Review Summary: Dark and ominous lyrics and productions make this a welcome inclusion to Jay's discography.
Reasonable Doubt still remains one of my favorite albums of all time, which is a sentiment shared by most critics in the music industry. In My Lifetime Vol. 1, although plagued with poppy Sean Combs influenced tracks, is a quality piece of work, including the gems "Where I'm From" and "Friend or Foe '98." Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life is suitably commercial and has its fair share of radio bait, but is another staple in Jay-Z's catalog, and most fans of Jay, diehard or casual can enjoy the record as a whole. Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter is a very strange creature indeed. The cover represents the content of the album quite well; it's darker in terms of color, which represents Vol. 3's darkness in terms of aesthetic and lyrical content. A prominent cross hanging from a chain on Jay's neck could represent many things, such as his belief that he's become a christlike figure. However, Jay has never been an egomaniac in real life, so I would assume it to mean that he keeps his religion close to his chest and not prominent in his spoken words.The title is nowhere to be found on the cover, simply an emblazoned and prominent Jay-Z logo. It's rather suitable, as most of the album is getting closer to Jay's trademark raps about his career and personal life. While tracks like "Hard Knock Life" and "Big Pimpin'" can stand on their own to any listener, you need a bit of context to listen to this album as a whole. For example, "Dopeman, S. Carter, and There's Been A Murder" are clever concept tracks that only work if you understand the metaphor behind their presentation: Dopeman isn't about drugs, it's about the rap game. S. Carter is a self-aware dissection of Jay's current state. There's Been A Murder is about persona and media image.
The lyrics of the Life and Times of S. Carter are usually very solid. "Dopeman" creates a trial in Jay-Z's imagination, vividly painting a detailed portrait of the events which few rappers are capable of these days. It has subtle racial conflict undertones as well, showing how it can be rough for a young black american to make it in a rich white world. "Do It Again (Put Your Hands Up)" is effectively written for its main purpose: a great club-banger. "Things That U Do" is unforgivable, with a poppy hook that isn't catchy and a lazy flow, even if the lyrics are still better than your average made-for-radio song. "It's Hot (Some Like It Hot) is a slow burn, with Jay being quite meticulous with his rapping. Snoopy Track is perfectly executed, and Jay confidently explains how he doesn't give a *** what people think about him, but his rapping also blends in perfectly with everything else about the track, making this song possibly the most cohesive on the album. (However, that doesn't mean it's the best.) "Big Pimpin" is arguably Jay-Z's best collaboration, easily performing a verbal spar with the UGK duo in a lyrical debate on who's the biggest pimp. Jay is perfectly capable of holding his own on his own album.
Aside from themes and subtle witticisms in the songs found here, there's also some fantastic production here. "So Ghetto" is an example of some of the most fantastic production I have heard in ages. One can never really expect anything other than greatness from DJ Premier, but the blend of perfect ominousness and a catchy structure makes this a standout track in Jay's entire catalog. Fans will love the imposing, grimy, and almost scary quality of how the samples are integrated in the hook, reminding us with a compilation of different lyrics that Jay's on top for a reason. "Big Pimpin'" is already established as yet another staple, with the perfect use of unconventional samples by Timbaland. Who knew flutes could be used so effectively? If you had listened to the track "Blueprint 2" before, you might not think they could. "Watch Me" is even darker than "So Ghetto", creating a listening experience akin to a horror movie. One can't help but wonder if Dr. Dre's input into the track was more than just a guest spot. "Snoopy Track" is similarly as dark and catchy as most of the album, along with the intros and outros also retaining an operatic grittiness.
Jay-Z's Vol 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter contains a few of the best tracks of his entire career, and is a well-executed concept album. It takes the two personas Jay had established beforehand: the radio-friendly, catchy single Jay-Z and the dark, murderous, ghetto street hustler, and pits them in a battle where the latter is victorious more often than not. While albums such as the Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt surpass Vol. 3 as whole albums, if you enjoyed the other installments in the Life and Times of Shawn Carter, you'll like this album.