But I did 5 mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since…
In all fairness, Shawn Carter has never resembled Rashid Lynn on the mic. True, both MCs are very adept in the art of mic wizardry, but when the Chicagoan was comfortable kicking rhymes about orange pineapple juice, Jay-Z was detailing his accounts of the drug game on records. One of the original D-Boys, as far as lyrics are concerned.
But in 1998, he be damned if he didn’t take his career to greater heights with his third album Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life. Hip-Hop had barely recovered from the tragedy that befell Pac and B.I.G. and Jay-Z set himself up to be the premier attraction by default. Say what you will about the album, but this is the project that made “Jay-Z” as you know him today. The deal with Live Nation and marriage relationship with Beyoncé were all spawned because of this album. With Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime under his belt, the question wasn’t whether or not he had skills to allow his career to blossom, but if the music he made would allow his career to do so. Eventually, Vol. 2 became a landmark for albums that looked to incorporate a popular sound without going Pop.
See there were no shortages of the double entendres or wit that Jigga was known for (“Mr. Exxon/gassing ‘em with the wit and the charma…” he slyly quipped on the even slyer diss to Nas and Ma$e “Ride Or Die”) nor did he soften his content to get CDs placed in Walmarts (see: “A Week Ago”). The game is all about balance and options and Hard Knock Life had plenty. His peers who openly sneered at the bouncy “Can I Get A…” must have been secretly jealous that didn’t think of the idea first. Screw the beat–he and Ja Rule were telling gold diggers “fuck you” while Amil held it down for the ladies. Yeah, the title track might have sampled Lil’ Orphan Annie but look no further than the title: “Ghetto Anthem.” True music from the street perspective. Is that not how Hip-Hop started?
But with an album this big, Jay couldn’t take all the credit. He just played the maestro and put everything in its proper perspective.
Think you can fuck with him…in ’98?
The guest appearances on Hard Knock Life take an almost compilation-like format. Usually albums like this are almost immediately disqualified from classic status, but if you look at the “whats whats,” Jigga still maintained control and allowed it to be his album. Just look at the futures of the co-stars. The word “pawn” is such an ugly word but with the exception of DMX, who was prodigy himself that year, no one really caught the wave that Hard Knock Life rode into megastardom. Imagine all the new Jay-Z fans who picked up the album to be greeted with a strictly Memphis Bleek intro and never checked for him again. Unfortunate circumstances caused Jay and his mentor Jaz-O to fall out a few years after the remade their “Originators” into something epic. Da Ranjahz impressively transcribed their living wills on wax for “If I Should Die,” never to hit it big again, and when Jay put the cap on his ghostwriting pen for the ladies, (see Foxy’s obviously ghostwritten “More arms than Green Bay/Brett Favre for ya” on “Paper Chase”) like Flava Flav’s recording career, their time was up. As he should have, Jigga kept the trump cards in his own hand. Need we dare mention the cast of “Reservoir Dogs???”
As for the beatmakers of the affair at hand, their luck was a little different. While everybody has their own on stable of rappers, the same can’t be said for production teams. And what better producers to eye than the ones who helped Jay-Z begin his reign on the top that was “longer than marathons?” Possibly the biggest winners from all this were Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. Both producers had previously achieved substantial commercial success, but within the jurisdictions of their own camps. Jay-Z reached out and Timbo supplied the VA bounce on “Nigga What, Nigga Who” and “Paper Chase” while Swizz wooed everyone with heat on “Money, Cash, Hoes” and the sequel to “Coming Of Age.” The result: they’ve made contributions to countless albums in music in general. Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life is the cause. I sat next to Kid Capri on a plane earlier this year and he was reminiscing about his Grammy accolade, a direct result from the beat he made on “It’s Like That.” And although he’s been incognito as of late, do the math on the royalties on “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” and Eminem’s “Stan” and you probably wouldn’t work either if you were Mark The “45” King.
So when breaking down the greatest albums 1998, none can match Aquemini in terms of artistic brilliance, and Moment Of Truth and Soul Survivor remain some of the most respected. And even DMX sold as many records, but it took him two albums to do it. But when you consider accessibility and that “it” factor, you’ll see Jay-Z posted up next to a Bentley, in grandiose fashion, putting the game in a chokehold, one hit at a time.