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Jay-Z: King of America

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Lyor Cohen, vice chairman of Warner Music Group, has been friends with Jay since Cohen's days as president of Island Def Jam, which acquired a 50 percent stake of Jay's Roc-A-Fella Records in 1997. He says he introduced Jay to the idea of taking vacations — they traveled to Capri together — but that overall, "he hasn't changed that much. He's wiser. He's always been curious, but he has an even more profound curiosity now. One of my great moments at Coachella was driving backstage. He was driving the other way, and Beyoncé rolled her window down. They're beaming from ear to ear. I said, 'Where you guys going?' Jay said, 'Lyor, either jump in, or I'll check you out later — we can't miss the show we're running to now!' They were so excited by the other artists. After he saw Muse, he kept asking me for [singer] Matt Bellamy's e-mail — Wow, that was dynamic: the sound, the attention to detail.'"

As the Drake song continues, a stylish woman enters the office holding a gray Tom Ford suit. She's wearing designer overalls, a pair of oversize sunglasses and a silk scarf patterned with little tennis rackets and sailboats. "Oh," she says, noticing me. "Do you want to do this somewhere else?"

"Nah," Jay says, casually removing his pants. "It's like a locker room in here."

The woman, June Ambrose — Jay teasingly describes her as a "style architect" — shrugs. "I brought your tighty-whities," she says, walking behind the desk. "Oh! You're wearing them."

Jay, pleased with himself, says, "I knew I'd be wearing a suit tonight." He's going to a function at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Ambrose squints at his lap. "The ones I brought are tighty tighty-whities, though," she says.

Jay grabs the suit pants and says, "Come on, now. We don't wanna make the guy really uncomfortable."

After Jay slips on the pants, Ambrose holds up two ties, both gray with checked patterns. Jay chooses the darker tie. Ambrose frowns and says, "I think you should wear this other one. You haven't worn it before, and there'll be wire photographers. And it's just bolder." Jay shrugs and says, "OK. But they're almost the same." Ambrose says, "Well, to the pedestrian eye." Jay, who has been buttoning his dress shirt, freezes and gives her a look. "I don't have a pedestrian eye," he says, only half-smiling. Ambrose holds up her hands and says, "I misspoke! My tongue is doing crazy things today."

Jay turns his attention back to the television as Ambrose, on her knees, slips on and ties his shoes (yanking up one of the tongues with a violent jerk), then rises to her feet to put on his tie. "Fat or medium?" she asks. She's referring to the knot size. Jay chooses medium. "Medium balls today," she says. "OK. You know, one of your friends was wearing a wool three-piece suit the other day."

"Not one of my friends," Jay says.

"A good friend," she says, tauntingly. "And this is a guy who likes a good suit."

"Oh, no!" Jay says.

"A wool pinstripe suit," Ambrose says.

"Oh, no!" Jay says.

"Do you want two-piece or three-piece?" she asks, holding up a vest.

Jay looks at the vest and says, "Three might be better." Glancing down, he adds, "Help hide this tie."

"Jay-Z! Jay-Z!"

If Jay-Z happens to get a late lunch at Bar Pitti, an open-air Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, just as school is letting out, it's like Omar walking through the Baltimore projects in The Wire, only in reverse — the kids aren't running for cover but clustering on the sidewalk, mobs of 10-year-old girls in private-school uniforms and fancy backpacks calling the name of the man who asked, in one of his biggest hits, released a full two years before they were born, "Can I get a fuck you to these bitches from all of my niggas who don't love ho's, they get no dough?" Jay puts down his pinot grigio and smiles sweetly, giving the girls a little wave.

Jay moves in public with unusual languor. He laughs genuinely and often, and doesn't hesitate to, say, pause directly in front of an attractive blond woman in sunglasses and remark, slowly, "Nice glasses." As a young man, Jay famously sold drugs and found himself on both ends of a gun barrel, yet a large part of his appeal comes from his decidedly nonthreatening appearance. His broad features and slightly jowled profile have a soft, edgeless quality, the face of someone easily wounded. Even in early, gangsta-rap-era poses, when he's scowling at the camera, trying to scare you, his eyes — huge, alert, voraciously taking in every detail — have the habit of giving the game away with their distracted intelligence.

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Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

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