Gucci and guns, platinum sales and arraignments: Those are the charged extremes of the current hip-hop scene. Despite the cliche that rap is now consumed mostly by white suburban kids, that audience is still taking its cues from the ghetto, where who's hard and who's not can mean commercial life or death. It isn't easy for rappers, who often come from that world, to walk the line between confident high stylin' and jewel-bedecked irrelevance. And it's hard to take the hood out of the boy. Violence can flair when the flimsy codes of chic society disintegrate and the unforgiving rules of the streets kick in.
In this tense environment, a string of major rap releases rocked the charts as the century staggered to a close. Vol. 3 Life and Times of S. Carter continues the saga of Jay-Z's adventures in the glittering world of ''Money, Cash, Hoes,'' as one title from his four-times-platinum Hard Knock Life put it. Shawn Carter's name links the letters of the subway lines that run through his Brooklyn neighborhood; the unmistakable goal of Vol. 3 is to reconnect with the people who ride those run-down trains while Jay-Z summers in the Hamptons.
It does that, with flair. If the album doesn't break new ground, it also doesn't fall off. In fact, Jay-Z now stands as the rapper who has best maintained his credibility while still putting up big numbers. The album's key track is ''Come and Get Me,'' in which Jay-Z stares down the playa hatas over a sizzling, percussive track produced by Timbaland: ''I ain't crossover/I brought the suburbs to the hood.'' And if critics think Jay-Z's material obsessions are superficial, he's got an answer for that: ''Magazines said I'm shallow/I never learned to swim/Still they put me on they cover/Cause I earn for them.'' Touché.
The explosive DMX is Jay-Z's nearest commercial rival, but he shares none of his crony's infatuation with the good life: ''I do not worship money,'' he bluntly declares on ...And Then There Was X. He also lacks Jay-Z's easy command, both in his flow and his rhymes. What makes him so compelling, though, is the ravaged grain and electric urgency of his voice he sounds like a man who, stoked by too much smoke, too little sleep, and too much pressure, is just about to blow.
DMX's songs are death-obsessed and drenched in religious imagery. For all the mayhem, hottie-chasing, and call-outs to his ''dogs,'' he moves in a haunted moral universe. Tracks like ''The Professional'' and ''Angel'' (on which Regina Belle takes a spectacular turn) document a ravaging spiritual anguish. ''I got something that's working against/Everything I know is right,'' he confesses on ''Angel.'' That internal drama lends X a thematic ambition few contemporary rappers even bother to strive for.
Meanwhile, Born Again, the ''new'' album by the Notorious B.I.G., who was gunned down in 1997, is a wonder of posthumous record-making. Building on tracks that Biggie was working on before he died, executive producer Sean ''Puffy'' Combs assembles a daunting crew of hip-hop all-stars Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Lil' Kim, and others to give his friend a musical life after death. The strategy works to spooky effect. Born Again not only makes Biggie seem alive, but it sounds like the album he might have made had he lived to absorb all the changes that have taken place in hip-hop. It's the furthest thing from a memorial service it's a hammering jam.
At first, Born Again seems overwhelming, more distracting than enjoyable. Then there's the jolt of hearing Biggie's booming voice and inimitable flow again. He bursts into ''Niggas'' with the impact of a hit man kicking in the door, spraying lines, and leaving nobody standing. ''I want my spot back,'' he insists over the hectic horn chart in ''Tonight,'' and it's a disorienting moment.
He's got the spot locked down, on the strength of his performances on Born Again. But once the disc stops spinning, you remember that he's gone forever. It's a lesson all his gun-toting survivors would do well to keep in mind. S. Carter: B+ ...And Then There Was X: A- Born Again: B+