In September 1998, Jay-Z released his third studio album Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life. A sequel to his 1997 sophomore LP In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Vol. 2 track “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” produced by The 45 King, soon began to shoot up the Billboard charts, quickly becoming the New York rapper’s first top 15 hit on the Hot 100.
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Although Hov had prior successes with “Dead Presidents” and “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” widely became accepted as the song that erupted Jay-Z into superstar status. Now certified platinum by RIAA, the hit still stands the test of time and involves one of the most intriguing backstories of any Jay-Z track to date.
Relating to Annie
Perhaps the primary appeal of “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” to mass audiences is the It’s the hard knock life for us chorus, borrowed from the 1982 film Annie which reprises the famous 1970s Broadway play. Sung by children in the play and movie, the song’s hook makes way for verses by Jay-Z where he touches on the adverse circumstances of his upbringing.
“That’s one of the songs that was always like a conversation for me,” Jay -Z said during a Swedish mini-documentary made about the song. “It’s not anything to think about. The chorus already dictates where the song should go, what should be said. I probably did that song in maybe five minutes.”
The song was originally meant to be performed by Kid Capri, a rapper and DJ who worked with Jay-Z on the Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life song “It’s Like That.” But, Capri and The 45 King decided to give the song to Jay-Z, and Hov got to work trying to clear the Annie sample.
“I decided to write the company a letter myself,” Jay-Z said in his 2010 memoir Decoded. “I made up this story about how when I was a seventh grader in Bed-Stuy, our teacher held an essay contest and the three best papers won the writer a trip to the city to see Annie. A lie. I wrote that as kids in Brooklyn we hardly ever came into the city. True. I wrote that from the moment the curtain came up I felt like I understood honey’s story. Of course, I’d never been to see Annie on Broadway. But I had seen the movie on TV. Anyway, they bought it, cleared it, and I had one of my biggest hits.”
As mentioned in the Decoded excerpt, what particularly resonated with Jay-Z about the Annie hook was the memories it brought back when watching the 1982 film. In a 1999 interview with Vibe, he explained how his sister Andrea inspired his love for Annie and his strong urge to use the sampled chorus.
”One of my sister’s names is Andrea, but we call her Annie,” he said. “That’s how the love for the Annie sample came about. When I seen that on TV, I was like, ‘Annie?’ and then I watched the movie. Any person that goes from ashy to classy or, you know, is from the orphanage or the projects — it’s pretty similar themes.”
Ultimately, the song’s themes aligned well enough with Annie’s story from the play and film to where Hov could write authentic verses to coincide with the hook. With all these factors coming together in harmony, it was destiny for “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” to take off on the radio as it did.
“I wasn’t worried about the clash between the hard lyrics and the image of redheaded Annie,” Jay-Z wrote in Decoded. “Instead, I found the mirror between the two stories — that Annie’s story was mine, and mine was hers, and the song was the place where our experiences weren’t contradictions, just different dimensions of the same reality.”
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation