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.

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Corey Deiterman