15 years ago this Sunday, several albums were released that became gamechangers or showed pivotal moments in the artist’s career. September 29, 1998 would forever be known as a great day for hip-hop and I wanted to reflect on four of those albums that dropped. First up, Jay-Z’s “Vol 2...Hard Knock Life.”
Jay-Z’s growth to the most popular rapper in America is amazing to me because I remember that moment when it first happened 15 years ago when I was starting high school.
It’s when I heard the twin combo of “Hard Knock Life” and “Can I Get A…” dominate the radio that fall of 1998. Throw in “Money Ain’t a Thang” and all a sudden, Shawn Carter is no longer just another New York rapper but a multi-platinum artist thanks to his third album.
With hip-hop still in a weird place post Biggie/Tupac, enter Jay. His first two albums were great and he had radio singles that were dope (Reasonable Doubt’s “Ain’t No…” and “Can’t Knock the Hustle”) and obvious panders (Vol. 1’s “City Is Mine and “Sunshine”*). He had yet to cross over and this is where his hustler mentality took over combined with his great skill.
In 1998-99, Jay’s success benefited from several things. 1) Linking up with DMX and Ruff Ryders**, 2) The Hard Knock Life Tour which was huge for restoring rap in the public eye, 3) His ability to take what Biggie/Puff did – use obvious samples with gritty rhymes - and go to a higher level, 4) Rap was on the verge of becoming more popular than ever.
“Hard Knock Life” was Jay-Z understanding he had “dumb down for your audience and double your dollars.” It was a genius sample of “Annie” by the 45 King and for younger fans like me, you could keep up with Jay’s rhymes and sing that chorus with no problem.
“Money Ain’t a Thang” took a hot line from Jay’s Reasonable Doubt opener and made it a hot song. Imagine my surprise in 2004 when I finally heard RD and thought “wait, that’s where Jay said it first??” That bass groove sampled from Steve Arrington gets me every time, as does Jay's chain reaction line.
My favorite song is “Jigga What, Jigga Who”. That double-timed flow was ridiculous over one of Timbaland’s greatest beats and hearing Jaz-O ride it even better lets you know who’s the. O-ri-gi-nator. An underrated gem is “A Week Ago”, where Jay’s storytelling shines in the aftermath of a drug dealer getting busted and snitching to the police.***
Hearing it in full, this album was a pure crossover showing his transition from the underground rapper who was under Big Daddy Kane and Jaz-O to the Jay-Z we now know. It was a blend of old Jay (where Foxy Brown, DJ Premier, the 45 King and Erick Sermon had shine) and new Jay where’d he rock with the hottest producers (Swizz Beatz/Jermaine Dupri/Timbaland) and hottest talent (Beanie Sigel, The LOX, Jermaine Dupri, Ja Rule).
He could still be vicious (peep his diss to Mase on “Ride or Die” or the sick posse cut “Reservoir Dogs”), but he was looking forward to his future on the charts. The Jay who showed his soul on his first two records would only show up sparingly until the Blueprint. At this point, it was about “Money, Cash, Hoes” and we all know that famous line that explained his transformation.
Vol. 2 became Jay’s first #1 album, sold five million, spawned 3 Top 20 singles (including Money Ain’t a Thang) and earned him his first Grammy. Along with DMX, it was also a clear sign of rap’s growing popularity as the genre began to sell like never before between 97-02. A sampling.
DMX: 7 million off first two albums in 1998-99
Master P: “Ghetto D” and “MP Da Last Don” sold 7 million in 1997-98.
Nas: “I Am” nearly went gold his first week en route to selling 3 million in 1999.
Juvenile: 5 million sold off 400 Degreez in 98-99****
Eminem: Slim Shady LP sells 4 million in 1999. Ja Rule and Nelly followed suit.
That should remind folks that in 98-99, Jay-Z was a star but one of many from rap. Additionally, the TRL era produced even bigger stars in boy bands, female singers and rock bands combining rap elements. I remember digging Jay-Z’s singles but I was equally a fan of DMX, Eminem and other folks I shall keep nameless (*cough cough* Limp Bizkit)
Vol. 2 made Jay a star but it wasn’t until Blueprint and or even the Black Album that he became the superstar we know now. It’s far from his best album yet it changed Jay’s career outlook and it might be the 2nd most important album in his catalog because of that.
*I’ll swear to this day that Sunshine isn’t a bad song but it was ruined by that awful video.
**DMX’s 2nd album featured Jay and one of Jay’s early hits (Jigga My N***a) was on Ruff Ryders’ first compilation. The Hard Knock Life tour was also the most successful hip hop tour in history at the time.
***It also has a great Isley Bros. sample, which led me to the original becoming one of my favorite Isleys songs.
****As bad as Jay-Z's verse on "Ha" (remix) was, it was pivotal because of Jay's embrace of the South when few East Coast rappers did on wax. That also contributed to Jay's rise and it culminated in "Big Pimpin" which exposed me and so many others to UGK.