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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

(continued from page 2)

When he returned, Jay-Z reclaimed his position, though up-and-comers such as Lil Wayne (and Jay-Z protégé Kanye West) provide a steady challenge. Jay-Z recognizes that, no matter how good his music, hip-hop is intensely competitive and ever-changing. In the rap world, the long-running artist regularly confronts an unwinnable battle with gravity.

"There's a time when you're white-hot. Everybody knows who you are; everybody wants to listen to you," he says. "But you're always fighting gravity. Rap is about the sense of discovery: Who's the guy who's rapping about the new thing, the next thing? Who's the guy who's on your iPod? And you take it to school and say, 'This isn't coming out for a month and I've got it now.' That's all part of the conversation."

As a young man, he rapped about his life on the street, the ins and outs of the drug hustle. On his 2006 comeback, Kingdom Come, his subject matter was life as a CEO, enjoying the kind of luxe existence that a mega-million-dollar fortune can buy. "I like South Beach, but I'm in St. Tropez," he rapped on "30 Something" from that album—which had the biggest first-week sales of any of his releases but wound up selling only about one-third of what its predecessor, The Black Album, did. Jay-Z sees that as part of the game.

"The challenge of longevity is that you got to come out of the door being who you are. As you grow and mature, you lose that mass audience. But you still have a connection with the people who grew with you. I feel the need to grow—and that's not always popular in hip-hop. They want you to make your first album again. But you can't. You'll always have new guys trying to pull you down. There will always be the new hot guy saying, 'You ain't shit.' And those things do pull at you."

For Jay-Z, music is an art—but it's also a product—and he's worked hard to establish the Jay-Z brand. He wants it to be as familiar as any household good. "Branding is about creating a consistent message," he says. "All the great brands that have been around forever, things like Johnson & Johnson, have that. I know that, if I have a baby and I need some lotion for that baby, I've got to get that pink bottle from Johnson & Johnson."

Rapino says, "We have two completely different deals with him—the Jay-Z deal and the Shawn Carter deal. Jay-Z is that completely rare artist who is not only king of his genre but one of the greatest of all time as an artist. And if you look at Shawn Carter the businessman and what he's accomplished, he's got to be in the top five of the most successful businessman-artists. He definitely grew up in the street—but he's got incredible intuition and skill in being able to turn that on-the-ground training into a real business."

Street" is not a euphemism—Jay-Z made the move to successful musician and entrepreneur at the age of 26 after spending almost a decade on the streets of Brooklyn (he grew up in the Marcy Projects), dealing drugs at the height of the crack epidemic, a time when his neighborhood could have been mistaken for the Wild West.

He's made no secret of his past. Indeed, his early albums amounted to a combination chronicle/confessional/celebration of that life. His honesty about both his high and low points, along with his blend of verbal facility and lyrical fluidity (and an ear for beats that just don't quit), marked him as a uniquely talented rapper.

"I believe that first album was so successful because I was really just trying to talk to a specific group of individuals," Jay-Z says. "I've heard records where you know the things they're talking about are not real. But I was out there living that life and I was trying to get every detail into my music. I had the experience of going to my shows and having big guys crying, saying, 'Man, you're telling my story. You're in my brain.'"

When he decided that his talent as a rapper was a gift he could not ignore, he put that lucrative drug business (one in which he had somehow avoided both a criminal rap sheet and a fatal or crippling encounter with a rival or customer—or the law) behind him to focus on music.


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