (“Take the bass line out”). Then the ah-ha moment, the commercial game-changer that two albums worth of technical excellence and post-Biggie mafioso charisma hadn’t yet given the 29-year-old born Shawn Corey Carter: the boisterous voices of little children shrieking, “‘Stead of treated, we get tricked!/ Stead of kisses, we get kicks!”

The instantly recognizable sample from the 1977 musical Annie signaled a new era for Jay-Z: More pop-minded, keenly aware of an (wider, whiter) audience, musically leaner. That song, as well as its parent album, Vol.2 … Hard Knock Life, which turns 20 today (Sept. 29), marked a point of inflection for Jay-Z’s career as he transformed from respected New York MC to axis of American pop.

Jay-Z’s opening lines on “Hard Knock Life (The Ghetto Anthem),” which is also the album’s first song, embody the change:

“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
From the dope spot, with the smoke Glock
Fleein' the murder scene, you know me well”

There are no metaphors, just clichés: street corners, cars, a smoking gun. Instead of complex internal rhymes and breath control (e.g. “ghetto's Errol Flynn, hot like heroin/ Young pimps is sterile when I pimp through your borough” from Reasonable Doubt’s “Cashmere Thoughts”), Jay-Z offers syncopated vowels, repetition and easy of access. His meticulous recall of the short “o” sound -- hot, bop, drop, spot, glock -- stitches the lines together. You didn’t need comfort with regional slang or a particularly nuanced sense of rap’s cultural history to get into it. “Hot car” translates much easier than “candy painted slab.” Even the presumption in that last line -- “You know me well’ -- offers a kind of invitation to the audience. The streets -- you guys get it, right?

As much as the song is an anthem, there’s a pandering quality apparent in these lyrics. The saccharine Annie sample carries its own story of a plucky gilded-age street urchin. By evoking it, Jay-Z packaged and spun his own story into the kind of rags-to-riches narrative America celebrates: A gangster by-the-bootstrap tale, a life that “went from lukewarm to hot/ sleepin' on futons and cots to King Size/ green machines to green 5’s.”

Vol. 2’s album-wide pitch to a broader audience worked. It held the top spot on the Billboard 200 for a month. It went Platinum in six weeks, and eventually triple-Platinum by the end of 1998. (Today, its U.S. sales surpass five million copies.) In contrast, it took six years for Jay-Z’s debut, Reasonable Doubt, to go platinum. The album also earned him his first Grammy, for Best Rap Album. The accolades and numbers suggest a sea change: Vol. 2 was certainly the first Jay-Z album for millions of people. It might have been a lot of people’s first rap album, too.

It remains a great first choice for a rap album. Like the grandfather of pop-rap rejuvenation acts, LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out in 1990, Jay-Z’s Vol. 2 is built around hit singles and the superproducers of the day. The beats on Vol. 2 extract choice core samples from the last days of New York rap’s hegemony, and point toward the next era, when rap (and artists like Nelly, Eminem and Missy Elliott in particular) would become one of the most powerful forces driving American popular culture.

The album’s three other singles after “Hard Knock Life” all touch on the late ‘90s zeitgeist. “Can I Get A …” has Irv Gotti’s yacht R&B, a prime non-weepy Ja Rule and a clean-edit chorus that still bangs on radio. (It also appeared in Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker’s Rush Hour, which exposed him to quite possibly the maximum number of potential Jay-Z listeners in 1998.) “Money, Cash, Hoes,” pulses with peak DMX and a relentless, crashing 8-bit loop that, years later, producer Swizz Beatz told VIBE actively scared off other rappers.

“N****ga What, N****a Who (Originator 99)” completes the set of singles. It’s the odd one of the bunch, both the last song that his mentor Jaz-O (credited here as Big Jaz) would appear on, and a last listen to the mercurial flow of old Jay-Z. A twinkling Timbaland beat -- his first production for Jay-Z -- complete with ominous wind effect and a return to the speed rapping of early career Jay-Z lend the song a noir breeze. Jigga even raps like an action hero set to 3x speed: “Fuck rap, coke by the boatload/ Fuck that/ On the run-by, gun high/ One eye closed/ Left holes/ Through some guy clothes.”

Jay-Z would rarely rap that recklessly again. If there’s one factor to which you can attribute Vol. 2’s success, it was speed: Jay slowed down. It’s an old strategy. Take your time, and the audience leans in. You give yourself more room; you can build your own character; more people can keep up. Jay-Z’s more phrase-driven, deliberate flow on Vol. 2 allowed him to flesh out the fine-tuned persona he introduced with “Hard Knock Life” -- that of the hustler made good, the loyal New Yorker playing out the last threads of the shiny suit era (“Paper Chase,” “Reservoir Dogs”), the noble criminal betrayed by a weak partner (“Just A Week Ago”). On Vol. 2, Jay-Z delivered the East Coast gangster Stations of the Cross with an unflappable charm.

Yet there was a greater personal urgency underneath the surface. His previous album, 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, fizzled. No single from it matters in his canon. No verse rises to meet the standard set by Reasonable Doubt. It went platinum after 2000, when Jay-Z was already a pop fixture. A sophomore album misstep is almost cliché, but the other side of that cliché is a hard truth: Stars don’t swing and miss twice in a row.

There was a cultural urgency too. Jay-Z recalls the arrival of Vol. 2, and the particular moment in black culture at large, in his memoir Decoded. The top four albums the week of Vol. 2’s release were his, Outkast’s Aquemini, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Here, Jay-Z groups the four together: “We were bohemians and hustlers and revolutionaries and space-age Southern boys. We were funny and serious, spiritual and ambitious, lovers and gangsters, mothers and brothers. This was the full picture of our generation.”

“Ambitious” is right. In other parts of Decoded, Jay-Z is less magnanimous and more jaundiced about that time in his career. He recalls how badly he wanted the Annie sample when he heard it -- writing a letter to the copyright holder, fabricating a story about how much the musical Annie meant to his youth. It’s telling how hungry he was, to spin story with enough detail to get the sample that would make his career.

For good reason: In 1998, Jay-Z’s star power was far from a sure thing. The explosive success of DMX and his visceral appeal loomed large. Bad Boy was still cranking out hits with midlevel talent. More Southern rap acts were lining up behind Outkast, ready to go national. And they did: Master P’s “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!” was released in February that year. Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” -- with its imperial, influential Mannie Fresh beat -- would come out in March of 1999, just six months after Vol. 2. Without the Annie sample, without the more accessible singles of Vol. 2 and Jay-Z’s new direct flows, the 2000s could have looked very different.

Instead, Jay-Z would spend the new few albums -- Vol. 3, the Blueprint series, The Black Album -- working and developing the tension between user-friendly lines and bleeding-edge beats. He would be rewarded handsomely. As Jay-Z pulled from Houston and Bollywood and a young producer named Kanye West, he moved into pop-star-as-brand territory reserved for the likes of U2 and Coldplay.

In that sense, Vol. 2 is more than just a sequel, it was its own set of beginnings and endings. On one hand, a last look at the artist as a young man and the final embers of royal New York rap. On the other, a record of new pop ambition and the birth of the story that Jay-Z would tell himself, and us, for the rest of his career.