With over 20 years to his name as a rapper and entrepreneur, Jay-Z is easily one of the most recognizable names in music. His extensive catalog includes over a dozen #1 albums, millions of records sold, 21 Grammys, and a chart-topping hit single, “Empire State of Mind.” All of this success has earned him a net worth of over $1 billion.
However, although Jay-Z’s career now includes all of these accomplishments, there was a point when his success was not guaranteed. In the late 1990s, Jay-Z was still struggling to find mainstream success, and it wasn’t until he released the hit single, “Hard Knock Life,” that he broke through globally. What’s more, the single almost never came out, due to issues he was having with getting the song’s Annie sample cleared.
Luckily, Jay-Z was able to craft a compelling story that ended up getting him approval to repurpose “It’s the Hard Knock Life” for his hit record.
Jay-Z is successful now, but he had a slow start to his rap career
Although Jay-Z’s name is synonymous with Hip-Hop today, it took him quite a while to break through as a household name. It seems impossible that someone with a record 14 #1 albums could have ever had difficulty attracting attention to his music, but at the beginning of his career, Jay-Z was an enigma; he was a niche artist whose street tales and coded lyrics didn’t appeal to the mainstream, speaking to a select few people who were living a complex lifestyle.
Jay-Z’s first two albums, Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 both performed modestly on the charts at the time of their release. Reasonable Doubt received critical acclaim but failed to do major numbers in sales due to its independent release. In My Lifetime performed considerably better on the charts, but its musical content got mixed responses from critics.
It wasn’t until Jay-Z released his third album, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, that Jay-Z saw significant commercial success, with the album selling over 5 million copies. Jay-Z had finally found his sweet spot blending his hood appeal with catchy production and songwriting, most notably on his breakout single, “Hard Knock Life.” Jay-Z’s career was never the same after the release, but it almost never happened.
Jay-Z lied for permission to sample ‘Annie’ on “Hard Knock Life”
When Jay-Z first got to work crafting the hit single “Hard Knock Life,” he had a difficult time getting approval to sample Annie’s “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” on which the song is based. The song’s writers, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin were not moved by his initial request and rejected him.
However, Jay-Z created a compelling story about his connection with the original song, according to NPR. In his book, Decoded, Jay-Z claims that he told the songwriters that he’d won an essay contest as a child that allowed him to see the play on Broadway and solidified his love for the song. According to Jay-Z:
“I wrote a letter about how much Annie meant to me growing up and how I went to a Broadway play — which was an exaggeration,” he said. “I saw it on TV. It was a bad lie … for a good reason.”
Thankfully, his story won over the song’s writers and they granted clearance on the sample. “Hard Knock Life” peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 41st Grammy Awards.
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