With music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, this song debuted in the 1977 Broadway musical Annie as the cast of orphans lament their struggles laboring for the unscrupulous Miss Hannigan. The play follows Annie's adventure as she meets the wealthy Daddy Warbucks, who tries to help her find her real parents.
In a Blender interview, Strouse notes how this song stands out from the rest of the Annie repertoire: "Most of the songs in Annie are very 1920s, more upbeat, but 'Hard Knock Life' had to reflect the fact that the kids in the story were underprivileged and exploited. So I wrote a very angry, angular melody, quite unlike the other songs."
Jay-Z spun this into the innovative rap song, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)
," in 2002, where he likened the hardships of the orphans to the struggles of kids growing up in the ghetto.
Playing the youngest orphan, Molly, Danielle Brisebois leads the chorus on this track, which was sampled for Jay-Z's version. While the song became a gold-certified single, all Brisebois was left with was sour grapes. Because she was paid a flat fee when she performed the song for the musical, she doesn't earn any royalties from it. "As a result, I’m singing the lead vocal on a #1 song but not making a penny out of it," she said.
Annie was adapted into a feature film in 1982 with Aileen Quinn in the lead role, while Toni Ann Gisondi played Molly. Albert Finney and Carol Burnett starred as Daddy Warbucks and Miss Hannigan, respectively.
Produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith, this hit the big screen again in 2014 with Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie, Jamie Foxx as Will Stacks (Daddy Warbucks), and Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan. Nicolette Pierini filled the role of Molly, updated as Mia.
For the 2014 film, the lyrics to this song were altered to reflect the children being foster kids instead of orphans. Jay-Z's version is prominently featured in the movie's trailer.
Aside from four new songs ("The City's Yours," "Opportunity", "Who Am I", and "Moonquake Lake"), the soundtrack borrows the original Broadway tunes, with an arrangement by Australian pop singer Sia and Greg Kurstin.
The lyrics reference New York City's Chrysler Building: "You'll stay up till this dump shines like the top of the Chrysler Building." Designed by William Van Alen, the Art Deco-style skyscraper was briefly the tallest building in the world (1,046 ft) until it was surpassed by the Empire State Building (1,454 ft). Completed in 1930, it would have been three years old during Annie's 1933 setting.
The orphans also suggest making Miss Hannigan drink a Mickey Finn, which is slang for a drug-laced beverage. The name was allegedly taken from Chicago bar owner Michael "Mickey" Finn, who was prosecuted for slipping mickies to his patrons so he could rob them.