Although rapper Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter) may be new to mainstream America, he has been a rising star in the hip-hop community for years. On the strength of some well-placed cameos and his solid 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, the Brooklyn-born artist was anointed by many as the heir to fallen idols Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., the gangsta rappers who were gunned down in 1996 and 1997, respectively. With Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life topping Billboard's pop album chart for three consecutive weeks following its Sept. 29 release, Jay-Z has far outgrown his cult status. Like the two murdered rappers, he's a street poet who delivers his tales of drugs, dollars and women in an almost deadpan style. Yet he's far from humorless. Witness his current hit "Hard Knock Life," one of four Vol. 2 songs released as singles. With a major assist from producer D.J. Mark the 45 King, Jay-Z reimagines an anthem from Broadway's Annie and makes it a grimly funny ode to ghetto life.
Bottom line: Winning album from hip hop's newest star