Vol. 3 Life And Times of S. Carter

Ok, he's reloaded. And on his fourth album, Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter, he's a sweet contradiction. Lyrically, Jay is less introspective than he was on 1996's Reasonable Doubt; he's more misogynous and paranoid than ever. But even as he shies away from past vulnerable moments like "Regrets," "Lucky Me" and "You Must Love Me," Jay (born Shawn Carter) has become a better architect of songs. This is his strongest album to date, with music that's filled with catchy hooks, rump-shaking beats and lyrics fueled by Jay's hustler's vigilance. On the Timbaland-produced "Come and Get Me" - an exhilarating piece of craftsmanship where two separate blaxploitation licks are joined by a valley of babbling brooks, tropical birds and church bells - Jay describes fear and loathing at the top of the hip-hop heap, with phenomenal results: "Went on MTV with do-rags/I made them love you. . . . I expected to hear, 'Jay, if it wasn't for you'/But instead all I hear is fussin' in your crew/How y'all schemin', tryin' to get accustomed to my moves."

Moving 5 million units isn't only good fodder for hate-me-now prose; it fattens up the guest list. In addition to Roc-a-Fella staples Memphis Bleek and the brilliant Beanie Sigel, Dr. Dre shows up to turn out "Watch Me," Juvenile croons a hook for the loopy "Snoopy Track" and MTV's Serena Altschul reports on the Court TV-esque "Dope Man." Despite his mo'- money-mo'-problems weariness, life is good for Jigga. "Far be it from me to question Allah's wisdom," he rhymes on the Mariah Carey-assisted, Swizz Beatz-produced "Things That U Do." "I dodged prison, came out unscathed from car collisions/I know I must be part of some mission."

Jay is assured of his divine purpose, but DMX is searching for his - he moves from middle-management drug-dealing strategies ("Make a Move") to conversations with God ("Prayer III") with verve. "I don't get much sleep/My soul's tormented," he confesses on "The Professional," a litany of murder methods delivered with fearsome detail. "I wish it was a lie, but everything I said I meant it/I know I'm doing wrong and every day I beg the Lord to forgive me for fucking with the double-edged sword."

If Jay-Z's S. Carter is best enjoyed in a posh nightclub over toasts of Cristal, . . . And Then There Was X is the stuff of crowded college dorms, empty pizza cartons and full kegs of domestic beer. DMX doesn't stray far from his proven formula: schizophrenic flows and old-age-wisdom-meets-street-knowledge buttressed by sea-chanteylike choruses. On "One More Road to Cross," he sounds like a thugged-out Popeye after someone slipped something into his spinach. Musically, the Dark Man recruits Swizz Beatz, Nokio and Irv Gotti to create the intense, dramatic backdrops. "The Professional," "More 2 a Song" and "Make a Move" blend urgent drum patterns, triumphant horns, and ominous keys and strings that hang overhead like a death threat from Suge Knight. Up-tempo numbers like the Dru-Hill vehicle, "What These Bitches Want," the wanton "Party Up" and "Good Girls, Bad Guys" are too corny to dance to but too fun to be wack.

At the end of the day, . . . And Then There Was X is repetitive but enjoyable, confrontational yet familiar. And it's this familiarity that takes away from its impact. Still, if DMX doesn't give us much new, he does give us what we want. It's hard to ask for more.