Words by Jesse Fairfax
While the most passionate “Rap City” obsessives remember Original Flavor’s “Can I Get Open,” it was “Dead Presidents” that introduced Jay Z as Hip Hop’s walking definition of cool (a role he has yet to willfully abandon). Infamously calling himself competition for The Notorious B.I.G. and Nas in 1997 on his sophomore album’s “Where I’m From,” the next two years went on to change the East coast’s landscape as it was known. Biggie was no longer amongst the living who could record new work and Nas struggled to find his balance somewhere between the diametrically opposed works Illmatic and It Was Written, making it easy for Jay Z to sprint ahead of the rat race.
With respect owed to DMX closing out the ‘90s as the arguable “hottest” (given he was a voice of the have-nots amidst the jiggy era), Shawn Corey Carter’s vision became greater than dominating New York. Released December 28, 1999 Vol. 3…Life And Times Of S. Carter was a turning point for his career as his last album wholly dedicated to trife life without a shred of remorse or friendliness. Drawing an analogy between his path and the film “Carlito’s Way” years later on The Black Album’s “Allure,” Vol. 3 bid farewell to a number of key elements to define his work up to that point.
For starters, what was a Jay Z album without the gangster narration of Roc-A-Fella’s sidekick Pain In Da Ass? Unbeknownst to most, what would be his last intro featured the stark foreshadowing “Five to ten years from now they’re gonna miss Jay Z,” prophecy dictated by Hov being retired in 2004 and 2009’s Blueprint 3 containing a few missteps. Despite strong chemistry together, another streak to end here was DJ Premier collaborations, with their final hurrah “So Ghetto” still considered highly amongst their classic work together. With lines like “I live for the love of the streets/rap to the ruggedest beats/hall closet cluttered with heat” and “We tote guns to the Grammys, pop bottles on the White House lawn,” fans clung to the notion that he would never switch pace or elevate past this grimy slick talk.
After becoming somewhat of a household name with the success of Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life , Jay Z was expected to take a more commercial turn. While hints of lightening up existed just months prior on “Girl’s Best Friend” from the “Blue Streak” soundtrack, he stuck to what he knew best on his fourth album in as many years. Throwing the world for a loop, “Do It Again” was a club banger that nearly caused a riot at Times Square’s Virgin Megastore. Though Beanie Sigel gained momentum on the posse cut “Reservoir Dogs” a year prior, it was here where he achieved his breakout moment.
Bridging his former days in the drug trade with his rise through Hip-Hop’s ranks (much like In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’s “Rap Game/Crack Game”), the highly conceptual “Dope Man” found Jay Z on trial for unashamedly claiming his power. Mirrored by his real life legal troubles, another potential reason for him to clean up his act after this album was an involvement in the stabbing of industry executive Lance “Un” Rivera, fallout from Rivera allegedly being responsible for leaking the album early. Heavily bootlegged from college campuses to urban environments a good month before its release, the preliminary version of Vol. 3 featured a “Hova Song” interlude along with other small alterations made to the final product.
Two additional songs found on the retail release were “Watch Me,” a dark cut rooted in California’s grit (a year before the Roc-A-Fella West coast posse cut “Change The Game”) and the underrated “There’s Been A Murder.” Ending each verse “With that said, back to Shawn Carter the hustler/Jay Z is dead,” here he broke down the album’s theme as he threatened to revisit the dark side while on the cusp of crossing over to go fully mainstream. (This declaration would get played out visually in the 2004 clip for “99 Problems.”) Also, an early demo of what would become Memphis Bleek’s Timbaland produced single “Is That Your Chick” was found on this copy that has become a collector’s item of sorts over the years.
Speaking of Timbaland, though he had established history with Jigga including “Nigga What, Nigga Who”, Vol. 3…Life And Times Of S. Carter was where he became a secret weapon in Hov’s arsenal. Arguably stealing the show, his innovative work behind the boards allowed Jay Z to take his creativity to new levels. Between the handclaps of “It’s Hot” and the reckless bounce of the feverish “Snoopy Track” (thanks to a hook from Juvenile who was scorching at the time), Jay finally brought in listeners initially reluctant to look past his New York leanings. Seen as a threat to No Limit’s reign, he was mostly shunned by Southerners until they had no choice but to legitimize him with Tim’s crown jewel “Big Pimpin’.” With Pimp C even hesitant to do the song, it was ultimately beneficial for the careers of UGK in the same way it would bring a staunchly East coast emcee to their audience.
Whether intentionally plotted or not, this was the last time Jay Z would spend an album unleashing rage without a shred of remorse. Released just as he completed his third decade of living, the line “A n*gga been focused since I said hi to 30” from The Blueprint’s “All I Need” rung true as wisdom and grace would eventually come to settle in. Where Vol. 3’s most saccharine Mariah Carey featured tune “Things That U Do” had Jay proclaim “Married to the streets, no date of annulment,” consecutive releases would find more mature moments such as “This Can’t Be Life,” “Song Cry,” “Allure” and “30 Something.” Another factor worth considering is right after this album he’d begun to work with newcomers Just Blaze and Kanye West, future legends to shape the next four years of his career with soul samples before retirement.
While not completely timeless, Vol. 3…Life And Times Of S. Carter was a moment you had to be there for, as Jay Z reached greater heights of stardom despite keeping it all the way gutter. As a full fledged ghetto superstar, he feasibly boasted “I ain’t cross over, I brought the suburbs to the hood” on “Come And Get Me” a year before hitting a new peak in 2000 with the smash hit “Give It To Me.” At his most brash and cocky, he left listeners hanging off of his every word, earning the right to spit awe inspiring lines like “Jigga’s the sh*t, even when he rhymes in third person.”
Though he would eventually go on to compromise his edge to occupy space in the pop world alongside his equally prosperous wife, he headed into the new millennium refusing to play fair or be kind towards competition. Even going so far as to repeatedly make light work of 50 Cent’s “How To Rob” using his name in vain, Jay mixed his trademark wit with brute force over the course of these 15 songs, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt he was amongst the best rapping at the time.
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