90s score: 8/10
2021 score: 6/10
It seems only appropriate that the very last major studio album released in the 1990s was a rap album. Rap exploded in popularity during the late ’80s and early ’90s, paving the way for huge mainstream success later on. This week, we turn our Rearviewmirror to none other than Jay-Z’s Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter released to significant commercial and critical success on December 28, 1999, via Def Jam Recordings and the now-defunct Roc-A-Fella Records. In hindsight, it’s an excellent musical example that illustrates the small step, the giant leap, between the music of the ’90s and that of the new millennium. However, a few key flaws mean it hasn’t aged very well.
Written and produced in the hard, straightforward style typical of gangster rap, this album nonetheless has a refined, layered sound, likely made possible by Jay-Z’s success and increased access to production personnel and resources after the success of his previous three solo albums. While critics did not universally love this added polish at the time, songs like Things That U Do (feat. Mariah Carey) can now be seen as predecessors to the next decades’ growing trend of singers featuring on rap songs and vice-versa. Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love (feat. Jay-Z, of course)”, Estelle’s “American Boy (feat. Kanye West),” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby (feat. Ludacris)” are just a few examples. Another standout track on Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter is “Is That Yo Bitch (feat. Twista and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott),” another stellar collaboration that helps this album stand out not only as quite listenable but also as a kind of “who’s who” of R&B and rap in the late 1990s.
Despite all of its great qualities, however, the album wasn’t as much of a hit as it could have been and hasn’t aged very well. Only “Big Pimpin’ (feat. UGK)” achieved major commercial success, reaching #18 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and making the 2010 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” at #467. Ironically, Jay-Z was very self-critical of the song in hindsight, telling The Wall Street Journal’s John Jurgensen in a 2010 retrospective, “I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh.” This song isn’t the only one on Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter to feature the violent and misogynistic themes typical of gangster rap. One can separate the art from the artist, but in the wake of #MeToo and other social justice movements, it’s easy to understand why this type of music isn’t as highly valued as it used to be.
Written by Henri Brillon
*Edited by Dominic Abate