Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life

Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam

Hip-hop loosened up in 1998; it had to. The year before, in his No Way Out masterpiece, Puffy delivered a white paper: the music—and this included even the East Coast, so historically suspicious of pleasure, so long dismissive of sonically stylin’ California love—should, in its own inventive way, swing. It was not a moment, Puffy argued, for displays of esoteric mathematical prowess or other interiorized shit; it was a moment for slurpy bits of great old pop tracks that had long caused people to smile or dance, for sharp new suits, for some snazz to counteract the tragedy.

Most delegates from most countries happily complied. At one point in ’98, Pras displayed really top-shelf taste in country music and sampled Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.” Then Jay-Z wandered off into total genius, tapping ”s a Hard Knock Life” from the musical Annie, uncovering then forging a connection about spirit and adversity, between high-pitched cheeriness and basso rumbling, an intellectual and sonic point worthy of Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was like hip-hop had made the shocking appointment of P.M. Dawn’s Prince Be as Secretary General of Aesthetics.

Jay-Z explained his own vote to Touré in a Rolling Stone interview. With his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, the Brooklyn rapper said, “It wasn’t even like I was makin’ music. The studio was like a psychiatrist’s couch for me.” And with In My Life time, Vol. 1, which preceded his cur rent Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life mega hit, he “pretty much went through the motions just to get it done.” Now, Jay-Z declares, “I got locked into a zone and I started feelin’ good about the music again. I started wantin’ to go to the studio and stay.”

“Can I Get a…,” the most pleasurable track on an album full of them, is the high-water mark of locked-in-a-zone hip-hop ’98. Where Goldie and KRS-One fused hip-hop and drum’n’bass with all the natural ness of Tricky and Lawrence Welk, Jay-Z’s mixture sports extraordinary finish and fluidity, not to mention a funny overlay of raunch used to disperse everyday blues. (“You ain’t gotta be rich,” a brilliantly throaty girl allows. “But how we goin’ get around on your bus pass?”) As the video—a futuristic halter-top ballet in itself—argues further, “Can I Get a…” is not, a million zinging Bambaataa-es que electronic zings to the contrary, party music on the level of “Whoot! There It Is,” 95 South’s lowbrow sports arena classic of a few years ago. It is party music as surefire pop composition—repetition, accent, sound, and contrast as street-into-studio transcendence.

All over Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z shows how stayin’ in the studio can pay. On “Paper Chase,” Foxy Brown shows up to intone “gotta get that paper doll” as Timbaland mixes up funk beats and a supercompressed kind of brass symphonicism as only he, right now, can. On “Reservoir Dogs,” Jay-Z, the Lox, Beanie Siegel, and Sauce Money work with Erick Sermon as they recast “Theme From Shaft” for posses. But it’s on stuff like “Ride or Die,” which comes off like the toughest trance music, and Timba land’s outstanding “Nigga What, Nigga Who” that Jay-Z really puts new juice in gangsta, speeding up tempos, fattening up textures, rocking up the joint.

In 1998, make no mistake, the Puffy resolution passed. It swung in all directions.