By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
By Alex Rendon
By Terrence McCoy
By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
Essential listening for anyone curious about the evolution of rap, Jay-Z's 1998 hit, "Hard Knock Life," was the last great hip-hop single of the '90s. With its kids-choir choruses -- sampled from the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Annie -- "Hard Knock Life" ingeniously juxtaposed scenes of urban blight with suburban blitheness. Without its sunny, chorus-line harmonies, "Hard Knock Life" would have been another pointless exercise in hip-hop boastfulness and self-pitying philosophy. Instead, those chiming children's voices transformed Jay-Z's middling inner-city lament into a stagy ghetto classic.
Unfortunately Jay-Z's hotly anticipated fourth album features nothing remotely as innovative as "Hard Knock Life." In fact the rapper's latest joint is a miscue of tenement-size proportions. On its surface, Life & Times of S. Carter, Vol. 3 poses as a musical autobiography. (Jay-Z's real name is Shawn Carter.) The CD insert unfolds like a family photo album, featuring portraits of the rapper as a chubby-cheeked youth. But on closer inspection, the album is nothing more than an unrevealing hodgepodge of bleak ghetto rhymes. Titles like "Dope Man," "There's Been a Murder" and "Big Pimpin'" say it all.
Vol. 3 is so paint-by-numbers, it should come with a complimentary supply of watercolors. Like many of his peers, Jay-Z idolizes pioneering ghetto author Iceberg Slim. But Jay-Z can't tell a story to save his life. His songs read like hooligan nursery rhymes ("I'm so gangsta, prissy girls don't wanna fuck wit' me/I'm so gutter, ghetto girls fall in love wit' me "). Predictably he takes swipes at other rappers while fiercely defending his own street cred ("Thug nigga till the end, tell a friend bitch/Won't change for no paper, plus I been rich"). Methinks he doth protest too much.
In sum, this disc is a brain-dead bummer created by a tremendously successful businessman posing as a thug. It's reprehensible. It's phony. It's a hard-knock lie. -- Bruce Britt