Jay-Z reigned over the New York rap scene throughout the late '90s and early 2000s and steadily built up the Roc-a-Fella Records dynasty in the process. The Brooklyn rapper made his splash debut in 1996 and cranked out album after album and hit after hit throughout the decade and into the next. Jay-Z became so successful that Roc-a-Fella, the record label he began with Damon Dash, became a marketable brand itself, spawning a lucrative clothing line (Roca Wear); a deep roster of talented rappers (Beanie Sigel, Cam'ron, M.O.P.) and producers (Just Blaze, Kayne West); a number of arena-packing cross-country tours; and even big-budget Hollywood films (Paid in Full, State Property). While such success is amazing, Jay-Z's musical achievements outweigh the commercial achievements of his franchise. Every one of his albums sold millions, and his endless parade of singles made him omnipresent on urban radio and video. Moreover, he retained a strongly devoted fan base -- not only the suburban MTV crowd but also the street-level crowd as well -- and challenged whatever rivals attempted to oust him from atop the rap industry, most notably Nas. As a result of his unchecked power, Jay-Z and his Roc-a-Fella clique greatly influenced the rap industry and established many of the trends pervaded during the late '90s and early 2000s. He worked with only the hottest producers of the moment (Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Teddy Riley, Trackmasters, Erick Sermon, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz) and if they weren't hot at the time, they surely would be afterward (Neptunes, Kayne West, Just Blaze). He similarly collaborated with the hottest rappers in the industry, everyone from East Coast rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. ("Brooklyn's Finest"), Ja Rule ("Can I Get A..."), and DMX ("Cash, Money, Hoes"), to the best rappers from the Dirty South (Ludacris, Missy Elliott) and the West Coast (Snoop Dogg, Too Short).
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 also became a street hustler at this time, doing what needed to be done to make money. For a while, he ran around with Jaz-O, aka Big Jaz, a small-time New York rapper with a record deal but few sales. From Jaz he learned how to navigate through the rap industry and what moves to make. He also participated in a forgotten group called Original Flavor for a short time. Jay-Z subsequently decided to make an untraditional decision and start his own label rather than sign with an established label like Jaz had done. Together with friends Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, he created Roc-a-Fella Records, a risky strategy for cutting out the middleman and making money for himself. Of course, he needed a quality distributor, and when he scored a deal with Priority Records (and then later Def Jam), Jay-Z finally had everything in place, including a debut album, Reasonable Doubt (1996).
Though Reasonable Doubt only reached number 23 on Billboard's album chart, Jay-Z's debut became an undisputed classic among fans, many of whom consider it his crowning achievement. Led by the hit single "Ain't No Nigga," a duet featuring Foxy Brown, Reasonable Doubt slowly spread through New York; some listeners were drawn in because of big names like DJ Premier and the Notorious B.I.G., others by the gangsta motifs very much in style at the time. By the end of its steady run, Reasonable Doubt generated three more charting singles -- "Can't Knock the Hustle," which featured Mary J. Blige on the hook; "Dead Presidents"; and "Feelin' It" -- and set the stage for Jay-Z's follow-up, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997).
Much more commercially successful than its predecessor, In My Lifetime peaked at number three on the Billboard album chart, quite a substantial improvement over the modest units Reasonable Doubt had sold. The album boasted numerous marketable contributors such as Puff Daddy and Teddy Riley, which no doubt helped sales, yet Jay-Z's decision to move in a more accessible direction for much of the album, trading gangsta rap for pop-rap, increased his audience twofold. Singles such as "Sunshine" and "The City Is Mine" confirmed this move toward pop-rap, both songs featuring radio-ready pop hooks and little of the grim introspection that had characterized Reasonable Doubt. In My Lifetime still had some dramatic moments, such as "Streets Is Watching" and "Rap Game/Crack Game," yet these moments were few and greatly eclipsed by the pop-rap.
Jay-Z's next album, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (1998), released a year after In My Lifetime, furthered the shift from gangsta rap to pop-rap. Though Jay-Z himself showed few signs of lightening up, particularly on brash songs like "Cash, Money, Hoes," his producers crafted infectious hooks and trend-setting beats. Thus, songs like "Can I Get A..." and "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" sounded both distinct and unforgettable, garnering enormous amounts of airplay. Again, as he had done on In My Lifetime, Jay-Z exchanged the autobiographical slant of his debut for a sampler platter of radio-ready singles; and again, he reached more listeners than ever, topping the album chart and generating a remarkable six singles: the three aforementioned songs as well as "Jigga What?," "It's Alright," and "Money Ain't a Thang."
Like clockwork, Jay-Z returned a year later with another album, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter (1999), which sold a staggering number of units and generated multiple singles. Here Jay-Z collaborated with yet more big names (nearly one guest vocalist/rapper on every song, not to mention the roll call of in-demand producers) and his most overblown work yet resulted. Jay-Z scaled back a bit for Dynasty Roc la Familia (2000), his fifth album in as many years. The album showcased mostly Roc-a-Fella's in-house rappers: Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and Amil. Jay-Z also began working with several new producers: the Neptunes, Kayne West, and Just Blaze. The Neptunes-produced "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" became a particularly huge hit single this go round.
Jay-Z's next album, The Blueprint (2001), solidified his position atop the New York rap scene upon its release in September. Prior to the album's release, the rapper had caused a stir in New York following his headlining performance at Hot 97's Summer Jam 2001, where he debuted the song "Takeover." The song features a harsh verse ridiculing Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and Jay-Z accentuated his verbal assault (including the lines "You's a ballerina/I seen ya") by showcasing gigantic photos of an adolescent Prodigy in a dance outfit. The version of "Takeover" that later appeared on The Blueprint also included a verse dissing Nas as well as Prodigy. As expected, the song ignited a sparring match with Nas, whom responded with "Ether." Jay-Z accordingly returned with a comeback, "Super Ugly," where he rapped over the beats to Nas' "Get Ur Self A" on the first verse and Dr. Dre's "Bad Intentions" on the second. The back-and-forth bout created massive publicity for both Jay-Z and Nas.
In addition to "Takeover," The Blueprint also featured "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," one of the year's biggest hit songs, and the album topped many year-end best-of charts. For the most part, Jay-Z performs alone on all of the album's songs except an Eminem collaboration, "Renegade." The lack of guest rappers made The Blueprint Jay-Z's most personal album since Reasonable Doubt. Consequently, many began comparing the two, calling The Blueprint Jay-Z's best album since Reasonable Doubt or even going so far as calling The Blueprint his best album yet. Jay-Z capitalized on the album's lasting success by issuing two versions of the single "Girls, Girls, Girls" and also the song "Jigga That N***a" as yet another single. Furthermore, he collaborated with the Roots for the Unplugged album (2001) and with R. Kelly for Best of Both Worlds (2002). He then went on to record, over the course of the year, 40 or so new tracks, 25 of which appeared on his next record, the double album The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse (2002). Though billed as a sequel, The Blueprint² was remarkably different from its predecessor. Where the first volume had been personal, considered, and focused, the second instead offered an unapologetically sprawling double-disc extravaganza showcasing remarkable scope. As usual, it spawned a stream of singles, led by his 2Pac cover "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" (with Beyoncé Knowles). He guested on Beyoncé's summer 2003 classic "Crazy Love," as well as the Neptunes' video hit "Frontin'," but then announced his retirement after the release of one more album. That LP, The Black Album, was rush-released by Def Jam and soared to the top spot in the album charts.
Following the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., DMX took over as the reigning, undisputed king of hardcore rap. He was that rare commodity: a commercial powerhouse with artistic and street credibility to spare. His rapid ascent to stardom was actually almost a decade in the making, which gave him a chance to develop the theatrical image that made him one of rap's most distinctive personalities during his heyday. Everything about DMX was unremittingly intense, from his muscular, tattooed physique to his gruff, barking delivery, which made a perfect match for his trademark lyrical obsession with dogs. Plus, there was substance behind the style; much of his work was tied together by a fascination with the split between the sacred and the profane. He could move from spiritual anguish one minute to a narrative about the sins of the streets the next, yet keep it all part of the same complex character; sort of like a hip-hop Johnny Cash. The results were compelling enough to make DMX the first artist ever to have his first four albums enter the charts at number one.DMX was born Earl Simmons in Baltimore, MD, on December 18, 1970. He moved with part of his family to the New York City suburb of Yonkers while still a young child. A troubled and abusive childhood turned him violent, and he spent a great deal of time living in group homes and surviving on the streets via robbery, which led to several run-ins with the law. He found his saving grace in hip-hop, starting out as a DJ and human beatbox, and later moved into rapping for a greater share of the spotlight, taking his name from the DMX digital drum machine (though it's also been reinterpreted to mean "Dark Man X"). He made a name for himself on the freestyle battle scene, and was written up in The Source magazine's Unsigned Hype column in 1991. Columbia subsidiary Ruffhouse signed him to a deal the following year, and released his debut single, "Born Loser." However, a surplus of talent on the Ruffhouse roster left DMX underpromoted, and the label agreed to release him from his contract. He issued one further single in 1994, "Make a Move," but was convicted of drug possession that same year, the biggest offense of several on his record.DMX began to rebuild his career with an appearance on one of DJ Clue?'s underground mixtapes. In 1997, he earned a second major-label shot with Def Jam, and made a galvanizing guest appearance on LL Cool J's "4, 3, 2, 1." Further guest spots on Mase's "24 Hours to Live" and fellow Yonkers MCs the LOX's "Money, Power & Respect" created an even stronger buzz, and in early 1998, he released his debut Def Jam single, "Get at Me Dog." The song was a gold-selling smash on the rap and dance charts, and paved the way for DMX's full-length debut, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, to debut at number one on the pop charts. Produced mostly by Swizz Beatz, who rode the album's success to a lucrative career of his own, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot earned DMX numerous comparisons to 2Pac for his booming, aggressive presence on the mic, and went on to sell over four million copies. Not long after the album's release in May 1998, DMX was accused of raping a stripper in the Bronx, but was later cleared by DNA evidence. He went to make his feature film debut co-starring in Hype Williams' ambitious but unsuccessful Belly.Before the end of 1998, DMX completed his second album, and a pending buyout of Def Jam pushed the record into stores that December. Featuring a controversial cover photo of the rapper covered in blood, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood entered the charts at number one and eventually went triple platinum. The following year, DMX hit the road with Jay-Z and the Method Man/Redman team on the blockbuster Hard Knock Life tour. During a tour stop in Denver, a warrant for his arrest was issued in connection with a stabbing, of which he was later cleared; another incident occurred in May, when he was accused of assaulting a Yonkers man who'd allegedly harassed his wife (the charges were once again dropped). More serious charges were brought that summer, when DMX's uncle/manager was accidentally shot in the foot at a New Jersey hotel. Police later raided DMX's home, and filed animal cruelty, weapons, and drug possession charges against the rapper and his wife; he eventually plea-bargained down to fines, probation, and community service. In the midst of those difficulties, the Ruff Ryders posse -- of which DMX was a core, founding member -- released a showcase compilation, Ryde or Die, Vol. 1. With contributions from DMX, as well as Eve, the LOX, and multiple guests, Ryde or Die, Vol. 1 debuted at number one in the spring of 1999, further cementing DMX's Midas touch.Toward the end of 1999, DMX released his third album, ...And Then There Was X, which became his third straight to debut at number one. It also produced his biggest hit single since "Get at Me Dog" with "Party Up (Up in Here)," which became his first Top Ten hit on the R&B charts. The follow-ups "What You Want" and "What's My Name?" were also quite popular, and their success helped make ...And Then There Was X the rapper's best-selling album to date, moving over five million copies. During its run, DMX returned to the big screen with a major supporting role in the Jet Li action flick Romeo Must Die. In the meantime, he was indicted by a Westchester County, NY, grand jury on weapons and drug charges in June of 2000. He also entangled himself in a lengthy legal battle with police in Cheektowaga, NY (near Buffalo), when he was arrested in March for driving without a license and possession of marijuana. He missed one court date, and when he turned himself in that May, police discovered more marijuana in a pack of cigarettes the rapper had brought with him. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 days in jail, and his appeal to have the sentence reduced was finally denied in early 2001. After stalling for several weeks, he turned himself in and was charged with contempt of court. He was further charged with assault when, upon learning he would not be let out early for good behavior, allegedly threw a food tray at a group of prison officers. He later bargained the charges down to reckless assault and paid a fine, and accused guards of roughing him up and causing a minor leg injury.Not long after DMX's release from jail, his latest movie, the Steven Seagal action film Exit Wounds, opened at number one in the box office. DMX also contributed the hit single "No Sunshine" to the soundtrack, and signed a multipicture deal with Warner Bros. in the wake of Exit Wounds' success. With his legal problems finally resolved, he returned to the studio and completed his fourth album, the more introspective The Great Depression. It was released in the fall of 2001 and became his fourth straight album to debut at number one. Although it went platinum quickly, it didn't have the same shelf life as his previous releases. In late 2002, DMX published his memoirs as E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX, and also recorded several tracks with Audioslave (i.e., the former Rage Against the Machine). One of their collaborations, "Here I Come," was featured on the soundtrack of DMX's next film, a reunion with Jet Li called Cradle 2 the Grave. The film opened at number one upon its release in March 2003, and its DMX-heavy soundtrack debuted in the Top Ten.