Jay-Z’s third studio album “Vol.2… Hard Knock Life” sold 5 million units and propelled him to stardom in the music world–all with a sample of Annie.
On September 29, 1998, Jay-Z rose to fame with the release of the album, solidifying his role as a crossover artist thanks to hits like “Can I Get A…” and “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem.)”
Following his first attempt to reach a wider audience, his second album released in 1997, In My Lifetime, Vol.1, received mixed feelings.Critics and fans who became aware of him through his critically acclaimed project, “Reasonable Doubt”, felt some of the songs on the album were too commercially oriented. This was done in large part because Sean Combs’ Hitmen production team he enlisted ruled radio waves during that year. It sampled hitslike “Every Breath You Take” by The Police in “I’ll Be Missing You” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross in “Mo Money, Mo Problems”.
In order to remedy this situation and reassert the more “street” side of himself, Jay decided to take the album in a grittier direction in terms of it’s sound, replacing the shine and gloss that covered tracks “Sunshine” and “The City Is Mine” from the album prior with much more harder-sounding productions like “If I Should Die” and “Money, Cash, Hoes”. These songs have instrumentals that were built with an aesthetic that was punchier and more sporadic in their nature, utilizing more keyboard based sounds.
Not one to completely leave well known pop songs alone, Jay-Z’s use of the tune from the broadway show Annie, Hard Knock Life, has the little red haired girl and the rest of her friends singing over a fuzzy baseline and pounding drum beat. A dense and thudding soundscape is set for the host emcee to brag about his experiences hustling in the street before becoming a successful rapper Though there is a strong sense of irony in this combination, Jay makes it work in his favor thanks to his conversational delivery as he raps about going “From standing on the corner boppin’, to driving some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen”.
A song like “Jigga What, Jigga Who (Originator 99)” sees Jay reverting back to the speed rap flow he once used on songs during and prior to his Reasonable Doubt album. The Timbaland produced instrumental also features the man who helped bring Jay-Z into the rap industry, Jaz-O. His 1990 song “The Originators” also featured a young Shawn Carter utilizing the same flow.
Tracks like “A Week Ago” and “Coming Of Age Da Sequel” have him telling actual stories about street life including selling drugs, whether it’s about the fallout between partners in the drug game or the mental game of chess between a mentor and protege who is planning to overthrow the man who brought him into the life.
Other songs like “Can I Get A. . . “ talk about Jay’s view of women’s loyalty and the financial status of that person, rapping “Can I hit in the morning without giving you half of my dough and even worse, if I was broke would you want me.”. This song would also be a large hit for Jay-Z, not only appearing on the Rush Hour Soundtrack that year but also peaked at number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
During an interview on the Rap Radar podcast, Jay-Z made a comparison between his best albums and Michael Jackson’s, saying that he sees Vol.2 as his Thriller, the album that sold so much, it makes it a classic.
Whether that termanology is agreed upon between music fans and Jay, Vol.2 does remain his greatest selling album. Projects that came before and after it have not reached the height of sales or the impact on his career the way this project did. It showed people that Jay-Z had the capability to fill the shoes left by The Notorious B.I.G. in the pop landscape after his death in 1997 and sparked a fire of commercial dominance that still holds strong in this decade.