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Jay-Z Talks Street Life, "Kingdom Come" and Retirements

October 11, 2007 12:20 PM ET

As we reported earlier, Jay-Z invited us up to his Roc the Mike studio late last week to preview his forthcoming album, American Gangster. But once the Patron started flowing, the conversation took some surprising turns and the often tight-lipped MC opened up on a wide array of topics from Don Imus to his multiple retirements to seeing a man get shot to Kanye West's spotty memory. Some highlights:

After discussing his lyrical motivation, Jay lamented the current state of hip-hop. "I don't think people process music the same way [we used to]," he said. "Before, we used to listen to lyrics and then find out if the beat was hot later and then did the Wop." In particular, he called out a line from MIMS's "This is Why I'm Hot" for condemnation. "When a guy says 'I could make a million saying nothing' on a track, you know you've reached a bad place," he said. "It's way past salvaging. I'm going the other way. That's why [my album] is the way it is."

There's no question Jay's new album is "the way it is" -- a gritty street record -- because he drew on personal memories he hasn't tapped in a while. Jay explored his early life in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects, saying, "The things that we have to see in one day, a lot of people never see in their life. People could live their whole life and never see a crack vial or a dope needle or a shootout. When I saw my first person get shot, I was nine years old," at which point he turned to the journalists in the room and asked if any had seen someone get shot. "It's typical to see people get shot before you're ten. That has to have some type of effect on you." He added, "People act this way for a reason: hope. You start looking around the neighborhood and there's no role models to look up to. You got the worst schools, the worst roads, the worst of everything. To see the straight way to get out of that, it's so far away that you start losing hope."

Reflecting on his youth, Jay defended his portrayal of street life. "I try to tell both sides of the story," he said, citing lyrics from "Dead Presidents" ("Hit with the RICO, they repo your vehicle/Everything was all good just a week ago"). "There's pitfalls: you might go to jail, you might get shot, your brother might die, and your neighbor's mother just sold her crack and she's messed up. And you're messing up the community. You gotta deal with that."

After playing "Ignorant Shit," a track on Gangster that deals with censorship and calls out Don Imus, Jigga let loose on the radio host and the controversy about hip-hop lyrics that was stirred by his firing. "Imus is a racist," Hov declared. "He's not a person that listens to rap or was influenced by rap, so the two things don't have anything to do with each other, so fuck him.

Hov also reflected on the big marketing push that preceded his last album, Kingdom Come which saw him collaborating with everyone from Budweiser to NASCAR. "People talk about the marketing plan as if I spent some money. I've been watching this for a year -- "the marketing plan was $30 million' " I didn't pay them, they paid me," he said. "I didn't pay Budweiser, I didn't pay TNT, I didn't pay HP, they all paid me. Looking back, I guess it was a little extravagant. Then I shut it down, as the president. Shot two videos and walked away from it. I did the right thing." He also off-handedly suggested some regrets about Kingdom: "Maybe it was too sophisticated. Maybe I fucked up."

Jay also admitted some embarrassment at his repeated "retirements" and promised not to make any more promises. "I was watching Fade to Black on VH1, and I was cringing, because I kept saying, 'It may be the last album' -- I've made two albums already!" he says, laughing. "When I put The Black Album out, I said I wasn't going to say that anymore. I just stopped talking. Nobody believes it. Not even you."

Since everyone has something to say about Kanye West these days, Jay noted that he loved Kanye's Jigga tribute "Big Brother," but light-heartedly corrected 'Ye's recollection of the facts -- particularly that Hov made him buy tickets to a show at Madison Square Garden and that Jay stole West's idea to record with Coldplay. "Not everything on the song was true, but it was true in his mind," said Jay. "He says 'Carleen said I could buy two tickets.' You would think he didn't get any tickets. I gave him four, he wanted six. It was a charity event! And Coldplay -- I introduced him to Coldplay, I gave him the number! But I thought it was a brilliant song. It brought us closer together.

Related Stories:
David Banner Has Five Big Complaints (and Oprah is One)
Hip-Hop On Trial Again: Congress Looks Into Stereotypes and Rap In Wake Of Don Imus Scandal
Jay-Z Previews 'American Gangster' LP: "I'm Better Than Al Capone"

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