Jay-Z: King of America

From Coachella to the White House, how Jay-Z runs the game

Jay-Z performs at the Cosmopolitan Grand Opening in Las Vegas.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage
June 24, 2010

Jay-Z's office inhabits the northeastern corner of the 39th floor of a skyscraper just south of Times Square. It's the top floor, of course, affording spectacular views of the East River and the rival towers of the fashion district. Even Broadway's chaotic mess of neon, from this height, feels soothing in its muted distance, as if specially created to round out Jay-Z's office feng shui. On a recent May evening, Jay, looking trim in a tight gray hoodie, rocks back and forth in an executive chair behind a polished-wood desk and casually fingers a daggerlike silver letter opener. Black-and-white photographs of iconic African-American cultural figures hang on the wall beside him: Ray Charles leaning into a piano; Sammy Davis Jr. standing in the center of the Rat Pack; Muhammad Ali mock-punching all four Beatles; Jean-Michel Basquiat looking fashionable and doomed.

Even sitting behind a desk, the man born Shawn Carter carries himself with such ease and self-confidence, it's as if he's secretly prepared for a high-art portraitist to photograph him at any moment, after which he will assume his rightful place on the wall. He leans forward and taps his iPad, in search of "Light Up," a new song by Drake, the hottest young rapper of the moment. "You know what's great about Drake?" asks Jay. "He has a very clear way of saying things." Jay's own voice, redolent of his native Brooklyn, has the tendency to crack with excitement with endearing regularity. When he pronounces each word of his second sentence with an exacting crispness, I realize he's literally referring to Drake's enunciation. He taps a button on a remote, and the home-theater-size flatscreen on the far wall bursts alive at top volume, playing some baseball game. Jay frowns and hits mute, then finds the Drake song, to which he contributed a verse he's very proud of. Only moments earlier, he had given his approval for the final mix.

Nodding contentedly along to the beat, Jay listens as, in the song, he plays Don Corleone to Drake's Michael, actually telling him at one point, in a riff on the scene in The Godfather where Brando warns Pacino about meeting with rival Mafia boss Barzini, "Drake, here's how they're gonna come at you." In the world of hip-hop, Jay-Z, at the advanced age of 40, qualifies as an elder statesman — especially if you consider the fact that previous rappers who successfully transitioned into middle age did so by shifting their careers to Hollywood or some other entrepreneurial activity. Jay, in spite of his myriad business ventures, has been enjoying one of the biggest years of his musical career. With the release of The Blueprint 3, his 11th studio album, last September, Jay-Z has now had more Number One albums than Elvis Presley, and the ubiquitous hometown anthem "Empire State of Mind," only nine months out of the gate, is already threatening to shove aside Frank Sinatra's "Theme From New York, New York" to become the city's new unofficial theme song. ("I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep" just comes up lacking in the contemporary-feel department next to lines like "MDMA got you feelin' like a champion, the city never sleeps, better slip you an Ambien" — though Jay, who has never tried Ecstasy, admits he had to ask a friend for the drug's call letters.)

Drawing inspiration from acts as diverse as U2 and Daft Punk, Jay has also been stepping up his live performances. His recent headlining slot at Coachella — which included a reprise of his cheeky take on Oasis' "Wonderwall" and a duet with his wife, Beyoncé Knowles, who sang on "Young Forever" — was widely considered one of the high points of the festival. To the surprise of many, Jay and Beyoncé stuck around for the entire weekend, checking out sets by the xx, Thom Yorke, Muse, Yeasayer and Beach House; shots of the couple mingling backstage with starstruck indie-rock hipsters were the equivalent of Barack and Michelle Obama deciding to pay a spur-of-the-moment visit to a MoveOn.org potluck in Bennington. Jay will play at least 10 other festivals this summer, capping the tour with a pair of ballpark shows co-headlined by Eminem, one at Yankee Stadium.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jay-Z

Despite a recent New York Post story, JAY-Z'S 99 PROBLEMS, which supposedly details how "even the world's most successful hip-hop star isn't immune to the Great Recession" — the scant evidence includes the fact that a Las Vegas branch of his 40/40 Club closed in 2008 — it still appears that, of those 99 problems, the chance of his Discover card being declined at Nobu ain't one. After leaving Def Jam Recordings in 2007, he signed a $150 million deal with Live Nation. Of his non-musical investments, the most profitable has been his Rocawear clothing line, which he co-founded in 1999 with Damon Dash. In 2005, he bought out Dash's share of the company for $30 million; two years later, he sold Rocawear to Iconix Brand Group for $204 million, in a deal that allowed him to remain CEO. Since then, he's overseen the relaunch of the label, which included jettisoning the oversize logos and baggy Nineties-rap-video cuts. He also holds a stake in the New Jersey Nets, who this year came close to having the worst season in NBA history. For this reason, Jay says he hasn't been lobbying his friend LeBron James, the basketball superstar who will soon be a free agent, to join the team. "That's his decision," Jay-Z says. "We're friends — we've still gotta hang out! I don't want to convince somebody to do something, then have to see him and say, 'Uh, yeah, we're 4 and 30 . . . sorry.'"

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