By now, you've probably already heard the "Ghetto Anthem." And if you haven't, you probably aren't going to believe that it features a hard-nosed, tell-it-like-it-is MC flipping the script with the preadolescent chorus from the musical Annie (!). That's right, the album's title song — subtitled "the Ghetto Anthem" — actually borrows its hook from the soundtrack to the (in)famous Broadway musical. Jay-Z (aka Shawn Carter aka Jay-Hovah aka Jigga) rhymes about transcending struggle via his music and the cast of Annie chimes in with the chorus: "It's a hard knock life for us/it's a hard knock life for us/instead of kisses we get kicked/instead of treated we get tricked/it's a hard knock life." The sample is perfect, the bass line real fat.
On every single song on this, the MC's third offering from his own Roc-A-Fella Records imprint, the samples match the lyrics like nothin' else and, along with mid-tempo, head-nodding beats, give this album a very crisp, very defined style. Musically and conceptually much of the credit for the record should be given to the lyrical skills of Jay-Z and high-profile guest rappers such as Too Short, DMX, Foxy Brown, the Lox and Jermaine Dupri. But it's also a shout to the all-star cast of producers, here, such as Erick Sermon, Mark 45 King and the new world champion of FM beats, Timbaland.
Hard Knock Life is not an underground release and Jay-Z is very much a mainstream rap icon; some predict he's the next Biggie or at least the new Don of East Coast hip hop. The question is, then, why is he so good and creative?! Seriously, when was the last time a platinum-coated MC sampled the Talking Heads — listen hard to the loop on "It's Alright" — a Broadway musical and Isaac Hayes all within the same millennium, let alone on the same CD?
Yeah, you heard me — Isaac Hayes. On "Reservoir Dogs," Jay-Z, the Lox and up-and-comers Beanie Siegel and Sauce Money all drop their hottest verses over the theme from Shaft. And who knew that a song called "Money, Cash, Hoes" (featuring DMX) could be so good? Buy this record and find out yourself, "cuz if ya don't know, now ya know."