Last updated: 06/20/2012 12:00:00 PM
AT millennium's end, the hottest rapper in pop music is Jay-Z. Since the release of his quadruple-platinum Vol. II … Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z has had an incredible string of urban radio hits: "Can I Get a …," "Hard Knock Life," "Jigga What, Jigga Who," "Money, Cash" … the list goes on and on. And unlike many of today's most popular rap artists, he built an extensive catalog of hits before making his mark on the charts and enjoys underground respectability as well as mainstream acceptance.
Longtime rap fans may remember Jay-Z as an associate of the Jaz, who had a minor hit in 1988 with "Hawaiian Sophie." Before that, he was Shawn Carter, a young man from Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. Though Carter was a promising student, his wild behavior led him to a vocational high school in Brooklyn, where he met future stars Christopher Wallace (the Notorious B.I.G.) and Trevor Smith (Busta Rhymes).
As a young MC, Jay-Z appeared on several underground mix tapes, and his work with the Jaz appeared promising. But with bills to pay, Jay-Z increasingly found himself mired in the criminal underworld, a life he had known since the age of 16. It wasn't until 1992 that he found the courage to leave the life of a drug dealer behind him.
After his retirement from crime, Jay-Z began to look for a record deal as a solo artist, but only had a guest appearance on long-forgotten rap group Original Flavor's 1993 single "Can I Get Open" to show for his efforts. It wasn't until a friend, Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash, convinced him to form a record company with him that Jay-Z's career finally got off the ground. Jay-Z released his first single through Roc-A-Fella in 1995, "In My Lifetime." It proved to be a hit in New York's fickle hip-hop scene, and helped Dash and Jay-Z secure a distribution deal for Jay-Z's debut, Reasonable Doubt.
Though it wasn't a huge seller, Reasonable Doubt confirmed Jay-Z's status as one of the most promising lyricists in years, a rapper who vividly portrayed the highs and lows of being a black gangster. It yielded two hits, "Can't Knock the Hustle" (with Mary J. Blige), and "Feelin' It." More importantly, it earned the admiration of veteran rap stars as varied as Ice Cube and the Notorious B.I.G., who joined Jay-Z on "Brooklyn's Finest," a vicious response to 2Pac's "Hit 'Em Up" single. A third hit, "Ain't No N****" (with Foxy Brown) found its way onto The Nutty Professor soundtrack.
The next year, Jay-Z and Dash negotiated a new distribution deal with Def Jam Records for Roc-A-Fella. The ascendant rapper had promised that Reasonable Doubt would be his only album, but he followed it up in 1997 with In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, a somber effort partly influenced by the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. Despite mixed reviews, the album entered the charts at No. 3, went platinum, and spawned two singles, "The City Is Mine" and "Sunshine" (with Babyface and Foxy Brown).
"I think 85 percent of it is solid," Jay-Z told Vibe magazine. "And that 85 percent was better than everybody else's album at the time."
That winter, Jay-Z was one of several opening acts on Puff Daddy's 1997 "No Way Out" tour. But conflicts with the tour's promoters led him to abandon ship soon after it began; instead, he decided to focus his energy on the fledgling Roc-A-Fella label and a straight-to-video film, Streets Is Watching. A short film about a group of hustlers in Brooklyn, Streets also served as a showcase for Roc-A-Fella artists like rapper Memphis Bleek, R&B duo Christion, and mix-tape star DJ Clue.
In the spring, Jay-Z and his growing stable of artists mounted a nationwide tour. Growing commercial and critical acclaim, coupled with the mainstream acceptance of hardcore rappers like DMX and Master P, made the summer of 1998 an excellent time for Jay-Z to achieve crossover success. The buzz began with a guest appearance on Jermaine Dupri's hit single "Money Ain't a Thing." Then, with help from former Cash Money Click member Ja Rule and Amil from Major Coinz, Jay-Z released the bouncy, upbeat "Can I Get a …" which went platinum-plus and made Jay-Z a major star. (It eventually appeared on the Rush Hour soundtrack.) And in the fall, he released his third LP, Vol. II … Hard Knock Life. It opened at the top of the Billboard charts and stayed there for five weeks.
"This whole thing, me reaching the zenith of my fame on my third album, it seems backward to other people, but this is how it's always been," Jay-Z reflected in Vibe. "People are looking for the sensational, and I'm just not that [person]." Despite his modesty, Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life dominated the winter charts, spawning several singles — the aforementioned "Can I Get a …" the platinum-selling title track, "Jigga What, Jigga Who," and "Money, Cash, Hoes." His vocals also graced other hit albums of the season such as DJ Clue's The Professional ("Gangsta S---"), Foxy Brown's Chyna Doll ("Bonnie and Clyde Pt. II"), and Timbaland's My Bio ("Lobster and Scrimp").
In 1999, Jay-Z joined his fellow Def Jam cohorts DMX, Method Man, Redman, and DJ Clue on the "Hard Knock Life" tour. He also drew some attention for threatening a boycott of the 1999 Grammy Awards (he was nominated for three). "I am boycotting the Grammy Awards because too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked," he told the Associated Press. Despite the comments, Jay-Z did accept his Grammy for Best Rap Album. Throughout the year, Jay-Z has continued to make news, whether donating the proceeds from a Denver performance to the families involved in the Columbine, Colo., tragedy; making guest appearances on several of the year's top rap hits (Ja Rule, Memphis Bleek, Ruff Ryders); or launching a fashion line, Rocawear.
The latter half of the year is shaping up to be a busy one for the former Mr. Carter. He sings the lead track "Girl's Best Friend" on the Blue Streak soundtrack (a film starring Martin Lawrence, who makes a cameo appearance in the song's video). Fans can also catch him on new releases by Puff Daddy and Mariah Carey. In September he's in the running for three MTV Video Awards — Best Rap Video, Viewer's Choice, and Best Video From a Film. Finally, the follow-up to Hard Knock Life, with the working title of Vol. III, is scheduled for a December release.
— Mosi Reeves