Jay-Z: Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life

Jay-Z: Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life

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Jay-Z

Album: Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life
Label: Rock-A-Feller/Def Jam

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Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life, like Mack 10's most recent album, features so many guest rappers and guest producers that it often feels more like a compilation of tracks that happen to feature Jay-Z than a collection of new material. But then again, if Hard Knock Life sounds familiar, there's good reason: About a third of its songs have already appeared on other albums. This strange twist of fate places Hard Knock Life's first proper single, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)"—a song that thoughtfully explores the parallels between hardcore rappers and adorable Broadway moppets—in the unusual position of having to compete on the pop charts with "Money Ain't A Thing," Jay-Z and Jermaine Dupri's ode to the wonders of crass consumerism, and "Can I Get A...," Jay-Z, Amil, and Ja Rule's single off the Rush Hour soundtrack. But, saturation aside, Hard Knock Life is a worthwhile if uneven album that, like Jay-Z's In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, alternates between hedonistic celebrations of wealth and songs that analyze street life with a psychological depth that sets him apart from rappers covering similar thematic material. The best songs on Hard Knock Life, like the best material on In My Lifetime, are the ones that strip gangsta rap of its superthug bravado and replace it with a more nuanced understanding of the human emotions behind the gangsta facade. Which is not to say that Jay-Z is immune to shallow posturing. On songs like "Ride Or Die," with lines such as, "How many niggas wanna ride tonight? / How many niggas wanna die tonight?," Jay-Z shows that he can crassly recycle cliches too. Following the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z has become one of rap's signature voices. And while Hard Knock Life isn't a great album, it's good enough to suggest that he has greatness within his reach.

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