5. Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Producers: K-Rob, DJ Premier, Rockwilder, DJ Clue, Darrell Branch, Ken Ifill, Lance Rivera, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, Russell Howard, Sean Francis, Chauncey Mahan, Irv Gotti, Lil Rob
Features: Beanie Sigel, Amil, Mariah Carey, Juvenile, Memphis Bleek, Dr. Dre, UGK
Sales: 3 million copies
Each of the three albums that followed Jay-Z’s debut signaled an important career milestone. Vol. 1 saw Jay emerging from under The Notorious B.I.G.’s shadow to assume his still-warm seat as the king of Brooklyn. (“The City Is Mine”? Too soon?) Vol. 2—specifically, the song “Hard Knock Life”—stamped Hov’s credentials as a legitimate Billboard force, vaulting him ahead of NYC contenders like Nas and Mobb Deep. (More on them later.)
Then, in 1999, Vol. 3 crowned Jay-Z as the Best Rapper Alive.
It isn’t, of course, Jay-Z’s best work. Like a lot of shiny-suit-era albums, Vol. 3 clumsily attempts to pull every demographic, leading to a mixed bag of beats and hooks. But the connective thread is that Jay-Z rapped every single bar like he had something to prove, switching up flows to appease New Yorkers (“So Ghetto,” his final Primo collab), Dirty Southerners (“Snoopy Track,” “Big Pimpin’”), L.A. bangers (“Watch Me”)—shit, he even out-Ja-Ruled Ja Rule (“Things That U Do”). There may be questionable beats on Vol. 3, but there are no throwaway rhymes—in fact, the club-pandering first single, “Do It Again,” features one of Jay-Z’s coldest verses ever ("The game is mine, I'll never foul out").
Jay-Z turned 30 the month that Vol. 3 dropped, and his priorities soon shifted to pop stardom and business, and eventually marriage and family. Inevitably, his worldview opened up beyond the confines of the rap game. So remember Vol. 3 for Jay-Z at his no-fucks-given, ruthlessly competitive peak (Exhibit A: “What the fuck is 50 Cent?”; Exhibit B: “Come And Get Me”). Back then, Jay could talk about toting guns to the Grammys and you—or white America, anyway—might believe it. Actually, it was also when he might in-fact have rolled up on you in a club and shanked you.
Speaking of that disturbing incident, imagine if Lance “Un” Rivera had not (allegedly) bootlegged the album, the undeniable classic “Is That Yo B’tch” (plus the “Hard Knock Life”—inspired “Anything”) would’ve remained on Vol. 3. And then, perhaps, it would rank higher on this list. — Donnie Kwak