DAR Hip Hop: Jay-Z's Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life

By @CherchezLaPorsh

1. Intro- Hand It Down 
2. Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)
3. If I Should Die 
4. Ride Or Die 
5. Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)
6. Money, Cash, Hoes 
7. A Week Ago 
8. Coming Of Age (Da Sequel)
9. Can I Get A....
10. Paper Chase 
11. Reservoir Dogs 
12. It's Like That 
13. It's Alright (Bonus Track)
14. Money Ain't A Thang (Bonus Track)

Usually an artist's debut is their best work. It's the first exposure, the first real catalog of work that turns an audience into a fanbase. While this was true with Jay-Z, his debut wasn't as appreciated until years later. In fact, the success of "Reasonable Doubt" wasn't felt until years later, but that didn't stop Jay from becoming a hip hop powerhouse and what some would consider a "God MC". Many believe it was the death of BIG that contributed to Jay's success while others believe it was his range of concepts, his variation from album to album and his networking and feature appearances that gained him his popularity.

Personally, I think it was a bit of all of that. After his debut, Jay released a trilogy of albums that focused around his "life" and was divided into "volumes" and while Jay was taking the fans through his life, he also focused more on the commercial side of the industry (compared to his debut).  He started the trilogy off with "In My Lifetime Vol. 1" and followed it up with "Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life" and wrapped it up with "Vol. 3 ...Life And Times Of S. Carter".  Jay had managed to penetrate the commercial side of hip hop perfectly. The albums were an immense success and suddenly Jigga was a household name.

Today we're taking a look at "Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life" released in 1998 just one year after BIG had passed away. For me, this holds a special place because it was after the release of this album that Jay went on his "Hard Knock Life Tour", which would be the first rap concert I ever went to. I saw all of these tracks performed live, DMX was there (along with Red, Meth and Busta), but after that moment, the album was more than a CD, I had a profound appreciation for this. Jay would give us a whole lot of features, many bangers, dozens of notable verses and some of the best beat productions yet. Let's take a closer look at the album Jay released in what would be his prime.

Much like his two previous releases, Jay has a whole team, literally thirteen producers on this album (himself included) and of course we've seen them on Jay's previous works. What each brings to this is fresh sounds that Jay hadn't ever used before. We see DJ Premier on the introductory track, a bunch of tracks from Swizz and of course, the most acclaimed mainstream commercial producers of the time, Jermaine Dupri and Timbaland. Jay-Z intended to tread on "crossover territory" and he handpicked the perfect team to do it. While almost all the tracks had a different producer, they sound surprisingly unified and maintained the cohesion. While the commercial success of this album was secured, it left Hov wide open for a ton of criticism as he was deviating from his raw, uncensored lyrics and conforming to the demands of radio airplay... he played this a little too well.

Track by Track/Best Bars
A brief look at each track, what made it special, a rating of each song, and the best lyrics of these songs, minus the two bonus tracks.

*Intro - Hand It Down (feat. Memphis Bleek)
Considering the album is called "Hard Knock Life" and an account of Jay's street days, opening with the closing words of Carlito Brigante is as genius as it's going to get and to end that with a blurb from Scarface and his own debut is also genius. When I said Jay played this a little too well this is what I meant: the gangster street component is there and we don't get much commercial stuff here so while it is a bit misleading, it's a very entertaining intro. What I don't like is Jay isn't actually even on here, Bleek is. He should have at least made an appearance so this is a little disappointing.


*Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)
-The (unintended) lead single on the entire album and the first taste of the mainstream aspect of this album. The incorporation of the Broadway musical "Annie" worked in Jay's favor and since the story of orphan Annie seems to parallel that of Jay's, it works. Actually it works a little too well. The vocals taken from Annie and the orphans is so complimentary to Jay's rapping that it's no surprise this became a hit across all demographics.

Best lines:
"You'd be hard pressed to find another rapper hot as me/
I gave you prophecy on my first joint and y'all lamed out/
Didn't really appreciate it til the second one came out/"


*If I Should Die (feat. Da Ranjahz)
-Jay's lyrics are great on this track and, not only do I love his flow, delivery and overall lyrics, but I appreciate the mention of BIG and Pac. I also think featuring Da Ranjahz was a good choice too. What brings this whole track together though, is really Swizz on production. It has a very DMX sounding beat and it adds the roughness and aggression Jay needs after the musical escapade we got in the previous track.

Best lines:
"I'd tell BIG they're still hearin his songs/
Run into Pac ask him where we went wrong/
Tell him life is miserable when ya dealing in the physical form/
Is everything that's invisible gone?/"


*Ride Or Die
In all honesty this isn't a memorable track to me, but I do appreciate that it's used as the "diss track" to Mase. Personally I find it funny that he even acknowledges what Mase said on 112's "Love Me", but it's all about sneak disses so this works.

Best Lines:
"Always gotta be the weakest nigga out the crew/
I probably make more money off your album than you/
You see the respect I get everytime I come through/
Check your own video, you'll always be number two/
Niggas talking real greasy on them R&B records/
But I'm platinum a million times nigga check the credits/"


*Nigga What, Nigga Who (feat. Jaz-O and Amil)
-The tempo on this song is so much more staccato and fast compared to any track thus far (thanks to Timbo) and he's accompanied by the infamous Jaz-O and Amil on this one. They really don't miss a beat, it's almost like they do verbal acrobatics alongside the beat. While it's hard to decipher the lyrics at times, they killed it and made this such an enjoyable listen.

Best lines: 
"Shots with the fo-fo/
Faggots wanna talk to po-po's,/ Smokin em like cocoa/
Fuck rap, coke by the boatload/
Fuck that, on the run-by, gun high, one eye closed/"


*Money, Cash, Hoes (feat. DMX)
I personally love this entire track and once again the Swizz signature sound is incredibly apparent, not to mention DMX's background adlibs and shouts. D brings an energy that is unlike any other artist and I think it works well for Jay because it forces him to get out of the comfortability he's accustomed to and vary his flow. It sounds great IMO.

Best Lines:
"More money, more cash, more chillin/
I know they gon' criticize the hook on this song/
Like I give a fuck..i'm just a crook on this song/"


*A Week Ago (feat Too $hort)
Anytime Too $hort appears on a track, I brace myself for some explicit, crude and almost offensive lyrics. I'd like to say I'm pleasantly surprised on here. Both Too $hort and Jay do a great job of conveying the street life that got lost somewhere along the way in previous tracks. This definitely brings it back and does a reset AND since it's placed at the midway point on the album, the timing is perfect. I've also always appreciated Too $hort's laid back and calm demeanor as it works well in accordance with Jay's. They are similar and very complimentary.

Best Lines:
"The feds came to get me, we both fled quickly/
Wasn't quick enough to jump over the hedges with me/
Got caught, that's when our relationship strayed/
Used to call me from the joint til he ran out of change/"


*Coming Of Age (Da Sequel) (feat. Memphis Bleek)
This is an interesting track. I absolutely love how it's set up, like we are hearing their thoughts. Bleek being unhappy with his position and wanting more shine and Jay "seeing through" Bleek's "fake" happiness. Conceptually this song is perfect and while Memph and Jay don't have any beef, it would have been an eerie foreshadow if there every was.


*Can I Get A...(Feat. Ja Rule & Amil)
The first single released from this album and the one that intended to top charts but fell short compared to "Hard Knock Life", so where did this go wrong? Personally I don't know because I found this to be quite fun and much more rugged and raw compared to the other singles. The beat, the features, the lyrics..pretty much all of it worked together to create a great track. This really was a great addition to this tracklist, but sitting at just over five minutes, it may have been a little long.

Best Lines:
"Can I hit in the morning without givin you half of my dough/
And even worse if I was broke/ Would you want Me?
If I couldn't get you finer things/ Like all of them diamond rings/ Bitches kill for/
Would you still roll?/"


*Paper Chase (feat. Foxy Brown)
I'm not a fan of this song as much as I'm a fan of this collaboration. I have very high expectations of these two because I know they can deliver and this song just sounds bland and repetitive. They didn't have fun with it, it was obviously forced. Of course both have some dope bars in there, but overall this song isn't great and really works as a filler.

Best Lines:
"Now all the little soldiers wanna roll with my team/
Cause I ain't sold em a dream/
I just showed them the cream/
Picked em up in the afternoons and told em some things/
You know the regular shit you do when you molding them teens/"


*Reservoir Dogs (feat. Beanie Sigel, The LOX & Sauce Money)
I treat this more like a posse cut than anything else. Anytime The LOX are on a track it's brilliant and the same is true here. Jay with all of these features is truly incredible. They each deliver a dope verse and it works so well with the song title. "Reservoir Dogs" is in reference to the movie and there are enough of them here that they really are the hip hop version. I love everything about this and it's very fitting for this album.

Best Lines
"Nuttin to lose, just load the clip up in the groove/
And kick rhymes to the poster, til I swear Big move/"

"In case niggas wanna test, vest and a few heats/
You really wanna test my name?/ And test my game? Until you have me, test my aim/"

"I put it on tape, you gon' buy it/
I put it in a bag you gon' try it/
Y'all niggas can't deny it/
Lot of cats still tryin to study my last bounce/
Tell you what, get a beat tape and a half ounce/"

"Gotta, love for war, I don't floss no more/
I just sit on my money til I'm above the law/
How the fuck you gonna stop us with your measly asses/"

"I don't care about your block and whoever you shot/
I don't care about your album and whenever it drop/
I don't care about your past if I did I woulda asked/
I'm too busy lighting 'dro with a whole lotta hash/"


*It's Like That (feat. Kid Capri)
Such a simple beat allows Jay to shine and he really does. This whole song is laid back and the female (Liz Leite) matches her vocals to Jay's rap style and it makes for a perfectly flowing and engaging track. While this is suppose to speak to Jay's life experience, it does sound a little wishful rather than truthful, but that doesn't take away from the song though, as it's still enjoyable and "head-boppy" enough to be considered a banger.

Best Lines:
"I'm a hop, skip and a jump from rippin the pump/
Spittin a couple curse words and hittin you chump/
Shit, I get digits in lumps/
I'm a mutherfucking problem is this what you want?/" 


Album Strengths
This album's strength is easy to pinpoint, as it was and is one of the best crossover albums ever. Jay set out to gain the success his debut should have had and he did it with a well thought out tracklist with enough bangers and smoothed out gangster themes that it appealed to a much larger fan base. Of course the leading singles would be the most memorable off this album but the one track that sticks out the most for me and my favorite is "Coming Of Age". Both Memph and Jay flawlessly delivered a song with such a clever approach. This is highly innovative and such a gem on here.

Album Weaknesses
Because this was intended for the mainstream, it's a bit all over the place. Jay can get away with that because he's a great MC but after his debut and even "Vol. 1...", this album seems to have lost it's direction. It's halfway being representative of  "gangster street life" and halfway using it as party anthems. It's neither here nor there and that leaves it open for critique.

Jay-Z had a concept in mind and he executed it very well. He started this trilogy with an album that served as an extension of the experiences we had heard of in his debut. This album, while struggling to remain in that same vein, managed to permeate the continent (if not the world) and create a momentum that would last over 15 years. Regardless of what kind of album Jay puts out, there's always an endearing quality in each of his albums that solidify Jay as one of the most (if not the most) consistent hip hop artists of all time and it's safe to say, it reached the peak with his "Hard Knock Life".

Overall: 7/10 



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