Tell a Friend Bitch: Jay-Z’s Vol. 3…The Life and Times of S. Carter Turns 20

The final installment of Hov’s three album saga is by far the best of the bunch

Jay-Z still from the “Big Pimpin'” video / remix by Ron Hart

Timing isn’t everything. But it’s a lot of things. Just ask an esteemed major-label alt-rock band like Local H, swept under the Polygram/Universal merger in 1998 and relying on their cult since.

Just before Y2K, Jay-Z dropped his confusingly titled fourth album Vol. 3… The Life and Times of S. Carter, which hit Number One on the Billboard 200 and received rapturous reviews, even half a star in Rolling Stone more than The Blueprint two years later, the career smash that would wipe all memory of Vol. 3’s existence (save for its lone canonical contribution “Big Pimpin’”) from future generations’ collective attention span.

But when your album drops on December 28, 1999, it falls between the cracks of 1999 year-end lists, 1990s decade lists, and 2000 and 2000s ones alike. It’s not like those time arcs had no other giant rap stories, and with The Blueprint and The Black Album, some of them were already by Jay-Z, whom we all now know to be the most successful rap artist, period, and its first billionaire, for better or worse. (So far, barring one Kaepernick-misprising NFL deal, not bad, but don’t expect it to last.)

Jay-Z Vol 3…The Life and Times of S. Carter, Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam 1999

The reason we’re talking in these terms is because Vol. 3 is one of rap’s greatest albums, and, ahem, Jay-Z’s best. But even if you weren’t transformed by the hypnotic slowness and delayed snare usage of “Do It Again” when the video came on MTV during the first hours of the 2000s on New Year’s Day, there’s no good reason why it’s not mentioned in the same sentence as Blueprint and such. It’s worth conducting the biopsy on how Hova’s most well-regarded album in the ‘90s has essentially disappeared from the public interest.

Jay himself ranked it low when he evaluated his own discography. Heads who grumbled about pop didn’t appreciate a Mariah Carey collab like the breathy island jam “Things That U Do” (though this hasn’t stopped their other collaboration, “Heartbreaker,” from being acknowledged as one of her finest hits.) The straight-faced appearance by then-MTV News anchor Serena Altschul on the grandiose mock trial “Dope Man” could be called overblown I suppose, by someone who didn’t open the more beloved  Black Album with the theatrically self-serving Here Is Your Life-style documentary “December 4.” It was also a humorous way to deflate his own legal issues even before he was charged with stabbing executive Lance “Un” Rivera (who has his lone production credit on the song, natch) at the time for leaking the original version of this thing. But if that inextricable event soured the man himself on his own album, fans need to get over it. The version of Vol. 3 that was almost released was not better. The “Hard Knock Life”-cloning flop “Anything” is missing; good.

In other words… get over yourselves. While the moves of Vol. 3 may have been misunderstood at the time, we now know them to be a great artist stretching his legs, manspreading over his genre and finding the fun in being a cocky asshole about it. Look at the cover, a silver portrait of a man between two buildings as if he belongs there, an institution in himself. It’s true, for many artists, disappearing into one’s own braggadocio doesn’t make for promising art.

Hip-hop fans should know better though, especially in the wake of Drake and Future but even at the time when Biggie luxuriated like no other upon the double-sprawl of Life After Death, which may have been undercut by losing him. Vol. 3 is such a wonderful listen precisely because of its auteur’s unwavering belief that bigger equaled better. The Egyptian flutes of “Big Pimpin’” and slo-mo hydraulic synth vacuums of “Snoopy Track” equated selling out with letting Timbaland run his wildest. Amil’s final efforts as Jay’s sorely missed, raspy-voiced foil, on the smirking “S. Carter” and downright nasty “Do It Again,” are proof that she was a better Bonnie to Jigga’s Clyde than Beyoncé will ever be.

Amil and Jay-Z / Art by Ron Hart

Actually, let’s talk about nasty for a sec. Vol. 3’s heart is in two places: its extraordinary beat clientele of Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and Rockwilder all at their peak — all that’s missing is the Neptunes, Just Blaze and Kanye — and its wildly entertaining sneer. This album was where Jay-Z fully realized the potential of sheer obnoxiousness, dropping a bourgeois girl back home for telling him to take the du-rag off, bedding a woman at 6am and kicking her out at 6:15, swiping at an unknown rapper “I’m about a dollar, what the fuck is 50 Cent?” four years before anyone outside of New York knew what that even meant. The songs in question, DJ Premier’s frenetically shuffled, instant classic “So Ghetto,” Rockwilder’s Tunnel banger “Do It Again” and Timbaland’s menacing “It’s Hot (Some Like It Hot),” encapsulate why this is the Jay-Z worth celebrating most.

The strange mix of tropical sounds like “Big Pimpin’” and the addictive, Dr. Buzzard-like hidden track “Girl’s Best Friend” with cold-eyed threats like the Dr. Dre duet “Watch Me” distilled the essence of the young Shawn Carter, whom Robert Christgau described around this time as “ruthless yet cute — a scary original.” Who else does that remind you of? Right, Biggie. But you could also hear the bratty seeds of Pusha T in lines like “I push more powder than Crystal Light.” And this indicted hustler had an undervalued sense of unity, bringing UGK and Juvenile to his widescreen vision of New York years before the South meant anything significant on the rap charts. Fearlessly ugly and fearlessly pop, the overwhelming richness (in every sense) of Vol. 3…The Life and Times of S. Carter lets you get inside the bully’s head, doing better than almost any record in pop history to illuminate what feels so good about taunting people.


AUDIO: Jay-Z Vol 3…The Life and Times of S. Carter (full album)

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Dan Weiss

Dan Weiss is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.

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