Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: DJ Premier, The 45 King, Swizz Beatz, Steven "Stevie J" Jordan, Timbaland, Irv Gotti, Lil Rob, Erick Sermon, Darold Trotter, Rockwilder, Kid Capri, Damon Dash, Mahogany Music, Jermaine Dupri
Features: Memphis Bleek, Da Ranjahz, Amil, Big Jaz, DMX, Too $hort, Ja Rule, Foxy Brown, The LOX, Beanie Sigel, Sauce Money, Kid Capri, Jermaine Dupri

Jay-Z's Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life is the epitome of a Jay-Z album. He might have released one or two that we say are better, but no other work has captured so precisely what it is that makes up Jay-Z's appeal. Its release was the first major event of Jay's career. Reasonable Doubt, at this point, was a hidden gem in mid-'90s rap history, full of subtle wordplay and marked by the consistency of sound and style that characterized the era, but dwarfed by the major records of that time. Vol. 1 was a reach for crossover popularity that couldn't quite make it. Then came Vol. 2.

The massive success of the album (five million records sold!) is definitely the result of a talented artist honing in on his strengths, but there were several other stars aligning. 1998 was a radical new era in hip-hop, and Vol. 2 hit the scene just as a new generation was transforming the genre's sound. New York was still the center, but Biggie's cosmopolitan ear on Life After Death had proved prophetic. Irv Gotti—on his way to becoming one of the architects of one the most succesful crossover bids hip-hop would ever see—created immediate pop-rap gold that didn't sacrifice its street edge with the southern bounce-influenced "Can I Get A..." while Jay helped launch Jermaine Dupri as a southern solo artist on "Money Ain't a Thang." Swizz Beats pulled New York into the post-sampling era with the shuddering, apocalyptic keyboards of "Money Cash Hoes." Meanwhile, Jay connected with a young Virginian beatmaker named Timothy Mosley, a.k.a. Timbaland, whose stuttering beats suggested producers had finally caught up to the rapper's nimble delivery.

Jay himself has rarely been this compelling. While he would later claim he'd "dumbed down" to double his dollars, there was nothing stupid about the way he rapped on Vol. 2. If anything, this was the rapper at his most honest—a snapshot of ruthlessness ("A Week Ago") that perfectly matched his unshakeable rap style. He was bulletproof, and Vol. 2 found Jay playing to that personality by perfectly balancing pop instincts with street aesthetics. Then, of course, there was the title track. It was the meteor that first made Jay-Z a true commercial force, propelling the rapper to the upper echelon of star power and beginning his trajectory towards the New York throne he'd long sought. —David Drake