The Business of Jay-Z
An empire in and of himself, Jay-Z continues his reign.
By Cristina Greeven Cuomo
Photographs by Rankin/Icon International
RIGHT: Watch, Audemars Piguet. Bracelet, Shamballa Jewels
When Jay-Z enters the 50th birthday celebration of music magnate Lyor Cohen, his friend and mentor, he’s wearing black from head to toe and his signature Tom Ford sunglasses. His demonstrative wife, Beyoncé Knowles, is with him. There’s no need for him to check out the scene because the entire scene descends upon him, and it’s clear it’s something he’s used to.
“I don’t dislike anything about myself,” he says. “I know this sounds a little arrogant but I really accept what God has given me. I’ve got a short temper but I work on controlling it. I can say inappropriate things because I believe them to be true and sometimes that can be hurtful to others. But I think in the long run it is more helpful.”
In the midst of one of the most successful hip-hop careers in history, Jay-Z, who turns 40 next month, has a lot to be thankful for. He was born Shawn Carter in 1969 and grew up in the Marcy Houses project of Brooklyn as “Jazzy.” He was abandoned by his father at 11, shot his older brother for stealing at 12 and sold crack at 13. It wasn’t until he released his first album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996 on his label Roc-a-Fella Records that the then 26-year-old left drug dealing, gangs and poverty behind. “[Making music] is a gift from God,” he says. “I put it to the side for so long because it was so easy. It took me a while to really know it was my true calling. I wanted to tell my story.”
He’s told that story through 11 solo albums, the latest being September’s The Blueprint 3—the third in his Blueprint trilogy, which includes 2001’s The Blueprint and The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse in 2002. While The Blueprint was a soulful return to his musical roots, The Blueprint 2 had him collaborating with artists who make the music he loves—rock (Lenny Kravitz), R&B (Faith Evans) and reggae (Sean Paul). He calls the third installment a “new classic” for the next generation. On the track “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-tune),” for example, over a clarinet-heavy rework of Steam’s 1969 classic “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” he raps: “You rappers singing too much/Get back to rap/You T-Pain’n too much.”
The main thread throughout the album is New York City. Heard in songs as literal as “Empire State of Mind” (“One hand in the air for the big city/ Street lights, big dreams all looking pretty/No place in the world that can compare”), the nods to NYC abound—but it wasn’t intentional. “I listen to ‘A Star is Born’ and ‘Thank You’ and hear New York City in every hook,” he says. “I guess I was just really centered with my birthplace while I was making the record because it wasn’t a conscious thing at all. New York is alive, real people, it never shuts down, the honesty of it, the variety of it. It makes you look forward to every single season. When it gets too hot, you look forward to fall. When it’s fall, you look forward to seeing the snow. It’s just the most beautiful place in the world to me.”
“Jay has a great sense of curiosity and deep appreciation,” says Cohen, who has a cameo in the “D.O.A.” video. “His curiosity allows him to take risks. He is also totally brilliant, and good people finish first.”
When selecting artists to collaborate with on the album, he listened to the arrangements for inspiration. “When I heard the piano licks on ‘Empire,’ I immediately thought of Alicia Keys [who performs on the song] playing the piano,” he says. “The vocal range, how it sounds, just fi t her so perfectly. It’s not me looking at the Billboard and trying to find out who’s hot at the moment to collaborate with. I pretty much try to find the person that fits the song best.”
Would anybody say no to Jay-Z? “MGMT turned me down,” he admits.
Along with music, Jay-Z has proven that his business understanding is similarly acute. He became president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings at 35, shortly after he officially retired from recording. “It was unprecedented at the time,” he explains. “All the signs were saying you’ve done what you can do as an artist, now you must show a different side that can ascend to executive positions and be successful at it. This is the thing that took care of me and my family’s situation.”
“He’s incredibly smart and passionate about what he wants and doesn’t want to settle,” says Neil Cole, CEO of Iconix Brand Group, which, in 2007, bought Rocawear—the urban clothing line that Jay-Z started with Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke 10 years ago—for $204 million. “Being an icon of music and fashion [he] knows where America’s youth is going.”
Jay-Z remains creative director of Rocawear and majority owner of Roc Apparel, Rocawear’s men’s licensee. He’s a part owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets (the team is rumored to be moving to his home borough of Brooklyn). And when not dining at his favorite neighborhood boîte, Nobu (“three or four times a week”), he’s at gastropub The Spotted Pig in the West Village or the sports bar 40/40 Club (he owns stakes in both).
But it all seems to come back to the music. When he came out of “retirement” in 2006, “It went down pretty well,” he notes modestly. In the years since, he’s released the album Kingdom Come, signed a $150 million partnership with Live Nation, created the sound track to Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster and completed the third Blueprint. His Roc Nation entertainment company recently launched another music label, StarRoc, with Norwegian-based StarGate. And he’s got a greatest-hits album coming out soon. It’s all due to an incredible drive that he attributes to his mother. “She always told me that the amount of work you put into it is what you get out of it,” he says.
Friends, family and privacy matter most at this point in Jay-Z’s life. He’s a mentor to artists like Rihanna and Kanye West. The most important thing on the horizon seems to be a plan to have children with Knowles, whom he wed on the roof of their Tribeca building last year. He keeps his perspective by remaining close with his family, all of whom work with him in some capacity. (His mother runs a scholarship program he developed.) He even made good with his estranged father before his death.
Gotham Magazine hosted its latest issue featuring the current cast of Saturday Night Live at the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, February 23.