Vol.2... Hard Knock Life

Vol.2... Hard Knock Life

On 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, JAY-Z aimed to prove that he could go mainstream; with 1998’s Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, he made good on his promise, resulting in a smash-hit breakthrough that would storm the charts and introduce millions of listeners to the life and times of Shawn Carter. Thematically, Vol. 2 finds Jay staying in some familiar lanes. He outlines his rough past on the irresistible (and inescapable) "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” boasts of his triumphant present on “If I Should Die,” and bemoans being a hustler more absorbed by his business than the lifestyle affords him on the swaggering “Money, Cash, Hoes” (wait—money and cash?). But while Jay’s topical obsessions are by now familiar, he makes plenty of stylistic progress on Vol. 2. Everyone already knew he was a great storyteller, but on his third album, JAY-Z expands his lyrical arsenal, taking on everything from tongue-twisting futurism (“N***a What, N***a Who,” “Can I Get A…”) to classic hip-hop soul (“A Week Ago,” “Hard Knock Life”). It’s a mix that blends the shiny and the gritty, the cutthroat and the charismatic. As a result, Vol. 2 would become Jay’s first No. 1 album, and his first to reach multi-platinum status. Vol. 2 finds Jay putting his money on the long shots. Just remember that two years earlier, he was one too.

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