This is based on "It's The Hard Knock Life
" from the Broadway play Annie
as sung by Danielle Brisebois. In the play, Annie is an orphan who makes the most of her difficult circumstances. Jay-Z transposes this into a song about how he overcame life in the ghetto to achieve massive success, something that would be a common theme in his raps.
Brisebois was less-than-thrilled when this became a hit song for the rapper, despite her voice leading the sample. Because she was paid a flat fee to perform on the soundtrack, she doesn't earn any royalties on the song. "As a result, I'm singing the lead vocal on a #1 song but not making a penny out of it," she told Blender
This is one of Jay-Z's most famous songs, and helped the album sell over 5 million copies as it broke through to a mainstream audience.
In 2002, this was spoofed in the movie Austin Powers: Goldmember
when it was performed by Dr. Evil.
Donovan Berry - El Dorado, AR, for all above
Before releasing this album, Jay-Z was preparing to retire from performing, but was caught off guard by a burst of creativity - namely this song - and reconsidered.
Jay-Z first heard this on tour when a DJ played it between sets. "We were just coming off stage," he remembered. "And when you come off stage, usually you hype over the performance, everybody showing you love and you all in the zone, so if that (song) interrupted that whole thing and I still paid attention to that... it was a real special song."
Aside from the song's commercial success, it also got a nod from the original "Hard Knock Life" composer, Charles Strouse (Martin Charnin wrote the lyrics). "In some areas, there's parallel thinking between me and Jay-Z," Strouse told Blender. "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 added: "They ain't singing that song as if they sad about it. 'Ok, this is our situation. We gonna make the best of it.'"
The composer did take issue with Jay-Z's lyrics, which were peppered with expletives and plenty of the "n-word." Strouse, however, had been left out of the loop. He was unaware of Jay-Z's version until it crossed the color barrier. "I heard two black girls singing it in the street and, as we didn't have a very big black audience, I wondered why," he said.
Jay-Z was one of the producers for the 2014 film adaptation of Annie, starring Quvenzhane Wallis in the title role, along with Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz. His song is prominently featured in the movie's trailer, while the traditional Broadway tune is used in the film in an arrangement by Australian pop singer Sia and Greg Kurstin.
Jay-Z told Blues and Soul the story of the song:
"What happened was I was on tour and Kid Capri played me the track. Mark '45' King had produced it, and at the time it was just beats and the sampled hook. You know, Mark's known for making famous hip hop beats like '900 Number' with no rap on them. So, once I heard it, I was like 'I gotta have that' – and I tracked Mark down. At first he was like 'Nah man, it's for my compilation album,' but he eventually let me have it.
You know, I knew how people in the ghetto would relate to words like, 'Instead of treated we get tricked' and 'Instead of kisses we get kicked'… It's like when we watch movies we're always rooting for the villain or the underdog because that's who we feel we are. It's us against society. And, to me, the way the kids in the chorus are singing 'It's a hard-knock life' is more like they're rejoicing about it. Like they're too strong to let it bring them down. And so that's also the reason why I call it the 'Ghetto Anthem.'"