Jay-Z: King of America

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

jay-z 2010
Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Jay-Z performs at the Cosmopolitan Grand Opening in Las Vegas.
By |

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.'"

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.

Not that Jay reveals much in the way of weakness or imperfection on his records. In a classic example of form following function, the breathtaking dexterity of Jay-Z's rhymes are almost always marshalled in the service of informing the listener of how great Jay-Z is. Some of the songs are peppered with details of back-story hardship (urban poverty, absent father, the drug violence of the Marcy projects), which mostly serve to make the ultimate triumph that much sweeter, a Horatio Alger story that Jay himself has tirelessly mythologized on every album. "I may have told, in my whole career, maybe 10 stories," he admits. "I deal with the same topics [over and over] in different ways." The average Jay-Z fan has never hit the same lows — has never, say, shot his own brother in the shoulder for stealing a ring, a true story Jay details on "You Must Love Me," from his second album — nor will most listeners ever swim in the rare waters of Jay's current world. Still, we love Jay-Z, for the same reason we hate taxes, any taxes, even those on the richest 1 percent — because America's founding myth is aspirational. Jay-Z's biography flatters our illusions about our own prospects, makes anything seem possible.

The waiter comes to take away the remains of Jay's second arugula salad, which he ordered immediately after finishing his first. With both salads, he gingerly peeled off all but a single piece of Parmesan, which was sliced in thin squares and stacked atop the lettuce. Jay is wearing a thin gray cardigan over a white T-shirt, expensively distressed jeans and unlaced Timberland boots, the latter despite the fact that, on The Blueprint 3 track "Off That," Tims are clearly declared "off," along with rims, Cris, oversize clothes and chains, black-versus-white, niggas still making it rain and (this last one seems unfair) "whatever you about to discover."

Many of the songs on The Blueprint 3 seem obsessed with relevance and the notion of being ahead of certain trends. On the most recent single, "On to the Next One," Jay declares, "Fuck a throwback jersey 'cause we on to the next one, and fuck that Auto-Tune 'cause we on," a theme echoed in "D.O.A. [Death of Auto-Tune]," Jay's broadside on the voice-altering software favored by young rappers and R&B artists from T-Pain to his own friend Kanye West (who, on "D.O.A.," can be heard shouting, "It's too far, nigga!" in the background). There's also the legacy-obsessed "Young Forever," one of the weaker tracks on the album, which Jay recently dedicated to Betty White during a performance on Saturday Night Live — briefly obscuring that, in rap years, he's already practically Betty White's age, a fact Jay doesn't deny.

"One of the reasons I wanted to make Blueprint 3 was because of the challenge," Jay says. "We've seen people like LL [Cool J] have longevity, and we respect the heritage of what he's done, but it's not like, right now, he's competing on the same level as Lil Wayne. So for me to still be able to compete at that level at my age, that's rarefied air. It's never been done.

"I think the problem with people, as they start to mature, they say, 'Rap is a young man's game,' and they keep trying to make young songs. But you don't know the slang — it changes every day. You can visit the topic, but these young kids live it every day, and you're just visiting. So you're trying to be something you're not, and the audience doesn't buy into that. And people wonder why. 'I made a great Southern bounce song!' 'You're from New York, and you're 70! Why are you bouncing?' I grew up in hip-hop. I don't want to stop listening to hip-hop when I'm 50 years old. But I don't want to listen to something I can't relate to. I can't relate to some guy in a big mansion telling me that he's going to shoot me. You're not believing that! He doesn't want to go to jail. He likes his house!"

Jay released his seminal debut, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996, when he was 26 years old. The album was a hit with hip-hop fans and critics, but it wasn't until he sampled the Broadway musical Annie, two years later, for the song "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," that he proved the capacity for crossover pop appeal. After a string of massive hits that included "Can I Get A . . . " and "Big Pimpin'," he decided to "hit the reset button" and recorded arguably the best album of his career, The Blueprint, in 2001. Leaning heavily on old soul samples (and featuring a young producer named Kanye West), the album "was like going back to my roots, to how I grew up," Jay says. "Other than 'H to the Izzo,' there's no real singles. It was like, 'Fuck, enough already — how many times are you going to make another "Big Pimpin'"?'"

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Jay-Z, The Blueprint

In 2003, at the height of his popularity, Jay-Z released The Black Album and announced it would be his final recording. Soon after, he embarked on a disastrous tour with R. Kelly, on which the latter's erratic behavior included commandeering a McDonald's drive-through during a tour stop in St. Louis. (Today Jay says, "Didn't go well? That's the understatement of the year. I wanted to help him, and I'd tell him things that were maybe not my place to say. It was sad to see." The two haven't spoken since the tour's abrupt ending.) In 2004, Jay accepted the job as president of Def Jam. Though he speaks fondly of his time in the front office and points to numerous successes — he signed Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Young Jeezy and released hit albums by Kanye West — when asked if he can remember specific meetings where he felt frustrated by the label's inability to change, he says, "Honestly? All of them. The culture there has been institutionalized. You had record executives who've been sitting in their office for 20 years because of one act. 'But that's the guy who signed Mötley Crüe!' Seriously? That was fucking 25 years ago.

"When you look at what's happening, the record business is purging itself," Jay continues. "Def Jam released 57 albums one year. Are there 57 good artists in the world, let alone on one label? If you have 57 artists and four of them break, that's bad business. What a terrible model. I told them, 'How about this idea — instead of spending $300 million to break four acts, why don't you guys give me a credit line, and I'll just do things. I won't make music. I'll go buy some headphones, or buy a clothing line, just be part of the culture.' But the money scared them off, because they're not used to thinking in that way."

Despite the impossibility of changing an ossified record-business model overnight, Jay did manage a smooth transition into the world of the corporate boardroom, which makes one wonder if the experience changed his feelings about race in America. Jay smiles diplomatically and says, "No, it didn't." He mentions Chris Rock's great stand-up bit about Alpine, New Jersey, the wealthy neighborhood where Jay used to live: "In my neighborhood, there are four black people," Rock said. "Hundreds of houses, four black people. Who are these black people? Well, there's me, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. . . . Mary J. Blige, one of the greatest R&B singers to ever walk the Earth. Jay-Z, one of the greatest rappers to ever live. Eddie Murphy, one of the funniest actors to ever, ever do it. Do you know what the white man who lives next door to me does for a living? He's a fucking dentist!" Jay chuckles and, paraphrasing Rock, says, "'He didn't discover teeth!'" Twirling a forkful of pasta, Jay continues, "It's changing slowly. But it's not an equal thing. I'm here because of my talent. You still have to do extraordinary things."

As we exit Jay's office building, passing under the stern glare of a bust of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, an unsmiling, shaved-headed bodyguard appears and opens the door of a black Cadillac Escalade parked on Broadway. The rear seats have been tilted so far back, it almost feels as if we're lying next to each other on beach chairs. Jay, not entirely surprisingly, turns out to be a backseat navigator. On an earlier ride, he began to give the chauffeur (who calls him "boss") his own directions to a photo studio. "Just keep going until you see the Richard Meier building," he commanded. The driver stared blankly in the rearview mirror. "The big glass building on the left," Jay said. "The architect is Richard Meier."

Tonight, as we drive the 12 blocks to the Four Seasons, Jay says, "You're going to meet a guy named François who's been a good friend and is the reason I'm doing this." François-Henry Bennahmias is the North American president of Audemars Piguet, the luxury Swiss watch brand; tonight, he's sponsoring a celebrity watch auction to benefit an AIDS charity. The auction is already under way when we're ushered to the front row and seated directly across the aisle from Kelsey Grammer, who beams at Jay's arrival. The rest of the well-heeled crowd also seems starstruck. A rich guy sitting behind us who looks a bit like Mickey Rourke has not silenced his cellphone, which goes off in the middle of the auction, blaring an "Empire State of Mind" ringtone. "Shawn! Shawn! Check it out!" the man brays, leaning forward and holding up his phone to a mortified Jay.

Jay picks up the price list, scans it, then elbows me and points out a limited-edition Lady Millenary Astrologia watch signed by Meryl Streep, with an estimated value of $120,240. "I might bid on this one," he whispers. "They're giving 'em away in this room." But when the lot goes up, the bids hit 70 grand within seconds. Frowning, Jay glances over and says, "This isn't going to work out for me." He ends up not bidding at all.

Jay's watch, a limited-edition Royal Oak Offshore Las Vegas Strip Tourbillon, with an estimated value of $217,800, is the main event. When it's Jay's turn to say a few words, he acknowledges the other celebrities in the audience, including "Chelsea Grammer." Jay's watch ends up as the biggest seller of the evening, going for $220,000. At the afterparty, the babyfaced actor and rapper Nick Cannon approaches Jay in the corner and says, "Man, you said Chelsea Grammer!" Jay says, "Really?!" Cannon, still laughing heartily, says, "I just about fell out of my seat! He rolled with it, though. I looked over and he was just smiling and clapping." Jay laughs, too, sorrowfully shaking his head.

Back in the Escalade, he turns to me and asks, "Did you hear me say Chelsea Grammer?"

"Yeah," I say, "but you said it pretty quickly, so I'm not sure that everyone necessarily caught it."

He frowns and shakes his head, seeming irritated with himself. "Nah. If you heard it, and he heard it, everyone heard it." As the Cadillac maneuvers through the downtown traffic, Jay begins typing a message to someone on his BlackBerry. Without looking up, he asks, "How do you spell 'faux pas'?"

The driver takes us to Cipriani, an expensive Italian restaurant in Soho, not far from the 8,000-square-foot penthouse apartment where Jay and Beyoncé live. Jay personally oversaw the renovation of the space, a project that took him three years and an equal number of interior designers — something he says he'll never do again. A line in "Off That" refers to his "Tribeca loft" with its "highbrow art" (and "high-yellow broad"). Of that art, Jay's favorite pieces include the Andy Warhol Rorschach-blot painting hanging over the fireplace and a chalk-based piece called Boombastic, by the artist Gary Simmons, drawn directly on another wall. ("All of my walls are Venetian plaster, very quiet, but this one is red," Jay says.) Though Jay and Beyoncé maintain a strict policy of not discussing their relationship with the press, Jay does reveal that B., as he calls her, vetoed a single piece of artwork. "This is gonna sound so cliché," Jay sighs. "You really have to see it." The piece was a surreal black-and-white photograph by the artist Laurie Simmons (no relation to Gary) depicting a noirishly lit pistol with a pair of women's legs emerging from the handle. "It was more of a masculine style, I guess," Jay acknowledges. Beyoncé sent it back and had it replaced with a similar Simmons piece, only depicting a perfume bottle instead of a gun.

At Cipriani, while I'm in the bathroom, Jay takes the liberty of ordering us both Bellinis, which makes me feel, briefly, like Beyoncé. He says he loved her appearance in Lady Gaga's outrageous "Telephone" video, which ends with the pair driving off like Thelma and Louise after poisoning a bunch of guests at a diner — though he denies advising her on whether to participate in the video in the first place. "We pretty much stay out of each other's business," he says. "Sometimes on creative stuff, one of us will ask, 'Do you think this is cool?' She's a magnificent A&R, if she ever decides to do that, for things like pitch. So I defer to her on those sort of questions. But overall, we pretty much like the same things."

Beyoncé isn't the only off-limit topic for Jay. Though he completed an autobiography several years ago (co-written with Dream Hampton, a former editor of hip-hop magazine The Source), he refuses to release it, despite the deep interest and near-guaranteed success. "It's too much," he tells me. "For the book, I was interviewed, people close to me were interviewed. So I was learning a lot of things I didn't know as a child. And it was too . . . " He trails off, then continues, "It's not anything I haven't said in the past, in songs. It's just more detailed. A song is three minutes long. A book doesn't have to rhyme, and it has no time limit, so you can say exactly how everything went." He says the biggest revelation he had reading his own autobiography came in the parts about his father, who abandoned the family when Jay was 11. "It was still wrong, at the end of the day, that he left," Jay says, "but he did stick around at a time where it wasn't cool or popular — he married my mom at a time when guys were just leaving, and you'd never even meet your dad. So it made me ease up a little bit in how I felt about him."

Jay's never been to therapy. (Except for once, he says, lowering his voice — a probation thing, where the psychiatrist gave him tea that made him sleepy and asked him questions like, "Who are your best friends?") He acknowledges that his famously even temperament — the Obama-esque perpetual cool — might not be the healthiest approach to life in every circumstance. "I don't get too excited about things, and I don't get too down about things," he says. "I feel like, at the end of the day, everything balances out, like stocks. But I may be cheating myself out of real joyous celebration."

Jay insists that he can be revealing in songs. "I have my moments," he says. But when pushed to give examples, he points to Nineties tracks like "Regrets," "Lucky Me" and "You Must Love Me," all from his first two albums. If, musically, Jay continues to push himself into "rarefied air," as he seems determined to do, it will be interesting to see if these journeys into uncharted territories will ever include more self-exposure. This month, he'll release a greatest-hits album, and the tracks include some of the most memorable pop songs of the past 15 years. But, as in much of hip-hop, Jay's lyrics, for all of the brilliance of his wordplay, can begin to feel like tedious self-branding, exercises in image-building as unrelenting as political-campaign ads. It's like watching one of those television specials that collect the greatest commercials of all time. You can sit back and enjoy the cleverness and artistry — but at the end of the day, you're still being sold a bar of soap.

One promising development on this front is Jay's acknowledged interest in indie rock. This latest extra-genre dabbling comes after earlier explorations of rap rock (in 2004, he made the album Collision Course with Linkin Park) and jam bands (also in 2004, he joined Phish onstage during a show in Coney Island), and while the fascination with indie bands suggests his taste in music white people like is steadily improving, it also hints at what sort of music he might be interested in making in the future. "I love the energy coming out of indie rock right now," he says. "It has this rebellion thing that hip-hop is missing now, the thing that made hip-hop hip-hop. A band like Grizzly Bear is actually trying not to make a big, relatable sound — and that ends up attracting people, because everyone loves rebellion. 'Fuck you, this is what we're doing over here, and that's it.'"

"The thing I'm trying to learn now," Jay says, "is to pull it back and be a bit more of a selfish performer. When I perform, I'm always trying to look for energy, and I'm not necessarily playing everything I want to play. But I want to be able to play a song like 'Allure' [from The Black Album] — I don't care who knows it! It's a beautiful song to me."

Our dinner begins to wind down. Jay has a meeting the next day with Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the majority owner of the Nets. The first time he met with Prokhorov was at the Four Seasons. "I'd been staying there for 10 years, and I always thought I was at the top level," Jay says. "But when I met Prokhorov, they took me up to this extra extra room that even I had never heard of before." He smiles, mock-rueful. It is not the smile of a man who will be recording an acoustic covers album in a church, or releasing a split-single with Japanther, or even performing "Allure" live anytime soon. "Now there's something else to shoot for," Jay says. "There's always an extra level you don't know about."

This story appeared in the June 24, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1107: June 24, 2010