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How ‘Hard Knock Life’ Made Jay-Z a Superstar

Iceberg Slim, Little Orphan Annie, and the best-selling album in Hov history — let’s explore the enduring power of Vol. 2 and its namesake single.

When Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life released on Sep. 29, 1998, Jay-Z was en route to becoming the biggest recording artist in the world.

As the Marcy maestro himself wisely predicted, it was a case of a rising tide lifting all ships as hip-hop increasingly dominated the charts.

In a year that saw regions and styles from the Bay Area to the Dirty South make themselves known to the mainstream like never before, the lanes and lines of the genre grew blurred as the competition peaked far beyond the bounds of LA and the Big Apple.

photo by Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images

Even amid Blueprint brilliance or Watch the Throne opulence in the years to come, the Jiggaman’s Grammy Award-winning third LP remains the highest-selling album in his illustrious catalog.

Riding off the sweat equity of Reasonable Doubt and MTV ambition of In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Hov hit his stride just as rap was cracking the code for cultural and commercial success.

Vol. 1, we took it from being in the street to being in the music business and dealing with that pressure,” Jay said of that era.

Cutting no corners, he had a broader vision for where it all could someday go.

“Now I’m staying a little longer and am more in control of everything,” Jay continued. “Not just rapping and music, but the whole overall project.”

Prepped to peak, Hov entered all lanes as he notched his first Billboard Hot 200 No. 1 album, selling over six million copies in the US alone.

The success came through touching his core demographic while becoming more involved in Roc-A-Fella Records’ broader vision for business and art as a new millennium dawned.

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“The more educated the consumer becomes,” Jay began in a 1998 interview with Oneworld, “the more they’re going to know that ‘this is the pure, this is what I want.'”

Pure, polished, and prolific, Jay-Z‘s third studio album celebrated its 25th anniversary on Sept. 29, 2023.

Filling the shoes of the slain Biggie Smalls — and even a retired Michael Jordan — Boardroom explores how Jay-Z’s vivacious Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life put a priceless succession plan on pause and became the blueprint for an entire industry.

The State of New York

When Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, he was waxing poetic on London and Paris in the late 1700s.

Perhaps he was cosmically prophecizing New York’s five-borough boom in 1998, too.

Between Harlem and Queens, rising rap stars from Cam’ron to N.O.R.E. were signing solo deals and going Gold.

Back in the Bronx, Fat Joe had his own plaques, while cohort Big Pun proved Platinum on arrival.

Over in Staten Island, RZA had the freedom to put out passion projects while fellow Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man could literally get Janet Jackson, Chris Rock, and Donald Trump on his album.

It was the best of times if you wanted a seat at the table or even a shot at the throne. Over in Brooklyn, the worst of times still lingered.

Having just lost The Notorious BIG the year before, the collateral of hip-hop’s coastal conflict hit the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood at the price of fans and families.

Just as Puff Daddy perfected the packaging of shiny suit singles juxtaposed with gangster rap gore, questions around commercialism and realism rang louder than ever as rap found itself in a tonal transition.

By the beginning of 1998, Jay-Z had just gone Gold commercially but caught a brick critically with In My Lifetime, Vol. 1.

The sophomore album was released months after Biggie — his friend and his fiercest competition — tragically passed. Aware of the moment, the album’s second single, “City is Mine,” foretold a passing of the torch but failed to catch fire.

All the while, New York itself was scorching.

With rap rising and NYC on fire, could Hov find a way to conquer his hometown and reach the whole world?

Car Radio

Typically, the songs that ring off on Top 40 are not the same ones rap purists ride to.

At a time when everyone was dropping albums costing $16 a piece, resonating on the radio meant more to fans than ever — especially if you’re stuck in Rush Hour.

Across the board, hip-hop’s top artists were betting big on a hit single and music video to gain traction. Quite literally seeing the bigger picture, Jay-Z was working his records through movies.

Having learned a lesson from “Ain’t No…” ascending off its placement in the Eddie Murphy-led The Nutty Professor, Jay’s dual Def Jam deal pushed “Can I Get A…” to the forefront of Rush Hour‘s red carpet.

Pairing Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker at their commercial height, Rush Hour pulled in over $244 million at the box office, exposing the track to a broader audience than record store shelves alone could have bargained for.

From seats to soundtracks, Jay-Z’s lead single for 1998’s Vol. 2 was slowly growing through theaters, promo sales, and music video rotation.

All the while, “Can I Get A…” wasn’t Jay-Z’s only single on the charts.

The slow-burn success of the Rush Hour hit was all drafting off a collaboration on par with Chan and Tucker’s double act.

Months before the movie hit theatres, Atlanta hitmaker Jermaine Dupri called on Mr. Carter to co-write his second solo single, “Money Ain’t a Thang.”

Prior to 1998, the Kriss Kross producer and Reasonable Doubt rapper couldn’t have occupied more opposite ends of the hip-hop spectrum, but suddenly, there they were. With Dupri looking to gain equity as an artist and Hov hoping to take his business down South, the pairing positioned the anthem not as an answer to the jiggy wave, but rather a celebration of elite taste.

Through two covert moves, Hov had Middle America eating popcorn to his single and bottles being bought to his feature. Adding in the equity of his own film foray, Streets is Watching, Hov was heating up.

In a matter of months, he caught the eyes and even had the ears — but what he needed next was the heart.

Lukewarm to Hot

The winter of 1997 was both ice-cold and sizzling for hip-hop’s Iceberg Slim.

Only months removed from Biggie Smalls’ death, Jay-Z was pulled into the Bad Boy Family fold for Puff Daddy’s No Way Out tour. Serving as the opening act for a bill that featured Diddy, Ma$e, Busta Rhymes, Usher, and more, the once-underground rapper was now playing packed houses.

“Rappers don’t usually get to go out and tour the whole globe,” Jay told MTV in 1997. “If you’re performing in front of 15,000, that’s rare in rap. Puff opened a lot of doors for a lot of rappers.”

Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

As an opener, Jay’s time on stage was short.

However, a beat played by DJ Kid Capri between sets suddenly changed his whole career.

“When we did the Diddy tour, I had ‘Hard Knock Life’ on a plate — just the beat,” Kid Capri told Sway in 2013. “I used to play it in the arena. On the third show, Jay ran out and he heard it like, ‘Yo, what’s that?’ I said, ‘You want that?’ I put him on the phone with 45 right there in the arena.”

In a matter of minutes, Jay was on the phone with the 45 King, a DJ and producer who emerged from rap’s golden age in the Bronx. Not long after, Jay-Z quit the tour.

“Two weeks later, the record came out,” Carpi said. “And it was his biggest record ever.”

“I probably did that song in maybe five minutes,” Jay-Z said in 2010.

Making the most of an Annie LP that 45 King bought at the Salvation Army for 25 cents, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” grew to be an absolute smash, cracking the Top 10 in a dozen countries.

Regardless of region or language, the song simply connected.

“I grew up around music listening to all types of people,” Jay told MTV in 1998. “I’m into music that has soul in it. Whether it be rap, R&B, pop music, whatever, as long the person’s soul is in it and I can feel it through the way, that’s what I listen to.”

While “Can I Get A…” brought Hov into movie theatres, “Hard Knock Life” booked him onto award shows and the late-night circuit. With one hit, “Hard Knock Life” proved the foundation for Platinum single sales and a No. 1 album.

“He has a lot of big records,” Carpi noted. “But that was the big one.”

Shortly after Vol. 2‘s release, Jay performed the single on HBO’s The Chris Rock Show. Rocking the new Air Jordans — two weeks before they came out — Jay took the stage not flanked by hypemen or models but rather by a set of swaying neighborhood kids.

“What I represent is a group of people,” Jay told MTV. “I represent every ghetto and every urban area across the country. I’m the people, I’m the rebellious voice that’s like, ‘Yo, pay attention to us.’ That’s what I do.”

Across the country, fans would soon find out firsthand.

Road Warrior

Despite Jay dropping from the lineup, Puff Daddy and the Family’s No Way Out Tour was a torrid success. More than that, it set a new standard for hip-hop as a commercial juggernaut.

“There were no big tours concerning rap because there was so much negativity,” Ma$e told The Baltimore Sun in 1997. “We’ll open doors for other rap groups to go out and have a good time, without everybody being so scared.”

Mission accomplished. The tour grossed $16 million.

photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Looking to take it further, Jay-Z announced the Hard Knock Life Tour in 1999, taking DMX, Method Man, Redman, and DJ Clue on the road.

Despite the safety and success of Puff’s platform, media members and venue owners alike questioned Jay’s venture given the gritty nature of his lineup. Even with a hit single and No. 1 album, the tour was considered a high-stakes gamble for bookers.

“For a while, we couldn’t tour because we had to get so much security for the buildings and they were pushing insurance up so high because they thought something was gonna happen,” Jay told MTV in 1999. “We’re setting a precedent with this tour, it’s going off with no violence.”

From March to May, the Hard Knock Life tour would rock arenas from Toronto to Tampa and from Camden to Cali. Moving smoothly and safely to each sold-out date, the tour made a record-setting $18 million — besting Puff’s own impressive precedent.

photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Adorning a local sports legend’s jersey at every stop, Hov was both walking and working like a ballplayer. The tour saw stretches with five shows in five nights.

More than that, it saw success. The show was so popular that arenas were selling tickets behind the stage in sections usually left empty by design, sight lines be damned.

Moreover, Jay admirably donated ticket proceeds from a show in Colorado to benefit the families impacted by the tragic Columbine school shooting.

Always aware of earnings, performance and bus footage was repackaged as Backstage, a concert film distributed by Dimension Films with a soundtrack that went Gold.

The Hard Knock Life Tour proved that everything Jay touched turned to Gold if not Platinum.

Better yet? His prime run was only just beginning.

Jay-Z’s Last Dance

In 1997, Jay-Z alluded to Vol. 2 being his last album long before it ever came out.

During his co-venture with Def Jam, he was under contract to put out projects despite his original intent to retire after Reasonable Doubt, his debut LP. Instead, he had the hot hand in music, movies, and merchandise.

The album rollout for Vol. 2 gauged interest from Def Jam, New Line Cinema, and any arena brave enough to book the record-breaking tour. Months after the Hard Knock Life Tour wrapped, Jay-Z brought his stage set to the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards.

While Hov played the entire arena run in a series of carefully selected athletic jerseys, this time, his whole team was adorned in Roc-A-Wear for the ceremony stage.

The clothing company, perhaps previewed in the “Hard Knock Life” video, was a venture in leveraging lifestyle.

As the story goes, fellow Roc-A-Fella co-founder Dame Dash reached out to clothing company Iceberg in hopes of an endorsement deal for Jay. When they rejected the idea, the Roc team began exploring the idea of developing their own brand.

In a matter of years, Roc-A-Wear would post $700 million in annual sales. Even in the midst of making some of his finest and most successful music, the “Dead Presidents” rapper still saw his growing legacy as being much bigger than hip-hop music alone.

“I see myself as an entrepreneur, period,” Jay said. “If it wasn’t this it’d be something else. I never saw myself having a boss, I just saw myself working for myself.”

The same kids swaying in his videos could work like Hov or work for Hov.

“Our kids don’t have a legacy,” Jay-Z added in an interview with Fox Files in 1998. “We want to put together something real special so that our kids and our kids’s kids know they have a place, that they have something at Roc-A-Fella.”

photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images

With Vol. 2, Jay furthered himself and his label as tastemakers in film and fashion while further strengthening its place in the music game.

The album introduced both Beanie Sigel and Ja Rule to the public eye while also paving paths for Memphis Bleek and Amil.

Suddenly, Roc-A-Fella was a reputable outfit for breaking up-and-coming artists. Though skyscraper visions all came to fruition in time, they emerged from “Hard Knock Life.”

“The song was so appropriate for the whole album because we definitely took it back 360,” Jay said.

Able to rock arenas with a call-and-response flow and side-to-side bop, the single allowed Jay to become the man across the country and the God MC back home in New York.

With that tour take-home, he could build Baseline Studios in Manhattan without having to pay for studio time. With the album’s cachet on the radio and in the streets, he could hop on songs with DMX and Mariah Carey alike, operating in all lanes.

photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In the quarter-century since Vol. 2 was released, Hov himself has ranked it as his fourth-best album, outdone only by The Black Album, The Blueprint, and Reasonable Doubt.

These days, he considers himself retired from rapping as he ascended to billionaire status by mastering marketing far beyond the booth.

“I see myself as so much more than a rapper,” Jay told Blues & Soul back in ’98. “I really believe I’m the voice for a lot of people who don’t have that microphone or who can’t rap.”

It all harkens back to a time when rap was winning and New York was up for grabs. A time when things clicked for Jay-Z in the boardroom and in the studio.

“Now, we’re set up to operate like businessmen,” Jay told Oneworld in 1998. “For the whole album, I was on top of my game creatively.”

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.