February 13, 2007

Jay-Z - Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life (September 29, 1998)


After the massive debacle that was In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (which unsurprisingly sold over one million copies in the US, even though it sounds a lot like ass), Shawn Carter did the unthinkable; he seemed to actually learn from his mistakes. For album number three, he still wanted the mainstream market to shake their asses, but he went about it in a smarter manner, ditching Puff's Hitmen for all but one track. 



He aligned himself (for two tracks) with a producer who would later become the mere definition of "hitmaker", Timbaland. He also sided with fellow artists who would showcase the "grimy" aspect which he kept hidden in the Def Jam coat room. The result was the biggest selling album of his career, Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life.

1. INTRO - HAND IT DOWN (FEAT. MEMPHIS BLEEK)
After a lame intro ripped off from Carlito's Way, Jay touts who is supposed to be his replacement (as he was toying with the idea of retiring yet again, which would become a running theme throughout the man's life). Sadly, his "replacement" was the as-yet-unsuccessful-as-a-solo-artist Memphis Bleek. As he absolutely ruins the only Primo track on the album, you can hear the voice of a desperate man who wouldn't be able to support his food and shelter habit if it weren't for Jay's insistence to keep his prized weed carrier on the payroll.
2. HARD KNOCK LIFE (GHETTO ANTHEM)
Mark the 45 King brings out one of Jay's biggest hits. Yes, this is the one that samples Annie. Everyone has heard this one. My great grandfather bumps this shit when he's on his way to church. And, shockingly, it still holds up today. Well played, sir.
3. IF I SHOULD DIE (FEAT. DA RANJAHZ)
I'm not one of those Jay-Z stans that sweats the Shawn/Swizz Beatz collabos. With a few exceptions, I find his beats severely lacking; in rhythm, originality, and that "head nod" factor that is a serious matter in hip hop. This song is not one of the exceptions. Lyric-wise, the track is decent, though. Da Ranjahz were a duo who were signed to Roc-a-Fella, but never actually released an album for the label. 
4. RIDE OR DIE
The only song produced by a Hitman. Notable because Jay disses Ma$e, especially since the Hitmen were Puff Daddy's production team, and Mase was on Puff Daddy's record label, Bad Boy. For the right price, he'll even make your shit tighter. (Word to Bugs Bunny.)
5. N---A WHAT, N---A WHO (ORIGINATOR 99) (FEAT. BIG JAZ & AMIL)
Big Jaz's "The Originators" was one of the first songs Jay-Z ever rhymed on, and on here, Jigga returns the favor for an unofficial sequel, on which Jay brings out that speed-rap flow that he was known for before Reasonable Doubt dropped. Jay and Timbo started up a lovely relationship with this song. The pairing of Jaz-O and Jay, however, wouldn't really last past this one.
6. MONEY, CASH, HOES (FEAT. DMX)
Another Swizz beat, another not-so-impressive song. X was in his "I'll appear on the album of any rapper with a pulse" mode, and Jay sounds like he phoned in his shit. The outro to the song, stolen from Goodfellas, continues the hip hop mafioso trend which had actually ended a year prior.
7. A WEEK AGO (FEAT. TOO $HORT)
This collabo sounds better than the one from the last album, but $hort only appears as the glorified hook provider. 
8. COMING OF AGE (DA SEQUEL) (FEAT. MEMPHIS BLEEK)
Jay-Z sure likes making sequels, doesn't he? In the beginning, Jay mentions that he "don't know what's wrong with Bleek". Yeah, neither do we. Features the most hardcore of the three Swizz beats on the CD, but the song's chorus kills the momentum.
9. CAN I GET A... (FEAT. AMIL AND JA RULE)
It is unequivocally Jay-Z's fault that Ja Rule became as popular as he did. Shit, they still play this fucking song on the radio: this track off the Rush Hour soundtrack is one of his biggest hits. It is a good song, though; not even Ja or Amil, the former first lady of Roc-A-Fella with no career today, can ruin it. Especially notable is that the album track's chorus is much dirtier than the radio edit's. 
10. PAPER CHASE (FEAT. FOXY BROWN)
The last of the many Jay/Fox collabos. (This album seemed to effectively end some long-term relationships.) Timbo actually provided a very boring beat, one which was light years from "Ain't No N---a" heading in the wrong direction. Very ironic that there are multiple references to the two being a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, when they wouldn't make music together again.
11. RESERVOIR DOGS (FEAT. THE LOX, BEANIE SIGEL AND SAUCE MONEY)
Erick Sermon (from EPMD) jacks the "Theme from Shaft" and provides the gulliest song on the entire album. The Lox were still virtual unknowns here, and this was Beanie Sigel's first appearance on any Roc-a-Fella platform since signing with the label. Jay and Sauce provide the best verses, but I won't ask why Sauce was never signed to the Roc again; this would be the last time these two would work together, as well. 
12. IT'S LIKE THAT (FEAT KID CAPRI)
This is one of the few Jigga albums that doesn't end on a down note (the two tracks listed below were bonus tracks). The beat is simple and effective. Lyrics are Reasonable Doubt-on point. 

As I already mentioned, the following two songs are included as bonus tracks. 
13. IT'S ALRIGHT (FEAT. MEMPHIS BLEEK)
Originally from the soundtrack to Jay's DTV film Streets Is Watching. This is the best that Bleek has ever sounded, but he ruined the Primo beat earlier, and it's impossible to ruin anything blessed by Primo. Shit, I could sound like fucking Lupe Fiasco over a Primo beat, and I'm a filmmaker! As such, Bleek doesn't get such a pass.
14. MONEY AIN'T A THANG (FEAT. JERMAINE DUPRI)
Originally from Dupri's own solo debut album; it was such a big hit that I guess Jay wanted his share of the profits. One of the best bones thrown to the mainstream he's ever been a part of. And I should know, since I've been spending Lincoln's since they had small faces.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life is an overall enjoyable listening experience. In writing this review, though, I am appalled at the sheer number of bridges burned by Jigga during the course of one album. It's just music, people!
BUY OR BURN? Buy this one. But try to get it on sale. Believe me, Shawn will understand.
BEST TRACKS: "Reservoir Dogs"; "Can I Get A..."; "Money Ain't A Thang"; "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)"
-Max
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5 comments:

  1. AnonymousJuly 23, 2009

    this album is crap, i have only kept 2 tracks (7 & 12), the rest of the songs should have been deleted from the album too

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  2. who actually says that goodfella line at the end of jays money cash hoes ?

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  3. One of my favorite albums of all time.

    Jay-Z reached his apex circa this album and Vol. 3.

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  4. I'm wayyy down the rabbit hole. Great blog.

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