While it may not be his best album from a lyrical standpoint, there is no doubt that Vol 2. Hard Knock Life, released 14 years ago today, made Jay-Z a crossover sensation. His failed attempt to reach a wider audience on In My Lifetime Vol. 1 was redeemed with one sample of a theme song from a certain redheaded little girl. The album (supposedly his last under the two-album deal he signed with Def Jam at the time) sold over 5 million copies, still his highest selling work to date. To celebrate the release of this landmark (a great day for rap albums with Outkast‘s Aquemini and A Tribe Called Quest‘s last album The Love Movement released as well) check out some of Jay-Z’s best lines from each song on the album (with the exception of Hand It Down which was all Memphis Bleek): It’s the Roc!
Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) (this joint set it off for Hova’s rap career. He was really gonna retire after this album, but 5 million albums later he reconsidered and the music industry is better for it)
“where all my n-ggaz wit the rubber grips bust shots/ and if you wit me ma I’m rubbin’ your t-ts and what not/ I’m from the school of the hard knocks we must not/let outsiders violate our blocks and my plot/ stick up the world and split it fifty fifty, uh huh/ get the dough and stay real Jiggy, uh huh/ sip the Cris and stay pissy pissy/ flow infinitely like the memory of my n-gga Biggie, baby!”
If I Should Die (this was one of those hypothetical joints that was famous at the time [Ma$e's - 24 Hrs to Live, Nas - I Gave You Power], but Jay knocked it out of the park. Whatever happened to the Rahnjaz?)
“I’d tell Big they’re still hearing his songs/ run into ‘Pac ask him where we went wrong/ tell him life is miserable when you dealing in the physical form/ is everything that’s invisible gone?/ I need to know..”
Ride or Die (part two to Imaginary Player from the previous Vol. 1 album. This joint put Jay up there with KRS One and LL Cool J [remember, Eminen didn't hit the scene yet and Nas was a few years away from Ether] as rappers you did not want to cross on wax. Think about it, these lyrics may have pushed Ma$e into retirement. No one likes to get jerked)
“n-iggaz cat fightin’ wit Jigga kickin’ sneak sh-t/ makin little tapes but keepin’ it secret/ cuz I kick that deep sh-t that divide your peeps sh-t/ that ‘I don’t know if you f-ckin’ wit Jigga kickin’ that weak sh-t, dawg’ …” (Honorable mention – “you see the respect I get every time I come through/ check your own videos you’ll always be number 2…”) Ouch.
N-gga What, N-gga Who (Originator ’99) (a brilliant return to the speed rapping of his early days, Jigga featues his mentor Jaz-O on this update of Jaz’s original track)
“got a condo with nothin’ but condoms in it/ same place where the rhymes is invented/ so all I do is rap and sex/ imagine how I stroke, see how I was flowin’ on my last cassette/ rapid fire like i’m blastin’ a Tec/ never jam though never get high never run outta ammo…”
Money, Cash, H-es feat. DMX (DMX was everywhere in ’98 so it was only right Jay-Z put him on a song. The beat [produced by a young Swizz Beatz] was sick and the rhymes were slick which equals all the makings of an underground classic)
“I know they gonna criticize the hook on this song/ like I give a f-ck I’m just a crook on this song…”
(Honorable mention – “sex murder and mayhem romance for the street/ only wife of mine is a life of crime/ and since life’s a bitch in mini-skirts and big chests/ how can I not flirt with death…”) I know what you’re thinking…. that “New York’s been soft since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings” line was controversial but not the best. Next!
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A Week Ago feat. Too Short (just a year earlier The Notorious B.I.G. put the East Coast on to how funny Too Short could be on a track with “The World Is Filled” so when Jigga recruited him to talk smack on this record it was a match made in music heaven…Beyotch!)
“The Feds came to get me, we both fled quickly/ wasn’t quick enough to jump over the hedges with me/ got caught, and that’s when our relationship strayed/ used to call me from the joint til he ran out of change/ and when he called collect and I heard his name/ I quickly accepted, but when I reached the phone/ he’s talkin reckless, I can sense deceit in his tone/ I said, “Damn dawg, what, nine weeks and you’re home?”/ he said, “Main man, you think s-it’s sweet cause you’re home…” (this shot Hov up the storytelling ladder as well)
Coming of Age (Da Sequel) feat. Memphis Bleek (Jay-Z kept trying to pass the torch to young Bleek on this album hoping he would carry Roc-a-Fella Records on his back, but that didn’t work out so well. Another reason Hova had to extend his prolific run a few more summers)
“look at that fake smile he just gave me it’s breaking my heart/ should I school him or pull the tools out and just break him apart…”
Can I Get A… feat. Ja Rule & Amil of Major Coins (ladies and gentlemen introducing Ja Rule. The little man with the big voice made his commercial debut on this track but Jigga still did his thing)
“Can I hit it in the morning without giving you half of my dough/ and even worse if I was broke would you want me?” In two words, probably not. (Side note: Amil couldn’t ask for a better set up to launch a rap career than this track and she blew it. I won’t even ask where the other two ladies in Major Coins are now)
Paper Chase feat. Foxy Brown (whenever these two got together on a track something special always happened. That being said if these two never fell out there probably would be no Amil on all those other records)
“I got jobs for ya drop Saabs for ya/ more arms than Green Bay Brett Favre for ya” (yeah I know Foxy said this, but Jay wrote her verse too so technically it is his words. Not my fault he gave his best lines away on this track)
Resevoir Dogs feat. The Lox, Beanie Siegel & Sauce Money (one of the more underrated posse cuts in rap)
“flow with no cut, you take it in vein to the brain/ muf–kas is noddin’ and throwin’ up/ you know that you don’t wanna owe that man/ he’ll hit ya get the picture, Kodak man” (Sauce Money stole the show on this one “whips phatter than the sh-t they beat slaves with” is just one of the gems in his verse, but I digress)
It’s Like That feat. Kid Capri
“cuz I go in ya deeper I only bone divas/ impregnate the world when I cum through your speakers/ f-ck hot my records got the fever/ n-ggas kick dirt get your whole block sweeped up”
It’s Alright (this was on The Streets Is Watchin’ soundtrack. Jay was not one to recycle tracks so I’m not sure why it was on this album as well)
“on the jewels I blew more money than Latrell (Sprewell)…” (this was around the time Latrell Sprewell choked out his coach PJ Carlisemo, lost practically an entire season in pay and became fodder for every rapper’s rhyme book. Thankfully Jigga jumped on the trend early before the reference got played out)
[Honorable mention - "they ain't seeing me holdin' the mic/ so in your life you find MC's so impolite/ and me I'm so nice got cats on the corner like/ 'don't me and Jigga be flowin' alike?'/ nah not in your life ain't nobody poppin' like Mr. Jay-Z..."]
Money Ain’t A Thing feat. Jermaine Dupri (This song showed rappers how to stunt way before G-Unit)
“Willies wanna rub shoulders your money’s too young/ see me when it gets older your bank account grow up…” (can you imagine someone saying that to you? So disrespectful.)