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The Music Mogul

Jay-Z has bult an empire on the back of his hip-hop stardom with a cigar in his hand.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009

Shawn Carter—best known to the world at large as Jay-Z, rap megastar and reigning monarch of hip-hop—extracts a Zino Platinum Crown Series Rocket from its sci-fi-sleek metal tube. He trims the end and fires it up with a palm-sized blowtorch lighter covered in black reptile skin of some sort.

Then he exhales a cloud of smoke with an air of satisfaction—right there in his New York City office.

Yes, Manhattan has strict no-smoking laws. But the outlaw impulse dies hard. After all, this is the king in his castle—or at least the business version of it. The true castle, the one he shares with his queen, singer Beyoncé Knowles, is a massive penthouse in Tribeca. This room, however, is impressive enough. Call it the nerve center for a dynasty: his office at Rocawear, the urban clothing concern he cofounded in 1996 as an adjunct to his fledgling Roc-A-Fella Records. The clothing company occupies the better part of two floors of a mammoth office building in the Garment District.

"If I'm in New York, I'm mainly here," Jay-Z says. "This serves as central headquarters."

His office, with its 39th-floor views of Times Square and the East Side of Manhattan, is sprawling: bigger than most New York apartments and lavishly tasteful, with massive mahogany pieces dominating two walls and a large desk holding down one end of the room.

There's a sitting area with couches and an elaborate coffee table, on which are piled art books on the work of Ed Ruscha and Damien Hirst. A large flat-screen TV on one wall is tuned silently to CNN. The walls are dotted with photographs, which make their own statement about his place in the world and the pantheon in which he sees himself: a row of images by photographer Herb Ritts of supermodels Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford (all of whom are friends of Jay-Z); a famous picture of the Beatles and Muhammad Ali; a photo of the Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Perhaps most significantly, there's a black-and-white portrait of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, arguably the first African American to conquer the serious art world with a hip-hop sensibility.

On this day, Jay-Z, who has been a GQ Man of the Year, is in relaxed mode: a black sweater, white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, along with Urkel-ish black-frame glasses.

He settles his lanky 6-foot-2 frame into a comfortable-looking straight-back chair and savors the cigar. Though he can name the most expensive bottle of wine or shot of Cognac he's ever had, he can't name the most expensive cigar he's ever smoked.

"I like Montecristos—those are probably some of my favorites," Jay-Z says, referring to Cuban versions of that brand. "But I like a bit of everything: Romeo y Julieta, Partagas. One of my first favorites was Dunhills, when I first started smoking them. But I go back and forth. I think it's like anything else: sure, you can find good, inexpensive cigars, but the things that are really good are the ones that cost.

"I like them bigger but mild. It gives the appearance of smoking something heavy—but it's not. It's just relaxing. I don't know the lingo—like 'It's got an oaky flavor,' stuff like that. It's just based on what I like. No one schooled me in cigars, like no one schooled me in how to buy art or drink wine," he says, although his taste in wine is pretty exquisite, such as Sassicaia, the great Italian wine. But, he continues, "A cigar is like a gift you give yourself. I smoke at times when I'm relaxing, or celebrating."

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