Today marks 20 years since the release of Jay-Z’s third studio album, Vol 2… Hard Knock Life. While the album’s legacy is often overlooked in favor of other Jay classics, Hard Knock Life still remains Jay’s commercial peak to this day, and represents the beginning of hip hop’s invasion of the mainstream.
On Pusha T’s 2018 highlight, “Infrared,” he muses about the fickle nature of the mainstream in relation to the rap game:
Shit, remember Will Smith won the first Grammy?
And they ain’t even recognize Hov until Annie…”
The scathing critique has more than a little truth in it: it wasn’t until Jay-Z’s third album that he was recognised by The Recording Academy, and though he won Best Rap Album, Jay wasn’t there to collect it. “I am boycotting the Grammys because too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked,” said Jay in a statement, his loyalties lying with the culture itself.
In retrospect, it’s an indictment on the Academy that he wasn’t recognised earlier. Jay-Z followed up his acclaimed debut, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, with a trilogy: 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, 1998’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, and 1999’s Vol. 3…. Life and Times of S. Carter. Whilst these three records aren’t thematically linked, they chart Jay’s rise from hot up-and-comer to hip hop royalty.
Even 20 years on, Vol 2… Hard Knock Life remains Jay’s commercial apex. Buoyed by “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” then his most successful single, the LP went 3x Multi-Platinum in just two-and-a-half months. As of 2013, the record had sold 5.4 million copies, making it one of the most successful hip hop albums of all time. Complex listed it as the 18th best-selling rap album, beating out classics such as DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Nas’ It Was Written.
In celebration of the records 20th anniversary, we’re exploring the record by way of the 16 samples within, looking at work from DJ Premier, Swizz Beatz, The 45 King and many more, as well as diving into the collaborators Jay-Z pulled in on the album. Sit back and dive in.
Sampling with Jigga
Breaking Down Every Sample from Vol 2… Hard Knock Life
“Intro – Hand It Down” Samples
The album opens with a spoken word piece from Roc-A-Fella monologuer, Wayne ‘Pain In Da Ass’ Hirschorn. He bases his piece, about the mock-retirement of Jay and the come up of Memphis Bleek, on an internal monologue from Brian De Palma’s 1993 crime film, Carlito’s Way. The speech contextualises the absence of Jay on the track, who’s apparently chosen to retire and give his spot to Bleek, a “new, improved Jay-Z” in the making. Though there “ain’t enough money in [the] game” for him, Jay’s back in time for track two.
Though it’s still from Carlito’s Way, Pain In Da Ass’ signoff – “okay, I’m reloaded!” – is interpolated from a separate section of the film. Pain In Da Ass, a Roc-A-Fella collaborator, provided similar monologues on Reasonable Doubt, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, and Kingdom Come.
The sample that forms the crux of the instrumental is chopped and screwed beyond recognition, though it’s originally sourced from Four Tops’ “Are You Man Enough?” The 1973 track was released as the second track on the Shaft In Africa soundtrack, and became one of their later hits, peaking at #15 on the Hot 100.
The Bleek lyrics at 1:10 – “tryna come up in the game,” “bringing the drama” and “add a couple of dollar signs” – are sampled from his verse on “Coming of Age,” a track included on Jay’s classic ‘96 debut, Reasonable Doubt. Producer DJ Premier is known for both his self-sampling tendencies as well as his love of scratched vocal hooks (think Nas’ “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In The Park)” and Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean”). It’s no surprise that this track – the only one he produced on the record – contains almost a third of the album’s samples.
The “Roc-A-Fella, y’all” sample that appears at 1:20 is taken from a slightly obscure Jay-Z joint, “Who You Wit?”
Whilst “Who You Wit II” was included on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, “Who You Wit” was originally recorded for the 1997 Sprung soundtrack. Jay presumably liked the track so much that he added a new verse and included the remix on his own studio album. The track was produced by Ski, who provided four tracks for Reasonable Doubt and two for In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Like all of Jay’s early producers, with the notable exception of DJ Premier, Ski did not appear on Vol. 2, and never produced for Jay again after ‘97.
Legendary producer The 45 King, known otherwise for Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” and Eminem’s “Stan,” samples the titular refrain from famous showtune “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.” That track was written for 1977’s Annie, the orphan-centric musical adventure which was later immortalised in a 1982 feature film. He loops the opening bar, embellishing the track with drums, a bassline and some stronger instrumental hits.
The 45 King recalls having the initial idea after seeing a TV spot for the 1997 Broadway revival of Annie. He bought the cast recording LP from the Salvation Army for a quarter, stumbled upon the sung vocals of “Hard Knock Life” and added drums. Originally slated for inclusion on Kid Capri’s then-upcoming album, Jay heard him spin the record during an after-show set and reached out the 45 King. Jay recalls laying the vocals “in maybe five minutes.”
At 1:07, Jay interpolates a single word in the style of his late friend and collaborator, The Notorious B.I.G.. Jay’s delivery of the word “baby” harks back to Biggie’s “Big Poppa,” the smash hit single included on his 1994 debut, Ready To Die. Jay collaborated with Biggie on Reasonable Doubt cut “Brooklyn’s Finest,” and the pair later linked up on 1997’s “I Love The Dough,” included on B.I.G.’s Life After Death, released a mere 16 days after his yet-unsolved murder. Jay took his death hard, and many see his sophomore album, 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, as directly influenced by the event. That album contains “Where I’m From,” which samples Biggie’s “Me & My Bitch.”
“If I Should Die” Samples
“Ride or Die” Samples
The three-note riff that enters at 0:57 is lifted from another 1998 track. Playa’s “Cheers 2 U” was released on March 10, six-and-a-half months prior to “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” though the pair are bridged by the work of then-up-and-coming producer Timbaland. Static Major, a member of Playa, would go on to co-write and feature on Lil Wayne’s Carter III classic “Lollipop,” though he suddenly died 16 days before the release of the chart-topping hit.
“Money, Cash, Hoes” Samples
The track closes with an interpolation of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The 1990 crime epic – arguably Scorsese’s masterpiece – has attained a cult following in hip hop, alongside other ostentatious and ruthless crime sagas such as Scarface and The Godfather. Jay’s debut, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, remains a prime example of mafioso rap, a specifically Mafia-themed niche of gangsta rap inhabited by acts such as Nas, Raekwon and Kool G Rap. The monologue, altered to implicate Jay and his music, is again delivered by Pain In Da Ass.
“A Week Ago” Samples
Though they’re undoubtedly funk legends by their own efforts, The Isley Brothers have inadvertently become hip hop royalty in the years since they achieved mainstream success. On “A Week Ago,” producer J-Runnah flips the group’s 1983 joint, “Ballad of the Fallen Soldier,” to create the smooth key refrain throughout. That song was included on their 22nd album, Between The Sheets, the title track of which featured on Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” just four years earlier. They also featured prominently on other ‘90s hits such as Ice Cube’s “Today Was A Good Day” and Tupac’s “My Block”, and Jay himself would later use “Between The Sheets” on 2007’s “Ignorant Shit.” Though the tracks share almost identical titles, there’s no sample of the Isley Brothers’ track on Jay’s 2002 Neptunes-produced Blueprint2 cut, “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier.”
The track’s titular refrain is sourced from another Jay Z joint, 1996’s “Dead Presidents.” That song takes its own refrain from a classic Illmatic cut, “The World Is Yours,” a sample which angered Nas and kickstarted one of the most storied and significant beefs in hip hop history.
The lyric featured on “A Week Ago” appears at 2:10 on “Dead Presidents,” when Jay raps “it was all good just a week ago.” The appearance on “A Week Ago” is not a direct sample, but instead an interpolation, or replayed sample of the same elements.
“Coming of Age (Da Sequel)” Samples
“Can I Get A…” Samples
“Paper Chase” Samples
The sole sample on the Timbaland-produced “Paper Chase” is taken from Ernie Hines’ 1970 single, “Help Me Put Out The Flames (In My Heart).” The 7” offering was released by legendary soul label, Stax Records, as Hine’s third standalone single. Hines released a single album, Electrified, in 1972, disappearing soon after. He returned to music in the early 2000s, after crate diggin’ soul fans turned his sole LP into a cult favourite. Despite this reverence, “Help Me Put Out The Flames (In My Heart)” was sampled just once more, on Ginuwine’s 1999 cut “Toe 2 Toe,” also produced by Timbaland.
“Reservoir Dogs” Samples
The Erick Sermon-produced posse cut takes a cue from a classic Isaac Hayes joint. “Theme from Shaft” itself makes a convincing case for Shaft’s legend, painting him as a smooth-talking, crime-fighting envoy of black righteousness. The character debuted in 1971’s Shaft, portrayed by Richard Roundtree, and returned for two sequels. The soundtracks have since turned out many recognisable samples, including the riff underpinning Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” and Jay’s “Show Me What You Got.” The choice to back the posse cut with the “Theme from Shaft” speaks volumes about the emcees involved and Jay’s subtle-but-effective self-mythologizing.
“It’s Like That” Samples
Producer and noted hypeman Kid Capri flips a sample from Wet Willie’s “Beggar’s Song.” An American band from Mobile, Alabama, Wet Willie recorded seven studio LPs throughout the ‘70s, achieving some mainstream commercial successes, though the record is still an obscure find. The group, who are very rarely sampled, were given some shine here: “Beggar’s Song,” which had never before been sampled, appeared on six tracks in the years following Vol. 2. It most notably featured on a 2001 Cormega track, “Fallen Soldiers.”
At the time of release, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was Jay’s leanest offering yet. The twelve-track LP would remain his lightest for nearly 20 years, only unseated by the ten-track 4:44 in 2017.
The Patterns on Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
There’s no shortage of patterns and coincidences running throughout the production on Vol 2. Some producers were still ironing out their quirks, such as Timbaland, whilst others were treading their well-worn paths, such as sample-heavy stalwart DJ Premier.
In fact, Timbaland revisited all three of his Vol. 2 samples: he’d already featured Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Sunshine” on his own “Up Jumps Da Boogie (Remix),” released one year prior to Jay’s third LP. The producer later sampled Ernie Hines’ “Help Me Put Out the Flame (In My Heart)” on Ginuwine’s 1999 track “Toe 2 Toe,” marking the second and – to date – final sample of the obscure Stax soul jam. Finally, Timbaland also sampled Playa’s “Cheers 2 U” – a track he himself produced – on Justin Timberlake’s 2006 FutureSex/LoveSounds cut, “Until The End Of Time.”
Swizz Beatz, however, favoured instrumentation over sampling throughout his early career. Though the riff on “Money, Cash, Hoes” bears a striking resemblance to an early Japanese platformer OST, the synthesizer riff was actually conceived after Swizz ran his hand across the keyboard as a joke.
Coincidentally, the Erick Sermon-produced “Reservoir Dogs” samples the same track as a far earlier Jay-Z joint. “Show & Prove” was included on Big Daddy Kane’s sixth album, 1994’s Daddy’s Home, and featured an unduly stacked roster: Kane, Shyheim, Scoob Lover, Sauce Money, Jay-Z and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. On that track, Kane interpolates Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft,” the same track that forms the instrumental backbone of “Reservoir Dogs.” Furthermore, both tracks feature early Jay associate Sauce Money, who, alongside Jaz-O, allegedly turned down their Roc-A-Fella contracts in the late ‘90s.
Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life: Album Producers
Vol. 1 found Jay expanding his roster, collaborating with three new and noted producers. This wasn’t as much a happy coincidence as a deliberate move from the emcee, who retained the services of just one familiar producer, DJ Premier. Whilst it wasn’t until 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia that Jay enlisted Roc-A-Fella mainstays such as Kanye West, Just Blaze, Bink! And The Neptunes, the roster he embraced on Vol. 2 proved artistically and commercially effective.
The 45 King & Jay-Z
Perhaps the most indispensable of the new collaborators was veteran The 45 King, whose previous credits included production for Gang Starr and Queen Latifah as well as ghost-production for Eric B. & Rakim. The pair first crossed paths in 1991, when Jay mentor Big Jaz released his six-track EP, Ya Don’t Stop. 45 produced “The Sign Of The Crimes” and “Rhymes For Da Funny Farm,” whilst Jay-Z featured on the Prince Paul-produced “It’s That Simple.” His beat for “Hard Knock Life,” originally intended for Kid Capri, signified a return to the limelight for the respected producer, who had spent much of the mid-’90s focusing on his extensive breakbeat compilation series. He’d reappear two years later, producing Eminem’s smash-hit single, “Stan.”
Swizz Beatz & Jay-Z
The record also marked the first collaboration between Jay and then-young prodigy Swizz Beatz. Though just 19 years old, Swizz had produced singles for DMX (“Ruff Ryders Anthem”), Busta Rhymes (“Tear da Roof Off”) and Noreaga (“Banned from T.V.”), a resume that landed him 3 credits on Vol. 2, more than any other producer. It was the start of a longstanding association between Swizz and Roc-A-Fella, who would go on to produce tracks such as Jay-Z’s “Jigga My Nigga” and Memphis Bleek’s “Memphis Bleek Is…”. Despite this relationship, Swizz remained far more involved with the work of DMX’s Ruff Ryders.
Timbaland & Jay-Z
Timbaland got his break in ‘93, when he produced two tracks on Jodeci’s Diary of a Mad Band, including “Sweaty,” which featured the debut appearance of Missy Elliott. His mid-‘90s successes included extensive work on Aaliyah’s One In A Million and Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, though it was after he linked up with Jay-Z that Timbaland made some of his most memorable joints. The Virginia-born producer was responsible for Vol 2. standout “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)” as well as later tracks “Big Pimpin’,” “The Bounce,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “Holy Grail.”
Hard Knock Life: Album Features
The three most significant features encompass distinct relationships: that of the mentor (Big Jaz), the contemporary (DMX), and the mentee (Memphis Bleek).
Big Jaz & Jay-Z
Big Jaz, better known as Jaz-O, was an essential player in Jay’s rise to prominence. Jay’s earliest and longest serving mentor, Jaz featured the young emcee on essential pre-Reasonable Doubt cuts such as 1986’s “HP Gets Busy,” 1989’s “Hawaiian Sophie,” and 1990’s “The Originators.” Jay Z played a role in all three of his studio LPs: ‘89’s Word To The Jaz, ‘90’s To Your Soul, and his 2002 return, Kingz County.
Jay’s rapid come-up meant that he quickly eclipsed his mentor, though he made sure to repay the debt with two high-profile guest spots: “Bring It On,” from 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, and “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originators 99)” from Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life. Jaz also produced early Jay cuts “Ain’t No Nigga” and “Rap Game / Crack Game.”
Despite their long standing partnership – both professional and personal – the duo fell out badly in the late ‘90s, after Jaz was offered a deal with Jay’s Roc-A-Fella records. Both Jaz and Sauce Money turned down their Roc-A-Fella deals, reportedly unhappy with the terms of the contracts and distrustful of label co-founders Dame Dash and Kareem Burke. Jaz’s failure to ink the deal caused a rift between him and Jay, and whilst the latter appeared on Jaz’s 2002 LP, the pair were hardly friendly at the time of release.
It’s rumoured that Jaz provided Nas with the information he used on 2001 diss track “Ether,” though there’s little that definitively ties him to the legendary feud. Nas had his own beef with both Jay himself and Roc-A-Fella records: at one time, the label was to release the much-anticipated debut from his hip hop supergroup, The Firm, though the deal fell through.
It was only in December of 2017 that Jay and Jaz reconciled, with the latter making an appearance on the Chicago leg of the 4:44 Tour. The unlikely reunion, whilst subdued, signified the end of nearly two decades of bad blood.
DMX & Jay-Z
Despite his mid-to-late ’90s come up, DMX had been kicking around for the better part of the decade, appearing in The Source’s ‘Unsigned Hype’ column in January 1991.
It was around this time that Jay and DMX first met: sometime in 1994, the pair squared off in a legendary Bronx rap battle. Little is actually known of the confrontation, a fact which hasn’t got in the way of some solid hip hop mythologizing. Jay was repping Original Flavor, a posse that included then-Jay affiliate Sauce Money, whilst DMX fought for the Harlem Knights, supported by Ruff Ryders co-founder Waah Dean.
“Jay and X went for hours, going in,” remembered Dean. “DMX came all the way from Maryland for that battle.”
It was record executive Irv Gotti who reunited Jay and DMX, who featured on Mic Geronimo’s 1995 track “Time To Build” alongside contemporary Ja Rule. A standout posse cut from The Natural, Geronimo’s first album, “Time To Build” credited the trio as ‘Murder Inc.,’ signifying the formation of a new hip hop outfit. The record fell largely on deaf ears: whilst a Jay/Ja/DMX joint would have rocked hip hop just a few years later, none of the Murder Inc. members had released their own debuts.
Despite their successes, the spectre of the ‘94 battle continued to hang over the outfit. Both Irv Gotti and Ja Rule have pointed to Jay and X’s relationship as the cause of Murder Inc.’s collapse. “X hated Jay because [the ‘94 Bronx battle] was the one battle that he said it wasn’t absolutely sure in everyone’s mind that he won,” said Irv. Ja noted that due to this grudge, they “couldn’t get X and Jay in the same room,” their animosity slowly unravelling any chance at the hallowed collaborative LP.
Despite their grievances, Jay and DMX managed to hold it together long enough to record two official Murder Inc. tracks: ‘98’s “Murdergram” and ‘99’s “It’s Murda.” What’s more, DMX shared top billing alongside Method Man and Redman on Jay’s 1999 Hard Knock Life Tour, a 36-date national trek named for the newly released hit LP. Though no footage of their storied battle has since surfaced, a short and competitive freestyle was included in the 2000 tour documentary, Backstage. However, in a telling twist, no DMX tracks were featured on the accompanying doco soundtrack.
At the final show of Beyoncé’s Formation Tour, which ended on October 7, 2016, Murder Inc. came together again. The unlikely reunion was little more than a backstage meetup, though even that came as a surprise to fans. It was DJ Khaled who brought the three artists together, a meeting testament to the unbelievable networking skills that have made him such a powerhouse figure in the hip hop scene. There are videos of the encounter, which show the three reminiscing on their tumultuous relationship, with DMX telling Jay that he’s “still gotta get [him] on the pool table.”
— Beyoncé International 🏳️🌈 (@BeyonceINTL) October 8, 2016
Memphis Bleek & Jay-Z
Perhaps the standout guest on the record, Memphis Bleek was presented as the heir to the Roc-A-Fella throne. The album opens with a “Intro / Hand It Down,” a track outlining Bleek’s path of succession: Roc-A-Fella skit personality Pain In Da Ass hails him as a “new, improved Jay-Z.”
Bleek had previously appeared on Reasonable Doubt, providing bars on “Coming of Age,” though he failed to appear on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 the following year. Whilst many of Jay’s previous collaborators were dropped in favour of newer voices, Bleek remained a fixture throughout Jay’s most tumultuous period, appearing on Vol. 3, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia and The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse. Bleek’s relationship with Jay likely cemented his position in the Roc: the pair grew up together in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses.
Bleek’s first solo record, 1999’s Coming of Age, was named for the track on which the young rapper got his start. The record was stacked with Roc-A-Fella associates and Jay-Z collaborators, featuring production from Swizz Beatz, J-Runnah, Irv Gotti and Buckwild, as well as guest features from Ja Rule, Beanie Sigel, N.O.R.E and Jay himself. The album’s sole single, “Memphis Bleek Is…,” became a minor hit, peaking at #93 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart.
His sophomore album, 2000’s The Understanding, featured four separate Jay-Z features, as well as appearances from Roc affiliates Amil, Beanie Sigel and Twista. Production was handled by a similarly Jay-associated roster, including Just Blaze and Timbaland. The album produced three singles, all of which featured Jay. The same year, Bleek was recording a collaborative LP with Sigel when his brother was badly injured in a motorcycle accident. For the next year and a half, the increasingly prolific artist receded from the scene and cared for his family.
2003’s M.A.D.E. – an acronym for “Money, Attitude, Direction, Education” – included further Jay features and Just Blaze assists. Standout track “I Wanna Love You” featured production from a College Dropout Era Kanye. 2005’s 534, so named for the address of the Marcy Houses, remains Bleek’s most recent solo effort. The album also featured another appearance from Jay-Z, notable for appearing during his brief retirement, as well as the first ever appearance from Def Jam signee Rihanna, whose blockbuster debut, Music Of The Sun, would follow three months later.
There’s no resolution to this story, because there was never any bad blood: though Bleek hasn’t featured on a Jay release since 2004’s Unfinished Business, a critically eviscerated collaborative LP with R Kelly, the pair have remained close friends. When Bleek married in 2014, both Jay and Beyoncé were in attendance, a courtesy he famously failed to extend to protegé and collaborator Kanye West the very same year.
Hard Knock Life: Greatness Overshadowed by Excellence
The twenty years since Vol. 2 have cemented Jay as one of the greatest emcees of all time. His catalogue, which spans more than three decades, makes for hip hop’s most impressive reign at the top, with little more than a few mid-tier records to bring it down.
Even now, Jay serves as the test case for an aging emcee: with most of his forefathers long retired, Jay is one of the oldest hip hop veterans to maintain a cultural presence. A businessman, entrepreneur and emcee rolled into one, Jay’s vision of black excellence and uncanny ability to continually innovate have made him a remarkably enduring artist.
What makes this record so remarkable is the way it slots into Jay’s catalogue: whilst a lesser artist might call it a career highlight, the fantastic project has since become just another entry in his extensive and consistent discography. Whilst seldom mentioned in the same breath as Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life is Jay at the peak of his late-’90s powers.