“Back to Shawn Carter the hustler, Jay Z is dead.”
Shawn Carter’s fourth album, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, was the beginning of the end of Jay Z. A mixture of unforgiving talk of blocks, glocks, bricks, and slick party anthems. It was the album that set Jay into a zone that would last for about five years and produce what many consider his last "street" album, Dynasty, and his last undeniable classic, The Blueprint, before culminating with the release of his then-farewell project The Black Album. The album cover says a lot. It's an imposing shot of Jay decked out in his own clothing brand, minimal jewelry, standing in between the Twin Towers.
That picture still resonates with me. Here was a kid from the gutter just like me, who had his own record label, his own clothing line, standing in the middle of the financial capital of the world. It was a big "Fuck You" to America. If Vol. 2 said he was a viable, commercial star, Vol. 3 said he was here to stay and that he could do it his way. It was the beginnings of his rise as a mogul and Roc-A-Fella's stranglehold on rap. One of his newest signees, Beanie, who was featured on “Reservoir Dogs” an album before, was all over Vol. 3 and would release his Gold-selling debut The Truth the next year.
Hov was unstoppable. As he said on the Timbaland-produced cut "It's Hot," "you can't stop it, when it's hot, it's hot." Everything he dropped was fire. He reached his apex with 2001's The Blueprint, faltered a bit with the releases of The Best of Both Worlds and The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse, but was able to reach down deep for what was supposed to be his last, The Black Album.
The Black Album was a big deal once upon a time. There was a farewell concert at Madison Square Garden, the Fade to Black documentary, and Mark Ronson’s brilliant Fade to Black mixtape. Everything surrounding that LP said: “I’m done. Promise.” What else was there left for him to say? He had done it like no other rapper before him. He didn't let the music industry take advantage of him. As he predicted, he raped Def Jam 'til he was the hundred-million man while fightin' the ghosts of 2Pac and Biggie.
This is not to say the album isn’t one of his best. He worked with producers he hadn't worked with before (The Buchanans, 9th Wonder, Rick Rubin, and DJ Quik.) However, I tend to go back to Vol. 3 more. I’m also old enough to remember what Life and Times could’ve been.
Bootleggers and the Internet were beginning to influence the way we consumed music. “Hova Song (Interlude)” and “Is That Yo Bitch?” were replaced with “Watch Me” and “There’s Been a Murder,” and “Anything” popped up on Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth.” He stabbed Lance "Un" Rivera in Manhattan's Kit Kat Club because he felt he was the person responsible for the leaks.
This wasn’t the case on the other side of the globe. The U.K. had dibs on the original tracklisting. If we lived in a world where Jay wasn’t trying to make Amil happen, he would’ve cut “S. Carter” and “Pop 4 Roc,” and kept “Hova Song (Interlude),” “Is That Yo Bitch,” and “Anything” and I wouldn’t need to make this case. Those tracks blemish an otherwise masterful follow-up to his most successful album to date, Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life.
The same thing happened to Nas’ I Am. The Lost Tapes was comprised of cuts that didn’t make it to retail because bootleggers put Nasty’s third effort in the streets before its official release.
Still think I’m out of mind, right? Fuck it, let’s go track-for-track.
“Hova Song (Intro)” versus “Interlude?” No contest. “Hova Song” is the winner.
“So Ghetto” versus “December 4th?” Really? Vol. 3 - 2, Black Album - 0. Primo and Jay are batting 1.000. I'm still amazed at the construction of this beat from the samples used to the drums to the hook. And the lyrics? "Jigga Man, you're rich, take the durag off." He's a "thug nigga, til the end. Tell a friend, bitch." This was Jigga in rare form, at his ultimate. He also predicted the hate: "Soon as I sell too much, watch them turn on him cause that seem to be the shit that'll earn for them," and followed up with a verbal assault that left heads spinning:
"I spit that murder-murder-murderous/Everytime a verbalist/Iller than Verbal Kint is/Or O-Dog in "Menace"/I'm ill, start to finish/I rip apart contenders I'm hot."
“Do It Again (Put Your Hands Up)” versus “What More Can I Say?” This is a tough one but I’m gonna go with “Do It Again.” The beat is harder, Beans went nuts, and Jay had too many quotables. “You got lil cars, lil jewelries, ” “three cuts in your eyebrows, tryna wild out,” etc.
“Dope Man” versus “Encore?” The Black Album wins this one. Kanye showed why he’s on another level with the production, and Jigga gave us a nice going away track. However, it’s not as close as you think. Jay-Z blacked on “Dope Man.” The theme of the song was fitting because this was the album leak he stabbed Un over and was facing 15 years, if convicted, but he only ended up doing three years probation. It also featured Jay spittin’ about how hard it is to make it out of the projects, especially in the last verse with powerful lines like:
“Blindfolded, expected to walk a straight line/Mind molded, taught to love you and hate mine/Climbed over it, at an early age, Jay shined."
That line showed that Jay was “selling out” on purpose. Even today, he exhibits a rebellious attitude towards the hand that feeds him.
“Things That U Do” versus “Change Clothes?” Gonna give it to “Change Clothes” for sure. Jigga had the hood wearing button-ups to every function. You would’ve ran into to me at the local clubs in my best Rocawear fit throwing the diamond up when that shit came on. It was definitely an anthem. But call me crazy, I fuck with “Things That U Do.” Mariah laced it, Swizz was poppin’ at the time, and Jay went off on the first verse: “Married to the streets, no date of annulment.”
“Its Hot (Some Like It Hot)” versus “Dirt Off Your Shoulders?” "It’s Hot.” Yup, that’s right. I was fuckin’ with “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” for a hot second but minus “the sun revolving ‘round the Earth” line, I would much rather listen to Timbo’s earlier production. Jigga rode the beat beautifully, he spanked 50 Cent, and it aged better.
“Snoopy Track” versus “Threat?” Do I have to pick? I do not. This is a tie. Both tracks feature two of my favorite people: Juvenile and Cedric the Entertainer. Both are classics in Jay’s catalog and I love both songs very much. It was also great to see Jay working with the likes of 9th Wonder being that Hova is the 8th Wonder of the World.
“S. Carter” versus “Moment of Clarity?” The latter. Although, I’m not the biggest fan of Eminem’s production. Jay had some good lines but, honestly, anything is better than “S. Carter.” That shit is trash. I skip it every single time.
“Pop 4 Roc” versus “99 Problems?” “99.” Again, anything is better than “Pop 4 Roc.” It’s unfortunate because I skip it every time as well. “99 Problems” is one of Jay’s biggest hits and had that great part where he impersonates a cop’s voice and offered some legal advice about glove compartments that may or not be correct.
“Watch Me” versus “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)?” “PSA” without a doubt. People literally go insane when this beat drops. It really is a sight to see live. Jay has the crowd in the palm of his hand when he performs it. But let me big up “Watch Me” because it’s one of my favorite Jay tracks. Despite Dr. Dre being featured on the hook rapping old Jay lines from Big’s “I Love the Dough,” Irv Gotti and Lil Rob are credited as the producers of this underrated track. Jigga was feelin' himself on this one, saying shit like:
“Guess who? Fresh off of "Volume 2"/Back at you, peep the numbers my album do/They call me Champagne Hova, wake up with a hangover/When y'all think the game's over, do the same thing over.”
Jay wasn’t playin’ with y’all.
“Big Pimpin’” versus “Justify My Thug?” Ha! “Big Pimpin’” easily. It introduced two very important things: UGK to the mainstream and Dame Dash’s star power. Dice rolls and pouring champagne on girls was all the rage back then. I was underwhelmed by this Quik/Hova collab, to be honest. I hate the beat and I hate Jay’s flow on this, even though he said things like “barrel in my apparel can stop God.”
“There’s Been A Murder” versus “Lucifer?” I’m gonna catch some slack for this. I love “Lucifer.” Kanye’s a genius but I feel like he should’ve kept this one for himself. I find myself playing “There’s Been A Murder” over “Lucifer” eight times out of 10. Plus its the track where Shawn Carter the hustler kills Jay Z the rapper. It’s the genesis of the Jay we have today. Stadium tour, corporate shrill Jay, if you will. And you know what? You can’t knock the hustle.
“Come and Get Me” versus “Allure?” Shit. Both are all-time Jay tracks. “Allure” features brilliant Pharrell production and shows Jay at one of his most vulnerable points. He’s included a lot from Carlito’s Way in projects throughout his career and this track was no different. Getting pulled back into the game is something he’s dealing with until this very day. He's the Michael Jordan of Rap. Jay loves the thrill of the sport too much to leave it alone forever.
The same can be said about “Come and Get Me.” He was knee deep in the game, put it work, and finally became a boss. He resented the fact that his people were hating on his success. Jay feeling the crown’s weight throughout with a special emphasis on the last two verses with bars like:
“I ain't crossover I brought the suburbs to the hood/Made ‘em relate to your struggle, told ‘em ‘bout your hustle/Went on MTV with durags, I made them love you/You know normally them people wouldn't be fuckin witchu/Til I made em understand why you do what you do/I expected to hear, "Jay, if it wasn't for you.."/But instead, all I hear is buzzin’ in your crew/How y'all schemin’, tryin’ to get accustomed to my moves,” and “It's only fair that I warn ya, rap's my new hustle/I'm treatin’ it like the corner, fuck with me if you wanna/My game change but my mindframe remains the same/I gotta protect what's mine/Shit I started from nothin; zero, zip/I made my way hustlin, I don't owe niggas shit.”
He’s always been a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” kinda guy but still realizes that he’s where he’s at because of his God-given ability to put words together. This is a tie.
“NYMP” versus “My 1st Song?” “My 1st Song” without a doubt. As much as I enjoy the former, “1st Song” is just so damn good. The Biggie sample, the sexy ass Los Angeles Negros sample, Jigga’s introspective raps, and the reminiscing he does at the end makes this one special. It would’ve been even more special if he would’ve stayed retired.
For those keeping scores at home, the tally is Vol. 3: 6, The Black Album: 6, with two ties. So now we have “Hova Song (Outro),” the two hidden tracks “Jigga My Nigga” and “Girl’s Best Friend,” and the fact that “Hova Song (Interlude)” and “Is That Yo Bitch” are on the original version and released as is in the U.K. All these factors tip the scales in favor of Vol. 3. I love science.
One can argue that The Black Album flows better than Vol. 3, for sure, but I still prefer Life and Times. It still takes me back to a place that The Black Album doesn't. I remember reading the credits in the car when Jay said the same thing in the intro. The majority of the beats and the subject matter were on another level. He was undoubtedly in his prime. The Black Album is Jay reminiscing about his glory days. Vol. 3 is Jay relaying those glories in real time. It was fresh and new. Think MJ in the midst of his first three-peat. As the years passed, The Black Album lost some of its splendor—it was MJ during his last championship, Jay's victory lap.
Since its release and rollout in 2003, Jay has been apart of six hit-or-miss albums. American Gangster and Watch the Throne are the standouts of the bunch. Sorry to rain on the parade. Some people just like to watch the world burn, I guess. I keep the fifth wit me, so come and get me.
Angel Diaz is a Staff Writer for Complex Media. Argue with him about rap (@ADiaz456).