In 1998, exactly two decades ago, Shawn Corey Carter, better known as Jay-Z, released his third album, Vol.2… Hard Knock Life. The endeavor to outdo his sophomore album (In My Life Time, Vol. 1) was motioned by Jay. In My Lifetime is one of HOV’s worst selling albums in his catalogue. In an interview with UK publication Blues & Soul, Jay spoke candidly about the rough patches that occurred in 1997— patches that inhibited the fulfillment of putting the album together.  “Sunshine” and “City Is Mine” weren’t top gunners for best singles to pick from the album. Resurged efforts would counter the loss Vol.1 took, on Vol.2; Jay’s 1998 paramount effort.

Jay-Z, photographed outside his childhood home in the Marcy Houses for the December cover of BLAZE magazine, by Chris Buck on October 6, 1998.

Jay-Z, photographed outside his childhood home in the Marcy Houses for the December cover of BLAZE magazine, by Chris Buck on October 6, 1998.

Wounds healed during the making of Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life — A more assertive, inspired Jay emerged from the booth. To this day, Vol.2… Hard Knock Life is his favorite.

Jay-z’s Hard Knock Life changed a lot in the trajectory of his career and led him to milestones. With Hard Knock Life’s lifespan reaching two decades, it’s imperative to mention the shift in the culture from that point moving forward.

Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation of Lauryn Hill released a month prior (August 25, 1998), Outcast’s Aquemini released on the same day as Jigga’s album, making it a competitive season for hip-hop.

“Primarily I see myself as so much more than a rapper,” Jay told Pete Lewis of Blues & Soul in 1998. I really believe I’m the voice for a lot of people who don’t have the voice or microphone or can’t rap. So I wanted to represent and tell the story for everybody who been through what I’ve been through, or know somebody who does.” 

The album is the first body of work that Jay put out since the death of the Notorious B.I.G. In Jay’s last verse of “If I Should Die,” he lays out what questions he’d ask Biggie and Pac if they were still here.

I’d tell Big they’re still hearin’ his songs
Run into Pac ask him where we went wrong
Tell him life is miserable when ya dealin’ in the physical form
Is everything that’s invisible gone?
I need to know will I still feel pain or will it be ironic?
Will I chill in the flames for all the ills of my brain?
Can I reveal the game to all the hustlers
Trapped in the race and if so can I leave this place?
Can I puff cigars & drink Cristal?
If this is heaven to me is this considered heavenly?
Can I still touch lives answer they “whats & whys”
Make sure everybody in my fam’ clutch five?
If I should die
Don’t cry my n***as 

An album where Jay collaborated with Swiss Beatz and DMX, introduced the world to Roc-a-Fella’s First Lady (Amil), linking up Timbaland and hosted one of his biggest singles of “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” —it was evident that Jigga was building something very special that wasn’t realized before this album; the dynasty was shaping up to take over the world.