"Vol. 3--The Life and Times of S. Carter" will likely debut atop the first official Billboard album chart of the New Millennium. Shawn Carter--better known to millions of rap fans as Jay-Z--planned it that way.

"I put a flag on the date in June," says Jay-Z.

You can do that when you're the best-selling rap artist of 1999. Jay-Z's previous album, the Grammy-winning "Hard Knock Life," sold 5 million copies and topped the charts for five weeks, fueled by two massive singles, the "Annie"-sampling title track and "Can I Get a . . . " He and fellow New York rapper DMX--whose new album, "And Then There Was X," just opened atop the final Billboard album chart of the century with sales of 700,000 copies--headlined the most successful rap tour of all time.

On Jay-Z's new album, there's a track titled "Dope Man," a mock trial scenario in which the rapper is charged with rhymes against humanity, with his Roc-A-Fella label characterized as a "criminal enterprise" glorifying drugs, sex and black-on-black violence. It includes the line "Do you deny you're responsible for the demise of a record exec . . . "

Ironically, the track was co-produced by Lance "Un" Rivera, who on Dec. 1 was stabbed in the stomach and back in New York's Kit Kat Club during a listening party for rapper Q-Tip. The rumor in rap circles is that Rivera (who was hospitalized and released the next day) was responsible for bootlegs of "The Life and Times of S. Carter" circulating before its release last Tuesday, cannibalizing potential sales.

After learning that police wanted to question him, Jay-Z turned himself in the next day. He was released on $50,000 bond, with a Jan. 31 court date. He faces three charges, including felony assault, which can carry a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

The rapper is cooperating with police and told MTV News he had nothing to do with the attack. Lyor Cohen, president of Def Jam Records, which distributes Roc-A-Fella, the label co-owned by Jay-Z, told the New York Daily News that the rapper's attorneys have a videotape showing he was nowhere near Rivera at the time of the stabbing.

Sitting in a Def Jam office a week before the album's release, Jay-Z declined to talk about the incident. Aside from MTV News, his only public comment came at the recent Billboard Music Awards, where he was named rap artist of the year. Jay-Z's appearance was preceded by a pair of female wrestlers engaging in a mock fight. His response: "I hope they don't charge me for what just happened, too."

In "Dope Man," the rapper chants, "Your honor I no longer kill my people/ I raise mine/ The soul of Mumia in this modern-day time . . . ."

That's a bit of an exaggeration--Jay-Z's no Public Enemy or Rakim when it comes to politically conscious rap--but the lanky six-footer's rhyming prowess is undeniable. Forged in Brooklyn's tough Marcy Housing Projects, Jay-Z has managed to fuse intricately woven stories of ghetto life with top-notch tracks that appeal to both hard-core hip-hop fans and a mass audience.

Over the past four years, Jay-Z has released a quartet of platinum-plus albums, beginning with 1996's critically acclaimed debut, "Reasonable Doubt." His first recordings, however, date to 1988, when the then-19-year-old appeared on an album by his mentor, veteran New York rapper the Jaz. People were already noticing Jay-Z's distinctive, seemingly effortless flow and verbal skills, but he soon abandoned music after watching the Jaz get jerked around by his label.

"When I walked away, I was young and foolish," says Jay-Z, adding that he was shocked by the financial machinations of the record business. And, he insists, he had no sense of his own potential.

"Because it was easy for me to make music, to come up with lyrics, I didn't know how good I was at doing it," explains Jay-Z, who now may be rap's most influential stylist.

If rhyme wasn't going to pay, crime would. Though he's no longer forthcoming about this period in interviews, Jay-Z has admitted to spending his early twenties dealing drugs and living large on the street (a period he still refers to in his lyrics). This is hardly unusual in hardcore rap, where a criminal past is a bonanza to street credibility, and the line between living the hard-knock life and rapping about it frays so thinly as to become invisible.

Eventually, however, that life began to look less and less attractive, a dead-end street likely leading to either a coffin or imprisonment. Recognizing that he couldn't keep up the pace and that the lifestyle eventually would catch up to him, Jay-Z "retired," trading in the crack game for the rap game. Financially, he's said, choosing hip-hop over hustling was "a demotion."

"It wasn't specifically one thing," Jay-Z says of his career change. "It was more so out of fear. You can't run the streets forever. What are you going to be doing when you're 30 years old, or 35 or 40? I had a fear of being nothing--that pretty much drove me."

So Jay-Z turned his street-bred entrepreneurial skills to getting a record deal, though he was not convinced music offered a career. That changed in 1995 when he released a 12-inch single, "In My Lifetime," and started hustling it on the streets.

According to Jay-Z, "at the time we started putting 'In My Lifetime' in our trunk, selling it out the back of the car and getting $300 really easy, that's when I started to believe I could do it."

Soon after, Jay-Z had a real deal. "Reasonable Doubt," released on Priority Records, was quickly added to the short list of dynamic rap debuts in the '90s, along with Nas's "Illmatic," Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Doggystyle," and "Ready to Die," by former high school classmate and fellow Brooklynite Notorious B.I.G. It produced a double-sided breakthrough single, "Dead Presidents" and "Ain't No Nigga," a sizzling duet with another newcomer, Foxxy Brown.

Jay-Z remembers being in the Palladium nightclub here soon after the release of "Reasonable Doubt." "The record came on and everyone bolted, knocking each other down to get to the dance floor. I thought, [expletive], man, this is going to be big!"

It was, going platinum. But, dissatisfied with Priority's marketing and distribution, Jay-Z joined with Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke to start Roc-A-Fella Records, naming it after the former vice president and governor who drafted New York's ultra-tough drug policy.

The debut included "Can't Knock the Hustle," a Top 40 hit with Mary J. Blige, and the anthemic "Brooklyn's Finest" with the Notorious B.I.G., a k a Christopher Wallace. He and Jay-Z had gone to high school together, along with Busta Rhymes. "We'd see each other, but we didn't know each other," says Jay-Z. "I never heard him rap back then and I don't know if he heard me."

Just a few years later, though, both were hot commodities in the rap world, with one shared habit: Neither ever wrote down his voluminous lyrics. According to Jay-Z, it was a practical consequence of his hustling days, when paper trails of any kind were undesirable. "When I'd be out on the street, I couldn't write down lyrics, so I had to hold things longer in my head. And the longer I started holding the lyrics, the more I got used to it. It's like push-ups--you do one push-up one day, you can do two the next. I was holding 16 bars one day, then a whole song, then two songs. It just became something natural and normal for me to do."

Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. talked almost every day on the phone and were planning a joint venture to be known as The Commission, a project ended by Wallace's still-unsolved murder in March 1997.

"It never got beyond the talk," Jay-Z says. "That's what bothers me [about his death], more so when I think about the plans that he had, all the things he wanted to do with his last album, and wanting to tour, how good he felt about it all. I wish he could have stayed and seen the success that the album had, how people loved it. That's the biggest thing to an artist, doing the work and then seeing how people take to it."

"In My Lifetime," the album recorded in the wake of Wallace's death, was a commercial disappointment and a critical target: It was, many rap magazines charged, "soft," with tracks featuring slick, radio-friendly production by Babyface, Puff Daddy and Teddy Riley. It featured edgy, paranoiac tracks like "Friend or Foe" and "Streets Is Watching," but also included such vulnerable, "sensitive gangsta" meditations as "Lucky Me" and "You Must Love Me" and a moving tribute to Wallace, "The City Is Mine."

Jay-Z says it was difficult making "In My Lifetime" after losing his Brooklyn buddy. "I was doing the record just to do it," he admits. "Yeah, I was affected, but people don't care. They just want to hear the hot record, they don't care about the recording process or what was going on at the time.

"And I didn't really understand that people expect you to make the same thing over and over," he adds. "And when you try to do new stuff, to push the envelope, sometimes you're going to fall on your face. That's just part of being an artist and you can't be scared of that. You got to be strong enough to get back up again."

Which is exactly what Jay-Z did with "Hard Knock Life." Released in September of 1998, the album marked a return to a harder-edged hardcore sound. Thanks to tracks like "Money, Cash, Hoes" and "Money Ain't a Thang" (a huge summer hit featuring Jermaine Dupri), the album started climbing the charts, finally elevating Jay-Z to the upper ranks of rap royalty.

Its multi-platinum sales were driven by two songs that proved inescapable on radio and music video channels. The first, "Can I Get a . . . ," featuring guests Amil and Ja Rule, was a surprise not musically--though its brittle stop-start rhythms are mesmerizing--but lyrically.

"Who could have guessed that a song with the lyrics 'Can I get a [Expletive]-you to all of my bitches from all my niggas who don't love hoes' would be the biggest radio record of the year and open doors for songs like 'Back That Thing Up' to get played on the radio," muses Jay-Z. "Before that, those songs would never get played on the radio in daytime! That song broke barriers, and I could have never guessed that."

Nor could Jay-Z have anticipated the reaction to "Hard Knock Life," which sampled the chorus from the orphans anthem in the Broadway musical "Annie." The rapper, whose sister is named Annie, remembered the musical from his own childhood.

"You live in Marcy Projects, Brooklyn, New York, you don't have much," Jay-Z recalls. "And then you see someone on TV--they don't have much, they're an orphan, and then they get to live in a big mansion. . . . You're going to take to that story. That's something that you wish can happen to you. Know what I'm saying?"

The chorus of "Hard Knock Life," with its spirit of cheerful resilience, sank deep into Jay-Z's consciousness, waiting many years to resurface as a ghetto anthem. "When I heard it, I thought, whoa, that's amazing--those kids are too strong to let the ghetto life bring them down! That's the emotion of the ghetto, that's how people feel right now: 'Instead of treats, we get tricked; instead of kisses, we get kicked . . . .'

"It was just so perfect for me, and it was, 'Yeah, I gotta do it. I don't care how hard I fall on my face, but I need to do this record!' "

It paid off. Last spring, he decided to mount his own musical production--called, of course, the Hard Knock Life tour. Featuring hardcore hip-hop's hottest stars (besides Jay-Z, the lineup included DMX, Redman and Method Man), it grossed $18 million, the most ever for a rap tour, and proved to industry doubters that rap record sales could translate to concert ticket sales.

Now Jay-Z wants to take it one step higher with a multi-act stadium tour next summer.

"You have to set goals for yourself or else what are you doing here?"

In the meantime, there are other projects to deal with. Roc-A-Fella Films, which has a distribution deal with Miramax, will release a tour documentary, "Backstage: A Hard Knock Life," followed by a fictional film about three Harlem hustlers (Jay-Z starred in the successful straight-to-video release "Streets Is Watching"). There's also a new fashion line, Roc-A-Wear.

"We know how we like our stuff," says Jay-Z. "If I see something that I like, I'll maybe take it and alter it to my specifications." It's the sampling of clothes. "Fashion pirates--that's what they call us!"

And there's a full slate of Roc-A-Fella releases, with upcoming albums from rappers Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Amil (first introduced on "Can I Get a . . . "), and, says Jay-Z, "maybe something with all of us as the Dynasty." And while nothing happened with the Commission, Jay-Z, DMX and Ja Rule reportedly have recorded together under the sobriquet Murder Inc. (the Mafia's impact on organized rhyme continues unabated).

Entering the new millennium--he hopes at No. 1--Jay-Z concedes that life is simply not as hard-knocked as it used to be. His immediate future is clouded by those charges arising out of the Rivera assault, but on the new album at least, Jay-Z is found "not guilty" after the "Dope Man" trial.

"They call me Dope Man, Dope Man/ I try to tell them I'm the Hope Floats Man/ ghetto spokesman . . ."