If you saw my “Ironman” review a couple of months ago you know there are a few reviews in my lifetime that I regret. One of the biggest was an overly harsh review of Jay-Z’s “Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life” that was done by a young man fresh out of college with a lot of unresolved anger issues. Instead of working on my own shit I took it out on Shawn Carter for whatever I perceived to be a pop album beneath one of the top rappers in New York. That was unfair. You know it and I know it. Even Jay knew it. He was telling me on “Hard Knock Life” and I refused to listen.

“I gave you prophecy on my first joint, and y’all all lamed out
Didn’t really appreciate it, ’til the second one came out
So I stretched the game out, etched your name out, put Jigga on top
to drop albums nonstop for ya nigga”

Jay’s first and second album ultimately went platinum (and it was a very slow burn for his debut), but “Vol. 2” rocketed to over six million copies thanks to a perfectly produced single from the late great 45 King. I don’t think even he could have anticipated how much “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” would crossover to the mainstream though. I’m sure Mark James knew he laced a banger track, but he couldn’t have known the residuals from it would fill his bank account for the rest of his life. I was a grouchy surly cuss simply because the song was overexposed and you couldn’t turn on the radio or the television without hearing it constantly, but it’s honestly not any different from anything else Jay-Z was doing other than the beat. He was the same hustling, struggling, rags to riches storytelling emcee, but now he was one with a mainstream hit that made him famous worldwide.

Somehow I was also offended by “Money, Cash, Hoes” and the production from Swizz Beatz. It took the death of DMX to make me realize there’s nothing wrong with this track, and once again Jay anticipated people misunderstanding him before I did. “I know they gon’ criticize the hook on this song/like I give a fuck, I’m just a crook on this song.” Damn. It wasn’t even the hook Jay, it was the sample. I didn’t even recognize it was from Golden Axe and just slowed way the hell down. I can admit I was wrong and while it’s not my favorite song on this CD it’s certainly not worthy of the hate I heaped on it 25 years ago.

The Irv Gotti & Lil Rob laced “Can I Get A…” is also better than I previously said. Amil is a trash female rapper and I stand by that, but her bars and contributions to the hook are completely overshadowed by both Jay-Z and Ja-Rule, who book end the song respectively. “I like a lot of Prada, AlizĂ© and vodka” is unforgettable simply by how banal it is, but she’s easily overshadowed in five words when Ja says “IT AIN’T EVEN A QUESTION.” Long before the term rizz god was a thing, Ja was 99% charisma and 1% whatever he had to say. Even if he had worse bars it wouldn’t have mattered (and he didn’t).

The real problem with “Vol. 2” was how much these handful of songs got played. Once Shawn Carter’s stock went public, people couldn’t get enough of him even if they were being spoon fed the same shit over and over again. There’s plenty of overlooked material on here worthy of the spotlight, like the Kid Capri produced “It’s Like That.” It sounds like a recording session straight from the “Reasonable Doubt” vault complete with a young energetic Shawn talking shit like only he can.

“I’m a hop skip and a jump from grippin the pump
Spittin a couple of curse words, and hittin you chump
Shit, I get digits in lumps
I’m a motherfuckin problem, is this what you want?”

Jay was also very generous with sharing his limelight, and even though I may have wanted him to hog the glory, I can’t deny The LOX spitting straight fire to the Isaac Hayes sample Erick Sermon (and friends) laced up on “Reservoir Dogs.” Sauce Money and Beanie Sigel almost end up being “accidentally featured” like Peacey P because much like Amil he’s overshadowed by the greatness surrounding him here. Don’t get it twisted — they’re fine — but they’re not spitting like Jadakiss. “Anything I’m on is a classic/Anyone I had beef with, son is a bastard.” Also Money might regret his “concentration camp” punchline; if not, he probably should.

And how was the Timbaland produced “Paper Chase” featuring Foxy Brown not a single? Let me rewind that and say it again — a duet between Jay-Z and Foxy Brown produced by Timbaland. You could consider any investment in this album money well spent just for this song.

Instead we got the Timbaland produced “Nigga What, Nigga Who.” No lie, it’s just as hot, but the Amil cameo was completely unnecessary and even more forgettable than her whack “Can I Get A…” bars. The most interesting things about the song are Jay returning to the rapid fire lyrical flow he was spitting when he was a relative unknown making cameos on Big Daddy Kane and Original Flavor tracks, and his mentor/coach The Jaz a/k/a Jaz-O getting to share the song with him. It seems like this was the last time the two were on good speaking terms.

Did I say Shawn Carter was generous on this album? Probably too much so with Amil, but in all other ways his instincts reaching out were on point. He put Too $hort on the J-Runnah laced “A Week Ago,” Memphis Bleek on the DJ Premier joint “Hand It Down,” and did a duet on Jermaine Dupri’s self-produced “Money Ain’t a Thang.” Yes it was on Dupri’s album but it was so good it needed to be run back a second time on Jay’s album, so I ain’t mad at it. Really that’s the bottom line of this re-review. Whatever type of way I felt about hearing that Little Orphan Annie hook on “Hard Knock Life” a million times, I’m over it now. This isn’t my favorite Jay-Z album but it’s a perfectly acceptable one.

Jay-Z :: Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life
7.5Overall Score