Jay-Z: King of America

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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.

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