The Anniversary

Vol. 3… Life And Times Of S. Carter Turns 20

Two nights before his 30th birthday, Jay-Z was out in the club, acting like he had nothing to lose. Jay was at the Kit Kat Klub in Times Square, attending the record-release party for Q-Tip’s Amplified, and he was in a bad mood. Jay’s LP Vol. 3… Life And Times Of S. Carter was about a month away from release, but the album had leaked. Filesharing services like Napster were still in their infancy, and CD sales were booming, but you could walk up to any corner on Canal Street in Chinatown and buy a copy of Vol. 3 in a slimline CD case, with a grainy photocopied cover. (That’s how I got mine.) For Jay-Z, this was a problem. By the end of 1999, Jay was a global pop artist, but he still imagined New York hard-rocks as his core constituency. This album leak could not stand. Jay was not going to let anybody fuck up his business.

That evening, Jay ran into Lance “Un” Rivera, the music exec who’d recently signed the ascendent Harlem rapper Cam’ron to his Untertainment label. Jay had heard that Rivera was behind his album leak, and he approached Rivera to discuss the matter. Years later, in his memoir Decoded, Jay recalled that Rivera “got real loud with me right there in the middle of the club.” Jay found himself “blacking out with anger,” and pretty soon, “all hell had broken loose in the club.” That night, Rivera went to the hospital with stab wounds to his shoulder and abdomen. The next night, Jay surrendered to New York police.

It’s never been entirely clear what happened in the club that night. (Nas on “Ether” two years later: “Your man stabbed Un and made you take the blame.”) Jay eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. He was facing a possible 15-year prison sentence, but thanks to that guilty plea and some presumably brilliant lawyering, he walked away with probation. If Jay had served prison time over the stabbing, it would’ve interrupted one of rap’s all-time dominant runs just as that run was peaking. Jay had never presented himself as a reckless, passionate livewire. Instead, his persona was all chilly calculation. But Jay was apparently just that protective of Vol. 3. It makes sense. Vol. 3 was important. 20 years later, it still is.

A year before Vol. 3, Jay-Z had become a star. That was when Jay released Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, the album that crossed him over to the white suburban audiences who he’d never quite captured before. Vol. 2 was practically a concept album about high-stakes drug trafficking, but it was also a pop album. The Annie sample on the LP’s lead single was the smartest, most populist move Jay had ever made. Soon after, Jay rapped a guest verse on “Heartbreaker,” a #1 Mariah Carey single. In the span of a few months, Jay had supplanted Puff Daddy and DMX as the dominant figure in New York rap, and he’d also put himself in danger of being seen as a fly-by-night pop-crossover radio guy. So Vol. 3 had to affirm Jay’s place at the top of the mountain and reaffirm his own unfuckwithable kingpin image. That’s a hell of a needle to thread, but Vol. 3 did both. Leak or no leak, it moved half a million copies in the week after Christmas 1999. And it did that while making it clear that Jay-Z was the best rapper in the world.

The first sound we hear on Vol. 3 is a portentous thud, with a gospel choir howling behind it. (The producer of that track, K-Rob, pretty much invented avant-rap with his Basquiat-produced 1983 Rammellzee collab “Beat Bop.”) “I know you just ripped the packaging off your CD,” Jay tells us. “If you like me, you reading the credits right now.” Immediately, Jay follows up those tactile details with messianic self-mythologization (“the new millennium’s upon us, the album is here”), an offhand pop-culture reference (“rappers with no relation, there’s seven degrees of separation and I’m Kevin Bacon”), a grammar joke (“Jigga the shit, even when he rhyme in third person”), and a subliminal shot at unsigned shit-talker 50 Cent (“now watch how quickly I drop 50″). All that is within the first 60 seconds of the album. Jay was not playing around.

That’s the intro track. On the first full song from Vol. 3, Jay slides in more quotables than you hear on entire albums these days: “Thug nigga till the end; tell a friend, bitch.” “We tote guns to the Grammys, pop bottles on the White House lawn.” “Think Jigga’s a joke, nigga? Hardy har.” “Radio’s gotta play me, though I cuss too much.” All those lines are basically inscribed on rap’s DNA, even though the song in question, “So Ghetto,” was never a single. Instead, it’s a track that Jay made with his old collaborator DJ Premier, the Gang Starr member and underground godhead who’d established the sound of New York rap in the ’90s. (Premier made the “So Ghetto” beat from an Ennio Morricone score to an obscure French crime movie, an equally obscure Stax instrumental record, and the weird chirping noise that the three-headed lightning-breathing alien dragon King Ghidorah made in old Godzilla flicks. I get amped up just thinking about the “So Ghetto” beat.)

By the time Jay made “So Ghetto,” New York’s rap underground had risen up in opposition to the Puff Daddys of the world. Clueless college kids like me had this idea that Jay was another pop hegemon, that he was taking over the world by making frat-party records out of obvious and immediate samples. Around the same time, Premier was working with people like Mos Def, and he seemed like an avatar of everything Jay-Z wasn’t. “So Ghetto” was obvious and undeniable proof that college kids like me were absolute fucking idiots. Nobody else could’ve done what Jay did to that “So Ghetto” beat. On that song, Jay is fully in his element, smooth and unhurried and grandiloquent. He bends his voice around that impossibly cool beat with unflappable calm and colossal confidence. He rips mind-bending syllabic runs, and he does it while sounding like the coolest person in the world. It’s some of the best pure rapping that anyone has made, ever. And on Vol. 3, it’s just an album track.

We all have our favorite Jay-Z albums. Vol. 3 is mine. I have been told, again and again, that I am wrong for this. Fine. Fuck it. Jay had already spun intricate, thoughtful tales about crime life on Reasonable Doubt. He would later dig into soul-crackling sensitivity on The Blueprint and bronze his own legend on The Black Album. But for my money, Vol. 3 remains the absolute peak of Jay’s haughty, arrogant ugly-sneer bully era. It’s the apex of the time when Jay was absolutely disgusted with everyone else in rap for not being enough like him. It’s the zenith of Jay, now America’s favorite househusband, dripping scorn all over the very notion that he could ever fall in love with anyone. This is my favorite version of Jay-Z.

On Vol. 3, Jay presented himself as a mob-connected Sinatra for the Y2K era — fucking with the model chicks Friday night at Life and kicking them out of the car for telling him to take his durag off, clapping steel and acting ill to give you chest plains and leg sprains, just using rap to put shit in his name. Jay utters every line on Vol. 3 as a blank matter-of-fact statement even when he’s issuing psychotic death threats or telling you exactly what he’s going to do to your girl. “Is That Yo Bitch?,” a Vol. 3 hidden track that later became a hit for protege Memphis Bleek, gives us Jay at his absolute most disdainful: “I got your bitch up in my Rover, man / I never kiss her, never hold her hand.” Nobody has ever performed amorality quite that masterfully.

You could learn a whole lot about how rap stardom works just by watching the moves that Jay makes on Vol. 3. Consider: “Things That U Do,” the album’s most obvious pop attempt, paired Jay with platinum-plated hook-singer Mariah Carey and producer-of-the-moment Swizz Beatz. It’s hitmaking-by-numbers, but even on that song, Jay puts forth his own mythology, telling the story about how he discovered “the flow of all flows.” “Things That U Do” existed just to be a single, and that’s what it was. But when it quickly became obvious that the song wasn’t working — before it even got a video — Jay replaced it with another single: “Big Pimpin’,” a cheerfully misogynistic anthem where Jay raps over some Egyptian flutes that Timbaland dug up somewhere.

The two guest rappers on “Big Pimpin’,” UGK’s Bun B and Pimp C, were important regional Southern underground stars, but they were total unknowns at the time in places like New York. Both of them totally outshine Jay himself on “Big Pimpin'” — Bun with athletic scholastic bounce, Pimp with sheer nasty charisma. And yet the song works. Jay knew it. This was a weird choice for a single, but it’s the one that pushed Vol. 3 into the stratosphere. “Big Pimpin'” is the sort of song where you don’t immediately understand what you’re hearing but where you need to hear it again right away. These days, when Jay or Bun does “Big Pimpin” live, they let the whole crowd rap the Pimp C verse back to them.

Really, all the Timbaland beats on Vol. 3 are works of art. “Big Pimpin'” is cosmopolitan global bounce. “It’s Hot (Some Like It Hot)” is off-kilter handclaps and empty space. “Come And Get Me” is two different strains of alien funk colliding into each other mid-track, and it does the echoing, thunderous “Sicko Mode” beat-switch trick 19 years earlier. Best of all is “Snoopy Track,” a beat that makes me feel like I’m being ripped in half by a giant robot. The beats that Timbaland was making in the late ’90s still sound futuristic, and almost nobody back then had any idea how to rap over them. (Timbaland had way more success with R&B singers like Aaliyah and with hybrid beasts like Missy Elliott.) But Jay-Z understood. Jay’s timing over those Tim beats — the way he pauses just when the beat does — continues to astound me. There’s not one rapper who knew how to use space like that. It’s Sinatra-level.

There are slow parts on Vol. 3, and there are songs that everyone makes a big show out of hating. (“S. Carter” is just catchy enough that it seems unfair.) Jay was playing to every demographic in the rap nation on the album, so there’s no aesthetic cohesion to it, no through-line. Thanks to the circumstances of its release, the album is even more disjointed than it might’ve otherwise been. Because of the album leak, Jay removed a few tracks from the album at the last minute and swapped in a couple of extras, like the Dr. Dre collab “Watch Me.” (Jay recently added a bunch of his old albums to the various streaming services, and the version of Vol. 3 currently available is the one that Jay originally intended to release. “Watch Me” and “There’s Been A Murder” have effectively been deleted from the internet. It’s weird.)

But even with its inconsistencies, Vol. 3 is a crushing display of technique, of instincts, and of general overall dominance. It’s the album that turned Jay from a rapper on a hot streak to a part of the cultural firmament. The first time I moved to New York was six months after Vol. 3 came out, and the album still seemed to hang in the air throughout the city. It wasn’t just something you’d hear from every third passing car. It was part of the atmosphere. Maybe that had already been happening before the album’s release. I wasn’t living there; I don’t know. But Vol. 3 marked the moment when my skepticism melted, when I understood that Jay-Z would be a part of my life for a long, long time. I love that album. I’d stab somebody for it, too.