IN ONE CORNER OF the backstage area at the House of Blues on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Jay-Z is sitting on an arm of a leather couch, facing the wall. He has slung a black hand towel over his head, his aviator shades are drawn over his eyes, and the back of his GIVE TO RECEIVE T-shirt faces his entourage, which tonight includes Jermaine Dupri, Beanie Sigel and Solange Knowles, the little sister of his girlfriend, Beyoncé, who is on tour in Asia. P. Diddy, one of the proud producers of Jay’s new album, American Gangster, fills up glasses of Ace of Spades champagne and distributes the bubbly to the congregation. When Jay gets his glass, he turns to Diddy and offers a Hebrew toast. “L’chaim!”
Minutes ago, Jay was on the stage of the packed club, wrapping up his very first show on this intimate promotional tour. The fans in the house, many of whom paid scalpers north of $1,000 for the chance to see Hova, the God MC, certainly got their money’s worth. Backed by a crack band, Jay dipped into his deep catalog – American Gangster is his thirteenth album —– busting out favorites like “Heart of the City,” “Jigga What, Jigga Who,” “Big Pimpin’ ” and “99 Problems,” which was taken to a whole other level when the band augmented one of the verses with the riffs from AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Given that American Gangster was released that morning, Jay is surprised that the crowd knows the words to his new bangers. “You make the music selfishly,” he says, “then you put it out there and hope that it connects with the people. The third part is going out and performing it – that’s the part I love.”
Though he weaseled out of his self-imposed retirement from rap to release Kingdom Come in 2006, that album did not satisfy his fans. “My intent was to push art forward,” he says diplomatically, but lyrically the album pushed Jay further away from tales of his hard-scrabble youth —– guns, drugs and drama – to address life as a CEO (he is the president of Def Jam) and the inevitable post-retirement malaise. (A collaboration with Chris Martin on “Beach Chair” surely sank the ship.) In that sense, American Gangster is Jay’s true comeback album, full of the soul and R&B grooves he grew up on in the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn. The album also features a dizzying and vivid flow that ought to re-establish Hova as the premier MC, a title that has been hanging in limbo —– yet to be fully claimed by upstarts like Kanye West and Lil Wayne— – since Jay stepped out of the spotlight in 2003.
By continuing his legacy, Jay says he’s “maxing out his era.” He compares himself to Michael Jordan – there will be the “LeBrons”and”Kobes” in hip-hop, but no one will ever duplicate Jay’s successes or longevity. “I’ve got this Elvis thing going on right here,” he says. By that he means that if opening-day projections are correct, American Gangster will be his tenth Number One album, tying him with the King. (Only the Beatles have more, with nineteen.) “What’s great about that,” he says, “is that I’ve never had a Number One single on any of my albums. People buy them for the body of work.”
Jay got the initial inspiration for his new opus when he was enticed to check out an advance screening of the new Ridley Scott film, also called American Gangster. As he sat in the Fifth Avenue screening room in Manhattan, he was overcome with a flood of emotions. Some of it seemed like downright déjà vu, as the rise, the high life and the fall of Seventies Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) played out on the big screen. It reminded Jay of his early days – dodging empty vials on the sidewalk on the way to school – to his teenage years, when he fattened his wallet by slinging crack. One memorable scene features Lucas and his nephew, a promising baseball prospect who sabotages a chance at the major leagues and vows to follow his uncle into the lucrative heroin trade. Jay— – whose own nephews he helped raise – felt Lucas’ disappointment and frustration, and parlayed his feelings into one of the first songs he wrote for A.G., “Sweet,” in which he conveys that it was “crooked policies” and social injustice that led him to sell drugs in the first place. And though he has no shame for his years as a hustler – “I can walk down the hall of mirrors/ In Versailles/And be so satisfied when I look myself in the eyes,” he raps – he is now proud to be a law-abiding role model. In fact, his nephew Ramel Carter, 18, wants to be a rapper. “I tell him to constantly write,” says Jay. “From an early age, I would write every day, nonstop, without fail. I’d write all day.”
The biggest difference between Lucas and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, though, was that Jay was able to extract himself from the hustle before the inevitable downfall – being shot, or pinched by the cops. He and his partners funded his own record label, Roc-A-Fella, releasing his first album, Reasonable Doubt, at age twenty-six, in 1996. That album would go platinum. The rest is hip-hop history –— 33 million albums sold, and riches that climb well into nine figures.
In the living room of a massive penthouse suite at the top of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Jay-Z opens up about his lives as both a criminal and a superstar. If the subject gets too personal – as it does whenever I mention Beyoncé – he’ll respond with silence, or a “ha-ha!” “It’s difficult enough to have a relationship with your relatives involved,” he says, not once mentioning her name. “To have millions of people involved – —that’s messed up!”
If his riches have bought him anything, it is eternal comfort, and he looks quite cozy, kicking back in a sofa with his doo-rag, jeans, a crisp T-shirt and brand-new socks like I’ve never seen, featuring an extra layer of padding on the bottom. The bottle of Veuve Clicquot icing on the table before us goes untouched, but if he needs it, he doesn’t have to reach far.
Do you remember your first day as a drug dealer?
Oh, man. I’m not talking to you about those details of my life. That’s a very shaky situation. That’s difficult.
Because it brings up bad memories?
No, I’m not traumatized because of the things I’ve done. My intention was to better my situation. When dealers are in the middle of it, they don’t realize what they’re doing, they don’t humanize the people that’s using the drugs, they don’t humanize the neighborhood. It’s not until you mature, and then you look back on it like “I was causing a lot of destruction around the neighborhood.”
Were people close to you addicted to crack?
Of course, man. Everybody was either selling it or using it. Very few people escaped without touching it. As a kid you just think those people are dumb. You don’t think about the mental struggle and pain that they’re going through.
On the album, you make the point that for many kids, selling drugs can be the only ticket out of the ghetto. But you were a smart kid – couldn’t your brains have gotten you out?
I was still sixteen. So at the time, no. I didn’t see a future. I didn’t have a career path. I didn’t have any role models. In our neighborhood we never saw doctors, or lawyers, or anybody successful. We’re talking about people working blue-collar jobs, just to make ends meet –— no career advancement or any long-term goals and dreams.
I felt at that moment, at that precise moment when I made that decision [to sell drugs], that there was no other choice. You believe, “My life is what it is, so I can take the chance of dying or going to jail to better it, or I can remain in this messed-up situation.” That’s what the first song on the album, “Pray,” is all about: that guy coming to that moment, witnessing police corruption, people going to jail, dope needles on the ground, and saying to himself, “Pray for me, because I’m going in.”
On “Hello Brooklyn” on the new album, you talk, about leaving home at a young age to go to Virginia. Is that where you bought the drugs?
I was going there to hustle.
So you’d buy drugs in Virginia and sell them in Brooklyn.
No, it was the other way around.
On “Fallin’,” you say, “The irony of selling drugs is sort of like using it/I guess there’s two sides to what substance abuse is.” How hard was it to stop selling?
You have to have a clear vision. If you’re in it, you’re in it, and you can’t see from it. You’re not looking down from the owner’s box, you’re not looking at the field and watching the play— – you’re in the play. It was a very difficult thing, especially if you’re successful, to say, “Wait. I know where this leads. I’ve got to figure a way out of this.” Once I made my decision, that was it. “I’m going to give [hip-hop] a try. And in order for it to work for me, I have to give it my all.” My mom’s advice —– “What you put in is what you get out” –— worked for me and against me. Sometimes I took it too literally –since the rhymes came so easily to me, since I wrote them so fast, I thought they weren’t worth anything. On the flip side, her advice is what made me say, “I have to do it wholeheartedly.” But in the back of my mind, if the music didn’t work out, I was going back to drugs forever.
When you were selling drugs, did you sample the wares?
Then the extent of your experience with drugs is smoking weed?
Yeah. And it’s a plant.
So how do you write a song like “I Know” from the perspective of heroin?
I have had addictions, that’s how I know how. I was addicted to hustlin’, addicted to the adrenaline rush. Then I was addicted to the rap game.
On “American Gangster,” you sample Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and you name-drop Al Green. Is that what you grew up on?
My mom and pop had the party house. We had a makeshift wall unit made out of straight plywood. It was crates of records, then plywood, crates of records, plywood, crates, plywood. Al Green, Prince, Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, everything. My mom had early rap records, like Jimmy Spicer. In the middle of the records was a turntable and a receiver – I used to scratch records on it – and on top was a reel-to-reel. In front of that wall were more stacks of records. It was either Mom’s record or Pop’s record, and they had their names on each and every one. Ha! Back then, I couldn’t understand why they shared an apartment and kids, but they couldn’t share records.
What were the parties like? I imagine there would be lots of music and, as you mention on “Pray,” marijuana.
Yeah. Smoke J’s, roll ’em up on the album covers. Back in the day you’d take the Bambu paper, push it up and the seeds would fall out. We wasn’t allowed in the parties, but of course we’d be peeking around corners.
When you were a kid, you’d write rhymes all the time. What would you write them in?
I had this green notebook, something my mother’s friend put together for me. It didn’t have any lines in it, so all the writing would be crooked. It was rhymes, songs, a bunch of writing. No format, really. I lost it, but I’d love to have it. It sucks. It’s probably not that good [laughs]. Although one of the early rhymes I had was really funny.
Let’s hear it.
“I’m the king of hip-hop/Renewed like the Reebok/The key in the lock/With words so provocative/As long as I live.”
Part of your legend over the years is that you never put your lyrics to paper. How did that transition happen?
The more I got into the street, when I was eighteen or nineteen, the further away from the notebook I became. When I was outside, I’d start thinking of all these lyrics, and I’d find anything I could write on. So I had all these pieces of paper in my pocket, then I’d get back to the house and dump all these papers out and put ’em in the notebook. You can only have so many pieces of paper in your pockets, so I started memorizing some lines until I got back to the book. It was like an exercise. Pretty soon I would just memorize all these songs, and it grew from there. When I made my first demos, around ’92, that was my process.
On “Sweet,”you rap about the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Have you visited the Hall of Mirrors?
I’ve never been there. Maybe I saw it on the History Channel or something –— I really don’t know. I just retain information through conversation, through books, through television. It comes out in weird ways. But I know that there’s a hall of mirrors, and in order for you to walk down there, you really have to be happy with yourself. You obviously have to look yourself in the eyes.
You draw rhymes from the History Channel, and your new album is inspired by a movie. What movies did you grow up on?
I didn’t go to many movies. My mom would make a family outing and bring chicken in the theater. Smell up the whole place. The most impactful movies were Godfather II and Scarface. I loved the human complexity, and those movies are so well shot. Cinematic greatness. I really stopped going in my early twenties.
Hustler’s paranoia. You don’t want to sit in one place too long. I stopped going to barbershops as well. It’s just smart. You could be in a theater for three hours. Anything could happen.
Frank Lucas recently said, “In our business, you get paid by fear.” Were you an intimidator?
No. My method wasn’t anything like that. I was a straight-up guy. Being a man of your word will keep you alive.
Have you ever witnessed a murder?
Yeah. When I was about nine, we were being mischievous. There were two guys running up the stairs in our building, one was chasing the other, and we followed them up. We heard this sound –— bang! We ran around, and the guy was on the floor, dead.
How did that affect you?
Sadly, it didn’t do anything to me. I’d heard shootings before. When I was growing up in the Eighties, crack was everywhere – there were Uzis in the projects. I heard shootings my whole life. It was not a big deal.
When you left the hustle, did you leave on a high note?
Of course. I was doing great. If you listen to my first album, the song “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” I was really having struggles. When I first came into the rap game, rappers weren’t very successful, so people on the street were like, “Why do you want to be a rapper when you’re so successful doing this?” That’s why I was saying that you can’t knock my hustle. Rap was the hustle.
But now you’re a multimillionaire. You’re in a financial position to collect fine art. Whatcha got?
I’ve got a nice collection of paintings – a Basquiat, a black-and-white Warhol that’s like a Rorschach test, and I commissioned Takashi Murakami to do a ten-foot joint for me. It’s almost like the explosion in Hiroshima with his famous skeleton head. There’s a wall above my fireplace reserved for it.
Before his death in 2003, you reunited with your estranged father. How did that reunion change your life?
Big moment for me, allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger and open up. When I was young, the person I looked up to the most was my father, and once I experienced that hurt, the separation from the guy you thought was Superman, you never want to feel that hurt again. So no matter what relationships you have later on, I protected myself and my feelings. When we had that conversation, it came full circle, and I was able to release all of that anger. It freed me up tremendously. He passed away two months later. If it had never happened, I don’t know how I’d be. But I’ve been able to open up to people. I was just really closed. I was a cool person, but I wouldn’t let people get too close to me.
Do people close to you describe you as closed-off?
Not my family, because they’re all like that. Every single one of them.
What about your girlfriend?
I’m sure she thinks I’m closed-off. But I’m workin’ on it. Just trying to deal with emotional issues, taking them on proactively. Before, I wouldn’t even address it.
You’re coming up on your three-year anniversary as the president of Def Jam. How do you rate your performance?
I’ve done a phenomenal job, especially for a guy who’d never sat in that seat. I could point to four artists that we’ve broken in three years –— Ne-Yo, Rick Ross, Jeezy and Rihanna. If you can break one artist a year, you are a Clive Davis. That’s pretty much what I did.
But I don’t want to put records out using the same model that’s been here for years and years and expect better results by doing the same thing. We have to define “What is the new music business?”
So what is the new music business?
It’s all about brands. It ain’t just about music anymore. Music is a great foundation for so many other things. We have to make money in different ways.
In our most recent fortieth-anniversary issue, Chris Rock said, “Stevie Wonder’s records would have been shitty if he had to run a clothing company and cologne line.”
That comes after. You’ve got to allow artists to be artists. You’ve got to build a career. Only people with careers can establish a brand. So the music, absolutely, comes first. You can’t make a deal while you’re making the album. Make the album, then do other things. Everything gets shut down when you’re making the music. On this album, I didn’t go to work one day. It was my primary focus. I’m glad it took three weeks. If it took six months, people would be sayin’, “You haven’t been to work in six months.”
A sticker on your new CD reads, “Conceptual body of genius work.” How do you define genius?
For me, it’s coming up with something so different and so full of emotion and truth. Kanye – I think I was the first to brand him a genius. Andre 3000 does genius work. Bono, absolutely. Chris Martin’s a genius. Dr. Dre, genius. Rick Rubin, supergenius.
You’re buddies with Chris Martin.
We met at a Robin Hood Foundation dinner three years ago. We hit it off right away. The guy’s humble, and he has a lovely family. It’s rare to meet such a genuinely good person. I’m drawn to his energy. I don’t go to people’s houses and hang out, but I go to his house and hang out.
Do you ever think that Kanye’s just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?
All the time, yeah! He has extra passion – an extra-passion switch!
What goes through your head when he’s crashing awards-show podiums around the world?
Some of the things he says, it’s unnecessary because of the level of success he’s attained. But I know where he’s coming from. He’s fought all his life to tell people, “I’m great,” so in his mind he’s still in that fight. He wants to be the best in the world.
Will you weigh in on his comment that George Bush hates black people?
I thought it was Kanye speaking from the heart, what he felt at the moment. If you look at the tape, you can see he’s shaking and he’s fired up. He can’t believe what’s going on on TV. When you go through the logic, you’re saying, “Why is this happening? Why is this guy [Bush] flying around New Orleans in a plane, why won’t he land?”
What would Barack Obama becoming president mean to you?
It’s difficult, because growing up, politicians never affected where we lived. And things are clearly getting worse. But as I get older, I’m getting closer to politics. I’ve talked to Bill Clinton – he’s the ultimate rock star, no one’s more charming than him. People clap in a restaurant when he finishes dinner! I don’t get that treatment. I get it when I walk onstage, but not when I have dinner. I sat down with Barack Obama – we just talked, nothing about politics – and he’s an open and honest person, but parts of me still hold on to the fact that nothing’s going to change, as if I’m still a kid in the Marcy projects. I’m clearly not that person anymore, but I still have those feelings.
It seems the only thing missing from your perfect life are perfect kids.
That’s true. Absolutely. Marriage, family, the whole thing. Of course I want to have a family. Chris Martin has got a whole family. I’m like, “What am I doing?” But Russell Simmons gives me hope. He started his family when he was seventy. Ha! I’ll be OK.
You could rent out this hotel suite for the rest of your life and sit on your ass. What do you have to prove?
I have a lot to prove to myself, man. I’ve got to challenge myself. What am I going to do, really, before the sunsets get old? If you’re sitting there once or twice a year, it’s beautiful. But if you’re there everyday, it’s like winning blackjack every hand. There’s no drama— I’d go crazy. “Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one” –— what good is that? I have to challenge myself to feel alive.