Life & Times of S.
Carter, Vol. 3
(Roc-a-fella/Def Jam)

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

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