1998 was the year. The President was under fire for getting some head on the job, Rap City was still on the tube and most everything in life seemed better. Though we had a few bright spots from the likes of DMX, Big Pun, and Mase among others, Hip-Hop was still reeling from the death of Christopher Wallace and in search of someone to occupy the vacant throne as the “King of New York.” DMX looked the betting man’s pick with the critical and commercial success of his debut Its Dark And Hell Is Hot, but a certain former hustler from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects would have something to say about that with his landmark 1998 album, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life.
Prior to 1998, Jay-Z was viewed as a promising prospect, but was far from a superstar, let alone a household name. “Ain’t No” came close, yet still that elusive “It” record had yet to be created by Jay. All that would change with the release of Vol. 2. But standout appearances on “Life After Death” and “No Way Out” created enough intrigue to keep an eye out for dude. Jigga gained momentum from an appearance on “Money Ain’t A Thing” and the Rush Hour soundtrack smash “Can I Get A,” but as soon as listeners popped that CD or cassette into whatever device you had, they knew Vol. 2 was something special.
Memphis Bleek’s intro notwithstanding*, the album lead off with arguably the signature song in his catalog, “Hard Knock Life.” The track was a testament to Jay-Z’s knack for making the perfect decision in pivotal moments, as it set the tone that this time around he was definitely playing for keeps, as well as the hearts of middle America.
Where Reasonable Doubt was technically superb and Vol. 1 had a slight air of sophomoric awkwardness to it**, it was the epitome of everything to everyone. Flows for days (“N*gga What, N*gga Who”), top-tier posse cuts (“Reservoir Dogs”), street bangers (“Money Cash Hoes,” “It’s Alright”). Hell, even the ill-fated regional collaboration (“A Week Ago” with West coast pillar, Too $hort) was flawlessly executed. We won’t even go into detail regarding the production, which consisted of Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and DJ Premier, among other boardsmen. The soundbeds were as refined and appealing as anything the industry was producing during that time. You name it, Jigga brought that and more to the table.
Vol. 2 will always remain the album that got the monkey off Jay’s back and gave him the first of a string of wins while also setting the table for him to attain more. Debuting at no. 1 on Billboard with 350,000 in sales the first week and snagging the Grammy for Best Rap Album Of The Year, it stands as his most successful album to date, which is ridiculous considering his body of work. It’s comparable to the moment of LeBron finally getting that coveted title in 2012, enabling him to just play his game with the proof already in the pudding and all the potential in the world for greatness of epic proportions.
More than just a classic album, it was a classic moment in time for many people. Few could have envisioned the evolution Sean Carter would go through between 1998 and 2013. But what we did know then and still holds true today: we were listening to a f*cking great album.
* – Ed. Note: Which is awesome, by the way.
** – Although, it has been debated that it is in fact one of the better albums from Hov, but that’s another story for another time.