It's hard to imagine a more perfect success story than Jay-Z's remarkable ascendance to the top of the rap game. After a challenging childhood in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood and some time on the streets as a hustler, the rapper, otherwise known as Shawn Carter, followed his confident instincts by starting his own record label at a time when this practice simply wasn't done on such an ambitious scale. His debut album, Reasonable Doubt, became a critical favorite among those in the know and scored a gold single. But it wasn't until his third album, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, that Jay-Z transcended critically acclaimed status to widespread mainstream success thanks to a string of massive hits, most notably "Can I Get A..." Yet never one to be content, Jay-Z then embarked on a large-scale arena tour, elevating his popularity to even more astonishing heights. By the end of the '90s, he was arguably the most successful East Coast rapper, or at least the most recognized. By the time he dropped The Dynasty in late 2000, his success was just that -- a dynasty on which he had leveraged a recognized label and a roster of burgeoning protégés.

Born and raised in the rough Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, NY, Jay-Z underwent some tough times after his father left his mother before the young rapper was even a teen. Without a man in the house, he became a self-supportive youth, turning to the streets, where he soon made a name for himself as a fledging rapper. Known as "Jazzy" in his neighborhood, he soon shortened his nickname to Jay-Z, and did all he could to break into the rap game. Of course, as he vividly discusses in his lyrics, Jay-Z was also a street hustler at this time, doing what needed to be done to make the money he needed to launch his rap career. When his rap ambitions became a reality, he decided to make an untraditional decision and start his own label rather than sign with an established label. Together with friends Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, Jay-Z created Roc-a-Fella Records, a risky strategy for cutting out the middle man and making money for himself. Of course, he needed a quality distributor, and when he scored a deal with Priority Records, he was set to release his debut album, Reasonable Doubt.

Upon its release, Reasonable Doubt was a modest commercial success; driven by the strength of "Ain't No Nigga," a gold single featuring Foxy Brown, and followed by another strong single featuring Mary J. Blige, "Can't Knock the Hustle," Jay-Z had quickly made a name for himself with the public. Yet critics and seasoned rap listeners recognized his talent more than the mainstream did and championed Reasonable Doubt, so when it came time for the follow-up, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, expectations were high (even more so with a new distribution deal with Def Jam). Much like Reasonable Doubt, this album also featured some impressive production courtesy of high-profile producer DJ Premier and once again found Jay-Z writing confessional lyrics; unfortunately, the album didn't score any big hit singles and was seen as a minor disappointment by many, despite the fact that the album itself was a solid collection of great beats and fluid rapping, even if it didn't have a breakthrough single.

With his third album, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z answered his critics, creating an album full of guest superstar rappers -- DMX, Too Short, Jermaine Dupri -- and the hottest producers of the moment -- Swizz Beatz, Timbaland -- as well as making sure to include a small handful of radio-ready singles. Though unbalanced because of its commercial aspirations, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life became the rapper's breakthrough album, selling over 300,000 copies in just its first week before going on to sell several hundred thousand more copies thanks to a series of massive hits: "Money Ain't a Thang," "Can I Get A...," "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," and "Cash, Money, Hoes." The fact that Jay-Z was heading the massive coast-to-coast Hard Knock Life Tour with other superstars such as DMX accompanying him obviously didn't hurt.

In 1999, Jay-Z began launching the careers of the artists on his Roc-a-Fella label: DJ Clue?, Beanie Sigel, and Memphis Bleek (and later on in 2000, Amil). He also released his fourth album three days after Christmas 1999, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, a confident album that found Jay-Z moving away from the somewhat formulaic approach of his previous album. Yet the somewhat experimental, somewhat overblown tone of Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter didn't sit too well with fans, and the album was only a modest success. Of course, Jay-Z made a strong comeback in late 2000 with his next album, The Dynasty: Roc la Familia, which was aided enormously by the phenomenal success of its Neptunes-produced lead single, "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." This album's commercial success once again affirmed Jay-Z's reign over the rap game. ~ Jason Birchmeier, All Music Guide



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