Label: Roc-A-Fella/ Def Jam
Producers: DJ Premier, Teddy Riley, Chad Hugo, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Ron "Amen-Ra" Lawrence, Daven "Prestige" Vanderprool, Ski, Steven "Stevie J" Jordan, Buckwild, Poke and Tone, Anthony Dent, Big Jaz, Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Nashiem Myrick
Features: Blackstreet, Lil' Kim, Diddy, Foxy Brown, Babyface, Sauce Money, Too $hort, Kelly Price

On March 8, 1997, Havelock Nelson from Billboard reported that Jay-Z was planning to release an EP, as part of Roc-A-Fella’s new distribution deal with Def Jam. Artists typically waited a few years between albums back then, so a quick EP probably seemed like a smart way to build on the critical respect and modest commercial attention received by his debut Reasonable Doubt. On March 9, the Notorious B.I.G. died and Jay-Z’s EP was never mentioned again. Filling big shoes would require a big album.

“Can you really match a triple platinum artist buck by buck by only a single going gold?” Jay confronts the awkward question within the first minute of his sophomore album In My Lifetime, Vol. 1., released in the fall of 1997. Bragging about record sales had become de rigueur in the upper echelon of mid-’90s hip-hop, and the man who would later coin the phrase “numbers don’t lie” could hardly fudge the fact that his plaques did not match his Rolexes. Despite selling 500,000 copies of the “Ain’t No N*gga” single, his debut album had not even gone gold. Now that he had left his indie label behind and linked up with Def Jam, there were no more excuses for not living up to the platinum expectations Jay-Z had set for himself.

Naturally, Jay looked to Bad Boy’s in-house production crew The Hitmen, along with Teddy Riley and The Trackmasters, to help him craft some serious hits. The less pop-savvy producers who had made Jay’s debut so memorable—Ski, DJ Premier, Jaz-O—were pushed to the margins on Vol. 1, contributing to only five of the album’s 14 songs. The first single “(Always Be My) Sunshine” seemed like a safe bet: its beat was taken from an old school rap hit (just like Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” the biggest crossover smash of the year), and its flashy Hype Williams video, in which Jay-Z wore a bright green suit, made him look animated like, say, Busta Rhymes. The song flopped, never even cracking the top 40. The second single, “City Is Mine,” didn’t fare much better. The album was critically panned and sold a disappointing 138,000 copies in its first week.

Despite his best efforts at copying the Bad boy model, Jay had not figured out how to make a hit. But that doesn’t mean In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 was as bad as the critics made it out to be. “I think eighty-five percent of it is solid,” Jay said while reflecting on the album in a 1998 VIBE profile by dream hampton. “And that 85% was better than everybody else’s album at the time.” Indeed, if you skip past the two singles, along with the unforgivable Puff Daddy collaboration “I Know What Girls Like,” Vol. 1 begins to sound like one of Jay-Z’s best albums.

His cocky, conversational flow was still unmatched. “Look, if I shoot you, I’m brainless/But if you shoot me, then you’re famous/What’s a nigga to do?” he asked on the Ski-produced highlight “Streets Is Watching.” No one other than Biggie, and perhaps Scarface, was capable of crafting such engaging, realistic crime tales—see the DJ Premier-produced stickup story “Friend or Foe ’98” and the stirring family drama “You Must Love Me.” Every overlooked album cut, like “Rap Game/Crack Game” and the Too $hort duet “Real Niggaz,” sounds brilliant in retrospect. Even the Hitmen came through on “Where I’m From,” a rugged, bustling ode to Brooklyn that remains one of Jay’s most affecting songs. He shrewdly used the opportunity to frame the conversation about his place in hip-hop: “I’m from where niggas pull your card/And argue all day about who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas?”

Jay spent 1998 doing damage control for his so-called sophomore slump. And while it’s true that Vol. 1 failed to achieve what seemed like Jay’s biggest goal at the time—going platinum—the album’s bad reputation is unwarranted. Still, it’s hard not to wonder how things would have been different if Jay hadn’t decided to rush out an album after the death of Biggie. That EP probably would have been fire. — Brendan Frederick