Everyone knows Shawn “Jay Z” Carter is smart, talented, and wildly successful, his Roc Nation empire continually expanding: the new sports agency, a fragrance launch this month, a luxury-goods partnership with Barneys. What’s fascinating is the way a drug dealer turned rapper turned mogul and family man became the cultural force he is today—by claiming his past, and all it taught him. With unprecedented access, Lisa Robinson gets Jay talking about the rumors and the reality.
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Everyone’s supposed to stay in their lines and be neat. You’re a rapper. You’re supposed to rap, carry a boom box, wear chains, and goto the club—that’s all you do. What are you doing collecting art? Whatare you talking about? Wait a minute, you’re getting out of the zone.People hate when people cross lines. —Jay Z
On June 18, the 40/40 Club, on West 25th Street, New York City, was jammed with basketball fans there to see the Miami Heat versus the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the N.B.A. finals. Downstairs, the sports bar was noisy with paying customers. Upstairs in his owner’s suite, Jay Z leaned back on one of the white leather sofas that line the large room. The noise in this room came from the game on two large flatscreen TVs and the loud camaraderie of Jay’s guests—most of whom are his closest friends, people who’ve been in his inner circle for years. Among them: Juan Perez, the president of the newly formed Roc Nation Sports; William “World Wide Wes” Wesley, a consultant to CAA Sports, which has recently partnered with Roc Nation Sports; Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith, a friend of Jay’s for 25 years and head of A&R for Roc Nation Records; and his longtime trusted publicist, Jana Fleishman. Jay wore a white T-shirt, black hoodie, jeans, and striped socks from the Stance sock company (he’s an investor). His white sneakers were in front of him on the floor.
When you meet Jay Z for the first time, or even the first few times, or get a rare, perfunctory interview, he is a thoughtful, guarded, reticent man. Not aloof—just cool. His friend the producer Rick Rubin once described Jay to me as “the coolest guy in the room.” Any room. Everyone knows he’s really smart, really talented, really rich, and wildly successful. But in his private suite, he’s the Jay Z that only his friends and family get to see: extroverted, curious, gregarious, hilarious, and downright chatty. He laughs a lot—his trademark short, staccato laugh. And there’s a lot to laugh about when you’re with this group. These are guys who came up together from the streets; the language was raw. Some in the room were rooting for the Spurs, or, rather, against the Heat. At first, when Jay’s pal LeBron James was having a mediocre game, Knicks fan Juan Perez yelled profane and hysterically funny insults at the TV. Various people stopped by to say hello: the singer Ne-Yo, Charlotte Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker—people pay respects to Jay not unlike they did to Don Corleone in The Godfather. The 40/40—a baseball term that means getting 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in one season—is Jay’s home away from home. Beyoncé, his wife of five years, showed up after a recording session and sat down next to her husband. She wore shorts, a white silk sleeveless top, and Tabitha Simmons striped sneakers; her long hair was tied back with a scarf. With no makeup on, she appeared around 20 years old. Juan Perez and I tried to explain to Beyoncé how, as Knicks fans, we hate the Heat. And the Celtics. It’s the law. A waitress took drink and food orders: spicy shrimp, guacamole, French fries, sliders. By the third quarter, with the Spurs ahead by 10 points and looking like they’d win the championship, Jay said, “This is over.” A few minutes later, LeBron’s headband accidentally fell off, Miami’s Ray Allen hit a three-pointer to tie the score, and the game went into overtime. The room turned even more raucous. Juan Perez was apoplectic. Jay was rooting for the Heat, who won the game by three points, which meant the finals would go to a Game Seven. Which meant another night in the 40/40.
Two nights later, Game Seven, the same suite, more friends. On hand were Jay’s best friend, Emory Jones, who’s a partner in Jay’s clothing company; Chaka Pilgrim, head of creative visionary marketing for the Roc Nation conglomerate; John Meneilly, from Jay’s management team; and former Def Jam Records executive Kevin Liles. More food, more drinks, more yelling at the screens. D’Ussé, Jay’s preferred brand of Cognac, was served. Cash-money bets were discussed. Cigars were discussed. Jay showed me the “Shawn Carter” watch he designed for Hublot, which will cost somewhere around $20,000 and will be out later this year. Jay shouted at the screens, calling various players various nicknames: The Heat’s Shane Battier became “Bang Bang” Battier! One of the Spurs guards—who was having a terrible series—was “Apple Turnover!” The actor Jamie Foxx stopped by. (Later, Foxx told me that when his father got out of “mandatory college”
In music, we love the idea of the screwed-up, shooting-up, fucked-up artist. The one bleeding in the garret having cut his own ear off. Jay Z is a new kind of 21st-century artist where the canvas is not just the 12 notes, the wicked beats, and a rhyming dictionary in his head. It’s commerce, it’s politics, the fabric of the real as well as the imagined life. —U2 lead singer Bono
On July 2, we were on the top floor in the private room of the Spotted Pig restaurant, in New York’s West Village. Along with chef Mario Batali, Bono, and others, Jay is an investor in the popular hangout. He wore a khaki Balmain shirt with an embroidered crest on the pocket. He was checking two phones and told me about the Samsung app that two days later would deliver his new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, for free to one million owners of Samsung Galaxy phones. Jana Fleishman and Chaka Pilgrim and the rapper J. Cole—who’s managed by Roc Nation and whose album Born Sinner was No. 1 that week—were there too. We talked about Kanye West and rap lyrics and Ice-T’s documentary, The Art of Rap.
We discussed how in 2008, when Jay was set to perform at England’s Glastonbury Festival, Oasis’s Noel Gallagher was publicly disdainful of having a “hip-hop” act on the bill, so Jay went onstage and sang the Oasis hit “Wonderwall” to the delight of the crowd. Jay asked me many questions about the music and art scene in New York in the 1980s, when Debbie Harry and rap pioneer Fab Five Freddy and Madonna and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat all hung out together. (I chose not to dispel his romantic myths.) The conversation was all over the place: he said he never went swimming as a kid, but now he’s learned how to swim so he can teach his daughter—18-month-old Blue Ivy—whose picture popped up on his phone. He said he’s been learning to play tennis with a trainer. We discussed how his native Brooklyn has changed. He told me about Frankie’s restaurant and a pizza spot he won’t name that he says he goes to every Sunday. I asked Jay how he feels about the artisanal pickle and mayonnaise stores that populate the borough, and he laughed, recalling a recent walk he took with someone who lauded the merits of an ice-cream store on a street that Jay said was a dangerous one in his youth. Several bottles of a very good wine were consumed, and dinner orders were placed: radish salads and hamburgers. Jay had fish. I told him that the other sports agents seem terrified now that he’s getting into that business. “They should be,” he said, then added, “I really want to help these athletes. I do it anyway; they all come to the 40/40; we’ve been giving them advice for years. Do you know how many athletes go broke three years after they stop playing? I want to help them hold on to their money. I mean, I know about budgets. I was a drug dealer.”
Today, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, 43, is a son, brother, husband, father, entrepreneur, mogul, sports agent, rapper, performer, movie producer, author, nightclub owner, Broadway producer, festival organizer, watch designer, soundtrack and video-game executive producer, and art collector. This fall, he debuts a fragrance (Gold) and a cigar (Comador), and he’ll start a three-month, 49-city world tour. He will also partner with Barneys New York to sell luxury goods from the Shawn Carter Collection during the holiday season. (Twenty-five percent of the Barneys proceeds will benefit his foundation, which provides scholarships to students facing socio-economic hardships.) Since the release of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996, Jay Z has built an empire and changed the culture. He’s put out 18 albums, with sales of 75 million copies worldwide. He has collaborated with artists that include Kanye West, Eminem, Nas, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Justin Timberlake, and Mary J. Blige—who says, “Jay is an amazing talent, and one of the smartest people I’ve met in the music business.” He was a part owner of the Nets basketball team and instrumental in bringing them to Brooklyn, getting the Barclays arena built, and designing the Nets’ logo as well as the $600,000 “Vault” luxury suites in the place. In 2007 he sold his Rocawear clothing company for $204 million, and in 2008 made a $150 million deal with Live Nation—which he told me he recently re-upped.
His life was not always like this.
Shawn Carter grew up in the Marcy Houses—Brooklyn projects that are four and a half miles from where he currently lives in Tribeca. The Marcy projects take up six blocks along Flushing and Nostrand Avenues in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Dozens of numbered brick buildings make up the complex, which, on a late-summer-afternoon visit, is almost eerily quiet. Bags of garbage are on the ground alongside the fences. An ambulance waits outside one of the buildings. Despite the trees and the playgrounds within the fenced-in complex, it is a bleak, sad place. A boy who appears to be around eight years old rides a bicycle, a group of old women sit chatting on a bench, and some teenagers just hang out. There is a palpable sense of utter hopelessness; no one who lives here can escape the fact that they live in government-subsidized public housing. Forget someone becoming an iconic, global superstar or a multi-millionaire—to even get out of here at all takes something extraordinary, almost a miracle.
When he was growing up there, Shawn liked to spray water from fire hydrants, play basketball, ride bicycles. In sixth grade he had a crush on his teacher, who told him he was smart. He loved to read. At home, he wrote down rhymes, listened to—and imitated—Michael Jackson, and watched Soul Train. His house was filled with music from his parents’ record collection; he says it was the party house. When Shawn was 11, his father’s brother was stabbed and died; his father turned to drugs and left the family. Shawn became withdrawn and, for a long time, wouldn’t allow himself to get close to anyone. As a teenager he started to deal drugs. When Jay and I talked at length about his youth, his life as a drug dealer, and his rags-to-riches story, I asked what got him out, what helped him survive. “Music,” he said.
At the end of the day, there is an itch that he constantly will want to scratch, and that itch is at the heart and center of hip-hop. I first heard “Picasso Baby”
—Roots drummer Questlove
The Roc Nation offices occupy the entire top floor of a large Manhattan office building a few blocks from Madison Square Garden in what used to be the Garment District. It was July 19, the day of Jay’s Yankee Stadium “Legends of the Summer” show with co-billed Justin Timberlake, and the office was abuzz. Jay and Beyoncé were in Jay’s glass-walled office, and Jay was holding his daughter. The walls of the offices are lined with art from Jay’s own collection (including several Basquiats) and photos of Roc Nation artists, including Shakira, Rihanna, Santigold, Rita Ora, and the Ting Tings. The offices also house the showroom of the Rocawear clothing line and producer-musician Pharrell Williams’s Billionaire Boys Club clothing line, now a part of Rocawear. Several hours later, backstage at Yankee Stadium in a large hospitality suite, Jay’s guests included model Jessica White and the Knicks’ Kenyon Martin, but it was more friends and family than a bunch of celebrities. Jay’s mother, Gloria Carter—who runs his Shawn Carter Foundation—was there, along with other relatives. On the field, Justin Timberlake’s V.I.P. guest platform had 14 people seated on chairs watching the show, while Jay’s V.I.P. guest platform was jam-packed with more than 50 friends and no chairs. It was one of the hottest days of the summer—upwards of 95 degrees. Beyoncé was on the platform, wearing shorts and a tank top, and she tied her long hair up. She told me her daughter was backstage, and she laughed when she said that her child prefers Jay’s music to hers. Watching Jay onstage, I realized how much pleasure he still takes in the actual act of rapping and performing—understandable, as he’s one of the very best. He’s got a total command of phrasing, and his syncopated lines can often sound like great scat singing. He has a dry sense of humor; there are so many funny lines in so many of his songs that they can fly by if you don’t really pay attention. Occasionally he raps in a syntax that is so effortlessly sophisticated (“Do I, to you, look like a lame who … ”) that it evokes a songwriter like Cole Porter. Jay famously makes up rhymes on the spot, in the recording studio, and doesn’t write them down. Everyone who has seen him do this likens it to a magic trick. “He sits in the back of the recording studio and listens to the track over and over again,” said Rick Rubin, who produced Jay’s hit “99 Problems.” “He’s so quiet and still during this process that it’s easy to forget he’s in the room. Then, after about 20 or 30 minutes, he jumps up and says, ‘I got it,’ and runs into the vocal booth to catch the recording while it’s fresh. He does several performances and each one is different. One can liken it to a solo by a jazz artist where there is a particular melody, but each version of it is phrased differently with different accents and high points.”
Jay says one of his nicknames—Hova—came about because of this process. People were always amazed that he didn’t write things down—they started saying it was unbelievable, like Jehovah. J-Hova. It was a joke. When Kanye said it on a record, it stuck. The initial Jay Z nickname came about because kids used to call him “Jazzy” when he started rapping in a circle in the Marcy projects. (He also says that the diamond sign he makes with his hands was another joke that began in his office; he started doing it at concerts, and the next thing he knew, the whole crowd did it.)
During a break in Jay’s set, Beyoncé and I went backstage. Blue Ivy, in the hallway with a nanny, reached her arms out for her mother to hold her. The child has huge eyes and is adorable—wearing a little cap-sleeved, scoop-necked white dress with a ruffle at the waist, orangey-red sneakers, and a red print bow in her hair. In Jay’s dressing-room lounge, she sat on her mother’s lap and played with puzzles with some other children. This would be, for anyone, a fairly normal family tableau, except that the father of the child in this picture was, at that very moment, singing “Young Forever” to a crowd of 60,000 people and dedicating the song to Trayvon Martin.
Later, Jay talked to me about the Trayvon Martin tragedy. “The thing is, that was not