The Corrections: Jay-Z “Vol 3…Life and Times of S. Carter”

Think Paul Thompson’s a joke? Har-dee-har Every now and then, there are glimpses of the old Jay Z. You hear the half-maniacal laugh, you can still smell the crack in his clothes. But underneath...
By    July 17, 2014

Think Paul Thompson’s a joke? Har-dee-har

Every now and then, there are glimpses of the old Jay Z. You hear the half-maniacal laugh, you can still smell the crack in his clothes. But underneath the Samsung deals and the half-hearted veganism lies a bleak, existential truth: Jiggaman got rich and took the doo-rag off.

Shawn Carter has long been lauded as an astute businessman (and a business, man). That said, it often goes overlooked how that acumen bleeds through his pay stubs and onto his proverbial loose leaf. The Blueprint 3, Jay’s tepid 2009 play for commercial dominance, opens with Jay lamenting “I keep talkin’ ‘bout life…/And all I hear is ‘Oh yeah, he keep talkin’ ‘bout crack!’” This is a clever way to shift the narrative—if there’s a broad complaint to be made about Blueprint 3 (or Kingdom Come, or Magna Carta Holy Grail), it’s that Jay couldn’t sound further removed from the guy from Marcy who once lost 92 bricks. And we miss that guy; Jay’s run from the summer of 1998 through the original Blueprint’s release on September 11th was one of unfettered dominance. Before he was doing shitty art installations, he was the best rapper in the world—but did he make the best albums?

Of the three records that fall into this time period—Hard Knock Life, Vol. 2 (1998); Vol. 3: The Life & Times of S. Carter (1999); Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)—Vol. 3 is the least understood by critics. The other two are decidedly singles-driven affairs, and at first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Life & Times as a lesser record in the same vein. This would be a misreading. Volume 3 is committed to, even obsessed with the Billboard charts—but it’s not Hard Knock Life, a disjointed LP that sounds like an instant greatest hits compilation. It’s often sloppy and confused, momentum dying a painful death on each side of the record—but it’s not a slapped-together compilation like Dynasty. Instead, it occupies the strangest place in his long catalog: one of the most interesting looks into his psyche but possibly his worst pre-retirement record. Volume 3 is a strange, bitter, defiant treatise from a criminal-turned-pop star anchored by the fear he might stay a criminal forever.

That fear bubbles under the surface, but it informs much of the album. There is a reckless arrogance to most of the album, but even when he’s proudly calling himself “clit-licker” on “It’s Hot”, the stakes feel artificially high. Volume 3 was released less than a month after Jay allegedly stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera at the Kit Kat Klub in Times Square. The running theme of lawyers, judges, and indictments hangs on the album like an albatross that you stab in a nightclub. (Jay was indicted less than a month after the album was released; in December 2001, he pled guilty to third-degree assault and was sentenced to three years’ probation.)

Most of the songs that deal with this in any direct sense are among the album’s poorest. “There’s Been A Murder”—on which he introduces himself as “Sean Carter the hustler, Jay Z is dead”—is abysmal, little more than patchwork K-Rob beat and inane aphorisms (“My life is like a see-saw”). “Dope Man”, a melodramatic take on the comparative rap-drug dealing metaphor, is an exhausted, exhausting four minutes that you can never get back, complete with cringe-inducing faux news clips. As lazy and middling as these songs are, their worst crime is derailing what could have been a fantastically sequenced album. After a superb intro and the album’s strongest track (“So Ghetto”), not to mention the frenetic “Do It Again”, “Dope Man” stops Vol. 3 dead in its tracks. Even more puzzlingly, “There’s Been A Murder” is a joyless, drab mood killer between “Big Pimpin’” and the criminally underrated “Come and Get Me”.

Even when the focus strays out of the courtroom, there are moments of utter artlessness. The one-two punch of “S. Carter” and “Pop 4 Roc” is a nine-minute run so tone deaf and soulless it may push you into chillwave’s warm embrace for good. Amil’s verse on the former is solid evidence for turn-of-the-century Roc-A-Fella as a money laundering operation—what other explanation is there? Even the track tasked with righting the ship,the obligatory Dr. Dre collaboration “Watch Me” is mostly forgettable, but Jay says “Drop that top down—they gon’ kill us anyway”, so it slides.

But when Vol. 3 works, it works. The aforementioned “So Ghetto” is a master class in technical rapping that nevertheless feels off the cuff and personal. DJ Premier’s beat—the last he has given Jay to this day—is mean and fun in equal parts, a skeletal canvas for Jay to mock funerals and keep his hall closet cluttered with heat. Notably, the second verse is the one where he hits a u-turn and kicks a girl out of his car for suggesting Jay take off the doo-rag. (For the record, I ran into Jay at the Grammys this year, and I don’t think he was strapped.) “So Ghetto” is a curious case: While in some ways it represents the things we no longer associate with Jay Z the Cultural Icon, in others it most closely resembles the witty, sardonic Jay of his pre- and post-1999 classics.

Elsewhere on the album, Jay has heavy chips on both his shoulders. The Beanie Sigel-featuring “Do It Again” is a vicious chiding of other rappers, namely Philly’s Major Figgas, who catch the ill subliminals after dissing Jay and State Property due to a botched deal with the Roc that went sour during Jay and Dame’s Philly recruitment of ’98-’00 (“Fuck you got a flow, that’s cool with me, you got a little dough that’s cool with me, you got a lil car lil jewelry, but none of y’all mothafuckas can fool with me”). On “It’s Hot”, Jay—a bona fide commercial star by this point—lashes out at the then-unknown 50 Cent. Both songs are exhibits in the case for Jay as one of the best rappers in the world, or ever. Always an engaging writer, here he darts nimbly over beats in a way he seldom did on Reasonable Doubt, save maybe “Friend or Foe”. Rhyming syllables are stacked tightly on top of one another, seldom wasted. In short, Vol. 3’s tracks vary wildly in quality, but the rapping is mostly inviolate.

Jay Z is likely to go down in history as a trendsetter, but this is only partially true. His real gift in this department is a discerning ear; Jay could always tell what the next wave would be before anyone else. The most famous example of this might be “Big Pimpin’”, the massive Hype Williams fever dream that features both members of UGK. Here, the appropriation hits all the right notes. There’s a tacit reciprocity between Mr. Carter and the boys from Port Arthur, but Timbaland’s beat is foreign enough that the end product is new and intoxicating in a way that regional mashups seldom are. (“Big Pimpin’” will forever be a rap classic because, as unimpeachable as Jay, Bun, and that beat are, Pimp C’s verse is now taught in every high school English class nationwide.) It should also be noted that UGK’s appearance here isn’t exactly tokenism; Jay and Timbaland also crafted “Snoopy Track”, a slightly off-kilter take on Southern rap with a guttural Juvenile hook. It doesn’t exactly sound like anything coming out of New Orleans at the time, but it’s a solid cut nonetheless—Jay has a main chick, a mistress, and a young bitch. Forget it.

Vol. 3 has no “Song Cry”, no “Regrets”; even on the outro, when Jay admits “Truthfully, ain’t been the same since I lost my dad”, it’s qualified with a terse “fuck you”. But “Come and Get Me” brings a fascinating argument to the table. On the endlessly fun, unhinged two-parter, Jay posits himself as the man who singlehandedly “brought the suburbs to the hood”. He feels unappreciated in this role, and maybe he should. In the 15 years since Vol. 3 was released, Jay has become the least threatening crack dealer in America; it’s easy to forget how unsettling his presence on the pop charts could be. But as he became known for, Jay was ahead of the curve. Despite making an album that harps again and again on a criminal identity, “Come and Get Me” sees how blurred the lines were becoming in 1999: “I went on MTV with doo-rags, I made them love you.” **

**Editor’s note: check the first video where Jay-Z is corporate thugging while explaining his bandana to Rebecca Romijin in 1999 for the MTV Video Music Awards and his “upcoming clothing line” Roc-a-Wear

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