Hard Knock Life: Jay-Z Then and Now

This week marks the beginning of a legacy. On October 17, 1998, Jay-Z's Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first of Jay-Z's many albums to do so and the start of a streak that continues today. Every Jay-Z album since has hit No. 1, making him the current record holder for the most No. 1 albums by a solo artist ever, surpassing Elvis. He's second only to the Beatles if you count groups.

That's a fairly impressive accomplishment, but Rome wasn't built in a day. Hard Knock Life, despite being titled "Vol. 2" is actually Jay-Z's third record. The first two, Reasonable Doubt and Vol. 1... In My Lifetime both failed to hit the top spot, but are -- especially in the case of Reasonable Doubt -- widely considered hip-hop classics.

How has Hard Knock Life fared since its release? Not so well. Many today feel that its production is dated to its time and was an album where Jay-Z hopped onto incoming trends, abandoning his grittier early sound from the Reasonable Doubt era. Even at the time, many felt betrayed by Jay-Z supposedly "selling out" for fame.

Jay-Z's response to those accusations can be heard in song after song over the years. To quote "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man." Constantly, Jay-Z has reminded us that he's something more than a rapper. Indeed, in an interview prior to the release of Hard Knock Life, he expressed that its theme was that he was "so much more than a rapper."

Still, Hard Knock Life shows Jay-Z in a developmental stage. While it does feature advantageous mainstream collaborations and a streamlined pop-rap sound, it's very much Jay-Z finding his feet in that world.

He's still trying to figure out exactly how to stop being a rapper for other rappers and how to break into the pop world. So even as mainstream as the album is, it's still very much of the street.

Ironically, Jay-Z's biggest hit to that point and still one of his biggest ever, "Hard Knock Life," stood as one of the much more street-rooted songs on the record. It features an old-school beat and no collaborations with any other rappers. It's a classic hip-hop record.

Jay-Z must have known it was hot to release it as a single, but could anyone have truly foreseen that it would be vastly more successful (and relevant into the future) than a song such as "Money, Cash, Hoes," a star-studded collaboration with DMX and Swizz Beats?

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Hard Knock Life features two other collaborators who were just making their names known, one who would go on to be extremely successful and one who would peter out very quickly. The first was Timbaland, who here provides two beats: "Nigga What, Nigga Who" featuring Amil and Jaz-O and "Paper Chase" by Foxy Brown.

"Nigga What, Nigga Who" became a hit in itself, introducing the mainstream listening audience not only to Timbaland's talents as a producer but also to Jay-Z's mentor Jaz who would become a thorn in Jay-Z's side for years to come. "Paper Chase" is a minor track on the record, but this is still a strong introduction to a producer who would come to dominate the scene for years and remain a strong ally for Jay-Z, even as his future tracks for a much older and wiser Jay-Z on The Blueprint 3 would be lambasted.

The other collaborator was Memphis Bleek, Jay-Z's less-than-renowned protégé. The entire album features a running theme of Bleek taking Jay-Z's place in the grand scheme of things after Jay-Z finishes his run on top. This was hinted at in Bleek's features on Reasonable Doubt, "Coming of Age."

Here, we get an intro featuring Bleek solo preceded by a speech from the Scarface-styled character Pain In da Ass, who had introduced Jay-Z's previous albums as well, which primarily discusses Bleek taking Jay-Z's place. Bleek pops up again on "It's Alright" and "Coming of Age (Da Sequel)," continuing the story.

This would have been all well and good if Bleek possessed any discernible talent. While Bleek can clearly flow here, legend has it that Jay-Z ghostwrote all his rhymes on his features. That would stand to reason, given Bleek's lackluster performance on solo albums, as a rapper and as a hitmaker.

Slowly, Jay-Z would move away from this constant talk of Bleek replacing him as it became apparent this would never happen, at first to proclaim himself as the king of hip-hop now and forever and eventually taking on other, superior protégés such as Kanye West.

Seeing as this is a developmental album for Jay-Z, one can't help but notice the ways he's grown since then. Though he's been through a few different phases since, one can tell the difference immediately from looking at the track list.

First, the features. Aside from Bleek, the album has guest raps from everyone else from the old Roc-a-Fella records crew, many of whom have since turned to dissing Jay-Z publicly. People like Beanie Siegel, Foxy Brown, Amil, Jaz-O, Damon Dash (in a production role), and Bleek would all eventually fall out with Jay-Z or quietly fade into obscurity.

It has appearances from contemporaries such as DMX, The Lox, Ja Rule, and Too $hort who have faded into the background these days, for better or worse, which just goes to show how remarkable Jay-Z's run is. Finally, it features producers who failed to change with the times in the way that Jay-Z did and so also faded away, including The 45 King, J-Runnah, Erick Sermon, and Kid Capri.

Second, the song titles. "Ride or Die," "If I Should Die," "Money, Cash, Hoes," "Paper Chase," "Reservoir Dogs" and "Money Ain't a Thang" all show the Jay-Z attitudes at the time. His lyrical content was almost exclusively focused on the subjects contained therein.

But while some of these themes do remain in a fashion, there's a discernible difference here. The Jay-Z here is still coming up from the streets, still afraid of people taking his money away. He's still afraid of someone killing him. He's still chasing "hoes." He's still in the mindset of living life like a Quentin Tarantino film.

These days, he's done with "hoes," he's a married man. He's got the money and nobody's touching it. He still raps about people trying, but their fate is a foregone conclusion, rather than treating them as serious contenders to his throne. He may say he's not a "businessman," yet he certainly lives more like one now than a "reservoir dog."

He admits these things in his latest raps. He raps about his family, he raps about being betrayed not in the street, but in rap and in business. Most of all, he doesn't live in constant fear of his demise anymore, now that beefs have become trivial and funny, rather than dangerous.

Maybe the opening lines of "Money, Cash, Hoes" illustrate the old Jay-Z versus the new the best:

Money cash hoes money cash chicks what

Sex, murder, and mayhem, romance for the street

Only wife of mine's is a life of crime

And since life's a bitch in mini-skirts and big chests

How can I not flirt with death?

Can you imagine Jay-Z spitting these lines, even three years later by the time he was making The Blueprint? How about five for The Black Album? In just a few short years, Jay-Z grew as a rapper, as a person, and as an artist.

Finally, we must address the beats. Could any hold up on the radio today? I daresay that Timbaland's "Nigga What, Nigga Who" could. It would be a throwback, granted, but there has been an increasing shift back to its style in recent years.

"Coming of Age (Da Sequel)" by Swizz Beats still goes hard and, of course, "Hard Knock Life" still sounds fresh (and gets radio play) today. The rest? It would be hard to make an argument for them, but many, such as "A Week Ago," still stand strong in their context.

Ultimately, Hard Knock Life was hardly Jay-Z's peak predicted by Pain in da Ass' intro. He never handed it down to Memphis Bleek (maybe he forgot), he never left the top, he never got out of the rap game, and he eventually got married and settled down.

In fact, just about the only predictions he made in 1998 that did come true are that he never had to go back to the streets, and no one to date has seriously threatened his dynasty.

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