President Carter got up this morning around eight, watched SportsCenter and worked out in the gym at his place in New Jersey with a personal trainer, then slid into his Mercedes Maybach and let his longtime driver Romero take him over the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan to the Universal building at Eighth Avenue and Fiftieth Street.
Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, has been the president of Def Jam since January 3rd, 2005. ‘Soon as we came back off of vacation I was here, ten o’clock in the morning,” he says with pride. His L-shaped corner office is on the twenty-ninth floor, and he’s usually there by ten or eleven, but on this particular Friday he arrives at 12:20 P.M., BlackBerry to his ear as he zips past security and up the escalator, wearing a diamond-heavy Roc-A-Fella chain; a white-and-red European-soccer-inspired polo shirt from his clothing company. Rocawear; baggy Rocawear jeans; and white S. Carters with blood-red tips, all of which make him look about ten years younger than his thirty-five years.
He goes straight into an emergency meeting. A new song from Young Jeezy — the twenty-five-year-old Atlanta rapper whose debut album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation, entered the charts in August at Number Two — has been leaked to radio. Jeezy’s A&R man is afraid this will screw up plans for Jeezy’s next single. Jeezy has sold more than 1 million records and has become the hottest new rapper of the year, making him Jay’s first major success as a record executive. Still, Jay fails to see the leak as an emergency. He’s always been panic-averse. His persona, in life and on record, is cool and in control — the same even, authoritative tone whether the subject is sex, survival, wealth or vengeance. “His thing is, just make it simple,” says Be-Hi, Jay’s cousin, who grew up with him in the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. “People make obstacles for theyselves when shit ain’t really no obstacle. He’ll just show you the simpler way to do it.”
At the not-so-emergency meeting, Jay explains that the leaked song is a club record, not a radio record, meaning most radio stations won’t want to play it. “Manage your heat,” he tells Jeezy’s A&R man. “Get your Joe Torre on, nigga,” which means, become a brilliant manager and navigate the situation, nigga.
Jay-Z has navigated a variety of situations brilliantly for more than twenty years. In the Eighties, when crack was dominating America’s inner cities, Shawn Carter was a teenage street entrepreneur selling crack and other drugs. In his twenties, he escaped the street and turned his business skills to the world of hip-hop. When no label would sign him, he co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records in order to release his first album. As hip-hop moved into the Get Big Money era and rappers maximized their earning potential by diversifying into clothes, movies and bottled water, Jay-Z became one of hip-hop’s most successful entrepreneurs. “Every black kid in America looks up to Jay as a role model,” says Kanye West.
On December 4th, Jay turns thirty-six, and there’s no midlife crisis anywhere in sight: He’s worth more than $320 million and he is the president of the most important label in the history of hip-hop, Def Jam. Founded in 1984 by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the label has been home to several generations of major rappers: LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy in the Eighties; Jay, Method Man, Redman and DMX in the Nineties; and, more recently, West — whose first major break came in 2001 as a producer for Jay — and Young Jeezy. “Def Jam is the number-one hip-hop label in the world,” says Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman of the Island DefJam Music Group. “Having Jay says that the legacy continues. If you’re a sixteen-year-old rapper in Brooklyn or Atlanta or Houston, and you know that Jay-Z carries on the legacy of hip-hop, then Def Jam becomes your preferred destination.”
Jay’s deal with Universal reportedly pays him between $8 million and $10 million a year. He’s also the president and part owner of Roc-A-Fella Records, the proud owner of a small piece of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets (“I was happy to cut that check!” he says) and owner of two multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, one of them a 10,000-square-foot loft in Tribeca worth $7.5 million and the other a penthouse at the Time Warner Center near Central Park worth more than $10 million, from which he can see a penthouse owned by his girlfriend, Beyoncé. He is also, sometimes, an MC. “My life is crazy,” he says, in awe of his own journey. “I’m not jaded. I’m on the board of the Nets. I’m the only black guy and I’m the youngest one there. I’m a fuckin’ president-CEO of Def Jam. That shit still sounds crazy to me even to this day. What the fuck does that mean?” Then he gets all philosophical. “And I’m outside of it, too, baby. I’m outside of it, like, goddamn — that’s some crazy shit. And it’s not stopping. It’s gonna get even crazier.”
But as far as he’s come, he never forgets who he was, still carries old habits. For example, typical of a multimillionaire, his wallet has no money in it. Today there’s just a single, lonely dollar. But in another pocket he’s got a two-inch-thick knot of big bills, the sort you’d find in the pocket of a hustler. “I don’t feel right without it.” he says.
His office has great views across the Hudson River, a big chocolate-brown couch, a huge-screen TV bookended by gigantic speakers and, next to his desk, a large monitor for his e-mails. There are peach roses, white calla lilies and a purple orchid scattered around. On the wall there’s a picture of Jay sharing a laugh with Prince Charles at a swanky event in London, and behind his desk a picture of Jay with a smiling Mariah Carey, an Island Def Jam artist. On the table sits a two-foot-tall scale model of architect Frank Gehry’s plan for the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, where the Nets will move from New Jersey in 2008, with little trees and shrubs planted around the wooden buildings and acrylic skyscrapers shaped in the forms that Gehry will create. Not long after they first met, Gehry sent Jay a stack of James Joyce novels, because listening to tapes of Joyce reading Finnegans Wake reminded Gehry of hip-hop. Jay says he reads only nonfiction.
In a corner of Jay’s office, on the floor, there’s a street sign that says MARCY AVE., a remnant from his days in the Marcy projects. And on his desk, in the center, is the Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy he won for “99 Problems,” the guitar-heavy 2003 single produced by Rick Rubin from the CD that announced Jay’s retirement as a recording artist, The Black Album. The Grammy arrived a few days ago, and he decided to let it sit on his desk for a moment before bringing it home. Six years ago, Jay boycotted the Grammy Awards, saying, “Too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked.” Not anymore. “I didn’t care about Grammys until we won one,” he says. This is his fourth. Beyoncé has eight. He says she teases him about having so few.
Most of the day the door to Jay’s office stays open and people flow in and out as if his were the cool room in the dorm. They come in and plop down on the couch, maybe toss a football around, maybe talk to him, maybe not. Jay sits behind his desk answering e-mails, looking at radio and album charts, listening to songs fresh from the studio, meeting with lawyers and managers, and talking to his artists. “Ludacris calls me every so often,” he says. “‘I just wanna pick your brain, man. What do you think is my next step?'”
Jay’s management style is part old-school hustle, part New Age motivation. He’s given to aphorisms like, “I’m not looking to be anybody’s boss. I’m just looking to help the process. If they win, I win.” One day, he talked about a Bruce Lee documentary he’d seen. “He was talking about ‘be water.’ I’m gonna write that up and send it to people: Be water. If you pour water in a cup. it takes the shape of a cup. If you pour it in a teapot, it takes the shape of a teapot. Be fluid. Treat each project differently. The best style is no style. Because styles can be figured out. And when you have no style, they can’t figure you out.”
In October, Jay won a five-label bidding war and signed the Roots, whose contract with the Interscope subsidiary Geffen was up. “What’s scarin’ the shit out of me,” says Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, “is that his priority with Game Theory [the Roots’ next album] is us turning in a critically acclaimed album. When I talk about singles, he says, ‘Get that thought out of your head.’ He knows, and the one thing that [Interscope CEO] Jimmy [lovine] didn’t know, is that there’s no fooling your audience.”
As Jay walks around the twenty-ninth floor, he yells out little jokes to his people, getting them to smile and laugh, trying to make everyone comfortable to have him around. “The employees had to get more accustomed to it than him,” a friend says. “They’re walking into his office saying, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Jay-Z!’ And he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m just here to work.'”
Jay strolls around the corner to check out West’s then-unreleased video for “Gold Digger” on someone’s laptop. He’s impressed by West’s performance, but toward the end there’s a shot of an angry woman holding a dagger. That’s a problem. MTV won’t play a video that prominently features a knife, but no one’s had any luck persuading West to edit out the knife; Shakira has a knife in her video for “La Tortura,” he argues, so why can’t he? But her knife is in a kitchen scene while she’s cutting onions. The shot has to be changed and delivered to MTV by 8 A.M. Monday, or they’ll miss the chance to get onto MTV’s rotation for a whole week. So Jay has to figure out the proper way to get one of his most stubborn and most successful artists to acquiesce. (West later agreed to obscure the knife with sparks of light.) The video-promotions woman, who worked with Jay when he was an artist, laughs at his predicament. “You used to do this to me,” she says. “And I used to say, ‘I can’t wait till you’re on the other side.'”
Next summer, Jay will unveil an entirely new way of marketing himself: a color called Jay-Z Blue. “Jay-Z Blue is a license for corporations to get Jay-Z in the building,” says Steve Stoute, the head of Translation Consultation and Brand Imaging, who is working with Jay on the project. “Cars, laptops, lots of different things. I got deals lined up like you don’t understand. But the bottom line is, would a company pay to get Jay-Z involved in their product line? Yes, because of who he is and what he’s become as an icon. Consumers know that bullshit don’t leave his mouth. So when Jay-Z says ‘X’ is cool, he can singlehandedly change things. When Jay-Z says you shouldn’t have a [Range Rover] 4.0 but a 4.6, that changes Range Rover’s numbers. On ‘What More Can I Say,’ there’s a line: ‘I don’t wear jerseys, I’m thirty-plus/Give me a crisp pair of jeans, nigga, button-up.’ That put Reebok’s NFL jersey business back to fans, removed it from fashion. He can move the cultural needle because they believe his honesty.”
He’s been building the brand called Jay-Z since the beginning of his career. Jay stepped into the hip-hop limelight in 1996 with the perfect back story: He grew up in Brooklyn, a drug dealer who was never jailed but was able to walk into the hip-hop game with big money. There was no need to exaggerate. But more than that, he came into the game with big talent. “He’s a figure hip-hop purists can respect,” says ?uestlove. “If you bring his name up with KRS-One, Rakim, Nas and Biggie, most people would agree with you.”
One reason is Jay’s singular flow, the way his lyrics both respond to and control the rhythms of his songs. “I try to become an instrument within the track,” he says. As with many things Jay-Z does, this statement makes something complicated into something simple. But his unique flow comes out of his unique approach to writing rhymes. He never uses pen and paper. When he was out in the streets hustling, he found himself coming up with great rhymes and no easy way to write them down, so he learned to memorize his songs. He developed the capacity to store six or more songs in his head. When he became a recording artist, he’d listen to a track ten or twenty times, then start mumbling to himself — on Fade to Black, the film detailing his 2003 retirement concert, he calls this process “my Rain Man” — and the song comes into shape in his mind. Within as little as twenty minutes, he’ll get in the booth and spit an intricately constructed rhyme. He says the penless writing allowed him to have a truer relationship to the music. He isn’t setting words to music, he’s adding his voice as a layer of sound within the song while becoming one with the song. “He is the bar when it comes to patterns, intonations, lyrics, style all of that,” says West.
His street stories told us he was tough and courageous; his sarcasm, witticisms and double-entendres told us he was smart and funny; his conversation-chill flows told us he was cool; and his massive, unwavering self-confidence, his swagger, his “I will not lose, ever” stance resonated with fans everywhere. Also, despite years of fame, Jay has been able to keep much of his life private. Sure, we’ve seen pictures of him and Beyoncé, but he never talks about the relationship, he’ll never do Cribs or let the general public see his home, and he says he’ll never do a movie detailing his life. His autobiography, The Black Book, co-written by dream hampton, is complete after years of work, but Jay now says he probably won’t let it be published. “I know that people really want to know about me,” he says, “and I thought I was OK with it, but as it got closer and closer, I said, ‘What am I doing?’ And then when I really got [the manuscript], I was like [pantomimes fainting]. Just someone having your life in their hands made me like, ‘I ain’t doin’ this shit.'” He pauses. “I can’t read it, by the way. She was sending me chapters, but I haven’t read it all together like one thing. I can’t.”
The privacy allows Jay to maintain a mystique. “He’s a black Fonzie figure,” says ?uestlove. “Those mythical rebellious, cool characters are the ones that everyone’s interested in the most, because everyone wants to peel the layers off them to see what makes them tick.”
Even novelist Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and the recent On Beauty, is a Jay-Z fan. “Jay-Z is a rap all-rounder,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Like Biggie, he can produce ‘ecstatic’ hip-hop, the kind of urban-lifestyle fantasies that are so joyful they feel like gospel. But the greater part of him, for me, is his strong streak of Tupac-like truth-telling, raps that aren’t about the dream life of urban African-Americans but concern their real lived experiences. He’s the manufacturer of black dreams but with all the real-world consequences attached. He’s a survivor, like Dre; a joker, like Snoop; an angry young man, like 50; and a CEO, like Diddy. And he has a lovely, instantly recognizable flow: brash, boastful but also humane, witty and wonderful at telling tales, one of rap’s best narrators.”
Shawn Corey Carter was born in Brooklyn, the child of Gloria Carter and Adnes “AJ” Reeves. He is his mother’s fourth child, her baby, and they remain extremely close. “I’m a good friend to her,” he says, “a very good friend.” He has one brother, Eric, who lives in upstate New York, and two sisters, Michelle, known as Mickey, who works at Rocawear, and Andrea, known as Annie, who’s a corrections officer at Rikers Island jail. “She’s tough,” he says, almost in awe.
When Jay was four years old, he got his first taste of fame. “I rode this ten-speed,” he says. “It was really high, but I put my foot through the top bar, so I’m ridin’ the bike sideways and the whole block is like, oh, God, they couldn’t believe this little boy ridin’ that bike like that. That was my first feelin’ of bein’ famous right there.” He laughs. “Felt good.”
In the sixth grade, Jay discovered something about himself. “I just had that feeling of being smart,” he says. “We did some tests, and I was on a twelfth-grade level. I was crazy happy about that.”
DJ Clark Kent met Jay when they were teenagers. “When he was fifteen, he wanted to be the best rapper,” says Kent. “He was ambitious and he wanted to get better every day. And it’s funny how effortlessly it came to him. He’s just gifted.”
Jay’s rise seemed easy, but he was practicing every day. “For years every morning he’d wake up and be in the mirror rhyming to hisself,” says Be-Hi, “to hear himself and see how he’s pronouncing words and checkin’ his flow. Every morning. You know how some people get up and do they calisthenics every morning? That was his thing.”
“Yeah,” Jay says with a laugh, “I used to do that. Weirdo shit. I haven’t done that in years.”
Kent financed and produced some of Jay’s initial recordings, but it was difficult to get Jay to focus on hip-hop because he was spending most of his time hustling. “It was so hard for me to get Jay to rap,” Kent says. “After he started to enterprise [sell drugs], he was extremely comfortable. He never really stopped enterprising while we were in the beginnings of making the Jay-Z that you know.”
Still, Jay knew he had to move on. “My years was goin’ more and more in that life,” Jay says. “The longer you go, the higher your odds are that something’s gonna happen to you. I knew the first day I stood on the block the clock was goin’ backwards. It was a countdown.” But like Michael Jordan getting cut from the high school varsity basketball team, young Jay-Z, after years of developing his MC skills, couldn’t get a record deal. “One thing that frustrated Jay is the fact that he was way better than everyone who was getting signed,” Kent says. “He was like, “Why am I so good and these other niggas is getting deals? They’re clowns.'”
In the early Nineties, Kent introduced Jay to a young manager from Harlem named Damon Dash. Together with a friend named Kareem Burke, they formed Roc-A-Fella Records and in ’96 released Reasonable Doubt. “I wish we could take credit for thinkin’ of that on our own,” Jay says, “but it was more so out of ‘Damn, we can’t get no deal?’ After a year of shoppin’, I was like, ‘Man, let’s put it out ourself.'”
The early months of Jay’s first year as president of Def Jam were rocky. “When I first started, it was stale,” Jay says. “I wanted to quit right away.” He wondered if he could resign without public embarrassment. “There was nothing fresh, no excitement, it was just the same shit over again. I said, ‘Where’s the passion? Where’s the ideas? Where’s the new shit?’ I’m used to bein’ around entrepreneurs, and we was passionate about everything. But [in a corporation] whether this artist comes out and does 400 million or 40,000 the first week, their check is the same. So you’re doin’ everything routine, routine, routine, and you lose the passion for it.” Then he realized that as the president it was his responsibility to inject the passion.
At a two-day company retreat at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan, Jay played the 1984 Def Jam sales-presentation tape to remind them of the energy that had pulsed through the company when it was small, independent and revolutionary. Then Jay had everyone talk about why they got into the record business in the first place. (When it came Jay’s turn to talk, he said, “For me, it was security.” He knew that by remaining on the street, death or jail was inevitable.) “There were employees that came back and said, ‘Wow, I feel proud to work at Def Jam,’ ” says Tracy Waples, the label’s senior vice president of marketing. “I think people found it hard to believe a guy who’s that successful and wealthy is gonna really work.”
Jay has most definitely been working. He’s started two labels: Roc La Familia, focusing on reggae, reggaeton, calypso, tribal and West Indian music as well as hip-hop, and Def Jam Left, which offers low advances, so artists won’t be pressured to sell as much in their first weeks to keep themselves employed. He’s signed some experienced artists (the Roots and Foxy Brown) and a horde of new performers from a broad spectrum of genres (hardcore Southern rapper Young Jeezy, New York rapper Tru Life, pop-reggae singer Rihanna, seventeen-year-old R&B singer Teairra Mari and British grime star Lady Sovereign). “I would love to find a hot-ass rock & roll act,” Jay says. “We gotta have a Kurt Cobain on the label — a rock band that rocks in the hood.”
Jay’s success at getting deals done has earned him a new nickname: the Closer. “If I really want you, I’ll close it like Mariano [Rivera, the Yankees relief pitcher].” Of course, being an artist businessman is a double-edged sword. Jay still retains the too-cool posture he had as an artist. “I’m not gonna chase anyone,” he says. “I’ll convince you that this is the best place for you. I’ll give you a million reasons why you should be here, but I’m not chasing. I’m not gonna call a hundred times.” He laughs. “I’m not messin’ up my best suit.”
This year, two of Jay’s artists had tremendous success: Kanye West has sold more than 2 million copies of Late Registration, and Jeezy has sold more than I million of Let’s Get It. But several others did not fare as well. Longtime Roc-A-Fella rapper Memphis Bleek — who grew up in the Marcy projects alongside Jay and made his debut on Reasonable Doubt — sold less than 200,000 of his fourth album. The Philadelphia duo Young Gunz sold just over 100,000 copies of its second disc. Most disappointingly, Teairra Mari and Rihanna both sold around 200,000 each — this despite Rihanna’s hit single “Pon De Replay,” one of the smashes of the summer.
“It’s been a little rough with the first three releases,” sneers Damon Dash, his former partner in both Roc-A-Fella and Rocawear (the two split once and for all in September). “At Roc-A-Fella, those are not great numbers. So, know that it’s not as easy as it appears I think he’ll be able to turn it around Eventually. But I think he just has to learn the game a little more.”
Jay leaves the office around 6:30 P.M. As the Maybach flows back into New Jersey, the phone rings. It’s Beyoncé. He starts teasing her about her hometown. ”Houston ain’t ghetto!” he says. “You told me Houston was ghetto. You ain’t cell me they got surfin’ down there in Houston. I saw SportsCenter.” Earlier this morning, there was a report on people who surf waves made by oil tankers in Galveston Bay. “The water’s green. They got grass and white people. That ain’t ghetto. Let me find out you lyin’, homey,” he adds, throwing in a little Southern twang to tease her even more. You can hear her laughing on the other end.
The Maybach stops at the tiny Teterboro Airport, where Jay boards a luxurious thirteen-seat 64 (he has an account with a time-share jet company; the cost for twenty-five hours of flight time is around $300,000). Teairra Mari and a few friends join him for the thirty-minute flight to Philadelphia to see Beyoncé perform with Destiny’s Child. Al Green wafts from the speakers and the flight attendants smile while serving chicken wings and popcorn shrimp from the Cheesecake Factory. One stewardess calls Jay “Mr. Combs,” but who cares? He’s going to see his girl. This’ll be his third Destiny’s Child concert on this tour.
When the stewardess offers Jay a glass of wine, he’s like a character from Sideways. He examines the cork but doesn’t smell it, then holds the glass by the stem, not the bowl, because, he explains, if you hold it by the bowl, the heat from your fingers changes the taste. He swirls it, looks to see if it has legs, then takes a sip, careful to wash it on his tongue. He swallows. Everyone awaits his judgment. He looks at the stewardess and says, “Fuckin’ disgusting.” Then he winks. “Nah, I’m just playin’.”
He arrives at the Philadelphia Spectrum ten minutes before the show starts, dips backstage to say hi to B. before she goes on, then, when the house lights go down, he slips into the crowd and takes a place by the soundboard. Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle perform for more than two hours, and as they reach the final number, Jay and his crew camp out in the group’s dressing room. Beyoncé walks in. wearing a thick black robe and big, fuzzy slippers; Jay leads the gang to applaud her. She quickly changes into jeans, a T-shirt and a black baseball hat, braids her hair, then comes out and gives Jay a light, brief hug, her head burrowing into his chest for a quick second.
Later, on the plane back to New York, she has her feet up on the seat and keeps her voice low after a long night of singing. She and Jay are careful to not be demonstrative in public, but spend some time around them and you’ll see all the hallmarks of a close, committed couple: They’re physically playful, they eat off the same plate, she’s often giggling at something he’s said, they can talk with just their eyes. He continues to refuse to comment about the relationship but says he wants to have kids at some point in the next five years.
Jay became the president of Def Jam after years of upper management at the Universal Music Group eyeing him for a place in the executive ranks But Jay came very close to becoming an executive in the Warner Music Group, and he struggled with his decision down to the last moment.
It started back in 2003. Jay had a meeting with Doug Morris, the chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, and Morris walked away very impressed. “He comes from an entrepreneurial background,” Morris says. “When you run a label you learn the whole thing, you get the broad idea of what this business is all about. It gives someone the whole picture when you have to keep the doors open yourself.”
Jay also met with Jimmy Iovine of Interscope on Iovine’s yacht and at Bono’s home, both in the south of France. Interscope is under the Universal Music Group umbrella, and lovine became a passionate advocate for Jay at UMG. lovine says: ”He’s a talent, he’s a talent tinder, he’s a record maker, he’s a magnet, he’s creative, he’s smart. He’s the modern record guy. He’s got great feel, he’s got great taste, and he knows how to market things. The rest you can learn.”
In early 2004, L.A. Reid replaced Lyor Cohen at the Island Def Jam Music Group, and the search for a new Def Jam president began. One night, Reid and Jay went out for a drink and a cigar. “We really opened up and talked for the first time,” Reid says. “We both come from a place where we aren’t desperate, so we don’t do the hard sell to anyone. So I didn’t do the hard sell to him, and he didn’t do the hard yes to me.” After many more meetings, Universal offered Jay a three-year contract, with a seven- or eight-figure salary, plus part ownership in Roc-A-Fella Records (Universal had recently purchased the fifty percent of Roc-A-Fella it didn’t already own from Jay and his partners for $10 million) and, critically, ownership of masters he’d made while at Def Jam. They would become his in ten years.
Meanwhile. Jay’s old friend Lyor Cohen had become chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group’s U.S. Recorded Music, and he was doing the hard sell. He offered Jay . position overseeing all of Warner Music Group’s labels and a piece of WMG’s initial public offering. Several times, Jay was certain he was going to Warner. The day he went to his lawyer’s office to sign the Def Jam contract, he paced the room for five hours. He called Cohen, who grabbed Edgar Bronfman Jr., the chairman and CEO of WMG, and raced over to the lawyer’s office, to no avail. The decision turned on the chance to own his masters.
With the Universal deal, Jay now had partial ownership of Roc-A-Fella. He knew this would upset Damon Dash. So he offered Dash his percentage of Roc-A-Fella in return for complete ownership of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. According to Jay, Dash said yes, but then their third partner, Kareem Burke, said no. “In my mind,” Jay says, “I was bein’ more than generous.”
Both Jay and Dash say there was never a fight between them and that they’re still friends, but insiders say they’d been growing apart slowly since the end of the Hard Knock Life tour, in 1999, when Jay began to think about becoming a businessman and began to tire of Dash’s perpetually combative personality. One executive said Dash was “a defibrillator,” meaning he would bring a lot of shock and noise to situations, while Jay handled things with grace. Jay prefers to characterize the split as a result of growing up, but, asked if Dash’s personality started to wear on him, he says, “Yeah, it’s a lot. But, to his credit, when you have that workin’ for you, it’s great.”
After the Roc-A-Fella split, the small but growing crack in their friendship became an irreparable fissure. “He’s always gonna be my friend, but what he did as far as taking the [Roc-A-Fella] name never sat well with us,” Dash says, referring also to Burke.
In September, Dash sold his stake in Rocawear for more than $20 million, ending his business ties to Jay. Dash no longer wears his Roc-A-Fella chain and doesn’t try to hide his hurt feelings. Dash says, “I don’t even know that guy anymore.”
Dash says that after Jay began working at Def Jam, he knew things between them wouldn’t be the same. “One time in the winter, when he first took the job, we got on an elevator,” he says, “and, if I were ever to write a movie, this would have to be either the end of it or the serious point when you know things have changed. He was coming from whatever he was doin’ at Def Jam, and I was comin’ from whatever I was doin’, and he had on a suit with shoes and a trench coat. And I had on my State Property and my hat to the side. It was ill. Our conversation was brief, wasn’t no malice, but he was not the same person I had met. I would never expect him to wear a trench coat and shoes. It can just show that people can go in two totally separate directions.”
Behind all the business success and occasional turmoil of the past few years, Jay struggled through two of the most difficult personal moments he’s ever faced. In 2003, it became clear that his father, Adnes “AJ” Reeves, did not have long to live. Jay didn’t know his father well, because AJ left the family when Jay was just eleven years old, and Jay hadn’t had contact with him since. Jay has a few memories from when his dad was in the house. “He’d take me out and expect me to remember the way we went,” he says. “When I was five years old, he was teaching me how to navigate through the streets. And then we’d ride in the car and he’d say, ‘What size is that woman’s dress?’ I’d be like, ‘Four.’ He’d say, ‘No, eleven. You gotta pay attention.’ And that helps out a lot in raps when I’m talking about the Christian Louboutin and stuff. That’s still part of me.” But Jay has more memories of the pain of his father leaving him. “Kids look up to they pop like Superman,” Jay says. “Superman just left the crib? That’s traumatic shit. He was a good guy. It’s just that he didn’t handle the situation well. He handled it so bad that you forget all the good this guy did. The scorn, the resentment, all the feelings from that, as you see, I’m a grown-ass man, but it was still there with me.”
His father leaving is one of the most traumatic moments of Jay’s life, a moment that led Jay to become emotionally cold. “I’d say I changed a little bit.” He pauses. “I changed a lot. I became more guarded. I never wanted to be attached to something and get that taken away again. I never wanted to feel that feeling again [of being left]. I never wanted to be too happy or gung-ho about something or too mad about something. I just wanted to be cool about it. And it affects my relationships with women. ‘Cause even when I was with women I wasn’t really with them. In the back of my mind, I’d always feel like, ‘When this shit breaks up, you know, whatever.’ So I never really just let myself go.” (He says that because he’s never let himself go, he’s never once been heartbroken over a girl: “Never, ever. Never. Never.”)
Until recently, Jay didn’t know exactly why his father left. While dream hampton was working on The Black Book, she uncovered the truth in an interview with Jay’s mother. “Jay’s uncle was stabbed in the chest during an unfair fight,” hampton says, “and his father became consumed with desire for revenge. His boys would be calling him at two in the morning, like, ‘Yo, I just saw that nigga over here,’ and he would throw on some clothes and head out lookin’ for this nigga. And he kinda never recovered from that.”
“That made him a bitter, evil, different guy,” Jay says.
When Jay’s mother found out that AJ didn’t have long to live, she made it her mission to get Jay and his father to reconnect before it was too late. Jay was resistant. “I was like, mmmm, nah,” he says. “But she kept goin’, kept goin’. So I was like, ‘All right, bring him over to my house.’ Of course, I knew he’s not gonna come.” Jay sat at his place in New Jersey, waiting for his father, just knowing he wouldn’t come — bringing back childhood feelings of abandonment that he’d worked so hard to insulate himself from. AJ didn’t come. “I was like, ‘I knew it,'” Jay says.
Jay was reluctant to give his father another chance, but he eventually did: “The second time, I was sittin’ there like, ‘This time he has to come, because if he doesn’t, I’m never doin’ this again.'” But this time his father showed up. “Me and my pop got to talk,” he says. “I got to let it go. I got to tell him everything I wanted to say. I just said what I felt. It wasn’t yelling and crying and drastic and dramatic. It was very adult and grown men, but it was tough. I didn’t let him off the hook. We just went through that whole thing: ‘How could you do that?’ He was like, ‘Well, you knew where I was.’ I was like, ‘I’m a kid. I’m not supposed to find you. What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You’re right.’ And then it was cool and that kinda freed everything.” Jay found his father an apartment in Brooklyn near the hospital where he was being treated and furnished it. “That’s the right thing to do as far as karma and everything,” Jay says. A few months later, when his father passed, Jay was able to feel at peace. At least until the summer of 2005, when a much more difficult death tumbled into his life.
Jay has four nephews and one niece, and he looks at them as if they were his own kids. He should, because, friends say, he’s played a major part in raising them. When his sister Annie’s son Colleek Luckie graduated from high school, Jay flew from the West Coast to be there. “I flew, I landed, I get in the car, I asked the driver, ‘You know where you goin’, right?'” The driver said yes, so Jay took a nap, but when he awoke they were lost. “I’m thinking, ‘If I miss his graduation, oh, my God. I gave him my word.’ I don’t ever wanna break my word with these guys. ‘Specially from when how I came up, like my pop. I know how kids remember. I’m the kid who never forgets.” He was so frustrated he almost punched the driver. “I was so mad. I had tears in my eyes and shit. I don’t cry over nothing. But I made it [to the ceremony]. I was a little late, but I made it.”
But on June 28th, 2005, Luckie was killed in a car accident in Pennsylvania while riding in the Chrysler Jay had bought him as a graduation present. Jay was in L.A. for the BET Awards when he heard. “I know he had a couple good cries,” Def Jam marketing exec Tracy Waples says. “It was mind-blowing for him.” Jay says, “It was the toughest shit. Nothing close to it. Numbingly. Like I’m numb. I’m numb.” Months later he’s still dealing with the pain. “Shit comes time-released.” He pauses. “Beautiful kid.”
On Thursday, October 27th, at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the current home of the New Jersey Nets, hip-hop history was made. It was 11:25 P.M., two hours into Jay’s I Declare War concert, sponsored by Power 105.1. Jay was onstage, moving through the Oval Office-themed stage — a rug with a presidential seal, a desk with two green banker’s lamps and an all-red phone, and two Secret Service-like men standing still at the back. He was doing his classic “Where I’m From,” off In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. He rhymed, “I’m from where niggas pull your card/And argue all day about who’s the best MC/Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas.” Then he abruptly told the DJ to stop the record. The concert was called “I Declare War” because Jay had promised to dis some rappers, to damage some careers. Now, the crowd thought, Jay will deliver on his promise of war.
Four years before, at a radio-station-sponsored concert in New York, Jay unleashed “Takeover,” his response to disses from Nas (a.k.a. Esco, after Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar) and Mobb Deep. A venomous and all too personal battle ensued; Nas came back attacking “Gay-Z and Cock-A-Fella Records” on “Ether.” Jay feels he won the battle, though he knows many people believe Nas did. “If you judge ‘Takeover’ against ‘Ether,’ it’s a better record,” Jay says. “But when you have a David-and-Goliath situation, it’s tough to win those things when you win everything.” Many people were offended by Jay’s rhymes in “SuperUgly,” his reply to “Ether,” where he spoke in graphic detail about having sex with the mother of Nas’ daughter, but Jay felt justified to say anything after the gay slurs of “Ether.” “If you listen to ‘Ether,’ like ‘dick-sucking lips’ and shit like that, as a man you don’t say that to another man,” Jay says. “I would never say nothing like that to a man, unless I planned on goin’ all the way with him.”
Now, with the music stopped, the 20,000-strong crowd breathed deep and wondered who would be attacked this time.
“This was called ‘I Declare War,'” Jay says. “I was gonna lay a motherfucker out. But as this was coming together, I seen the Lox perform with Puff.” The mogul and the group feuded years ago but did “It’s All About the Benjamins” together at the concert. “I seen the return of Beanie Sigel.” Since the breakup of Roc-A-Fella, it was uncertain if their friendship had ended. “And I just said fuck it. It’s bigger than ‘I declare war.’ It’s like the motherfuckin’ president presents the United Nations.” The crowd sensed that something colossal was about to happen. “So you know what I did for hip-hop?” Jay says. “I said, ‘Fuck that shit.’ Let’s go, Esco.” And at 11:36 P.M., a man rose up into view at the top of the stage — Nas!
The crowd went wild. Nas walked down the stairs at the side of the stage toward Jay in a military green jacket and hat, the way he dressed circa his classic 1994 debut album, Illmatic. Jay went into “Dead Presidents,” from Reasonable Doubt, a song that samples Nas for the chorus. But now Nas did the chorus live, then went into a rhyme from “The World Is Yours” (from which “Dead Presidents” took its chorus). At the end of the song, they shook hands, then stood side by side facing the crowd, taking in the long, thunderous standing ovation from the shocked thousands.
Days later, Jay is typically understated. “That was some little shit,” he says. “Don’t make it a big section at the end of the article.” But Nas feels it was a major moment. “That was the highest mountain ever climbed in the game,” he says. “The feeling was beyond words.” Nas explains the reconciliation began when he realized he was nearing the end of his deal with Columbia and started thinking about signing with Jay’s label. “Def Jam is somewhere where the understanding of our culture is respected,” Nas says. “I’m all for people who love the music to control it.” Nas and Jay met a few weeks before the concert. “It was a conversation that was long overdue,” Nas says. “There was a lot of laughter and a lot of serious conversation where there’s no laugh or smile. It was a meeting of the minds and reconciliation.” He feels that hip-hop has become overrun with beefs and battles: “Just about every MC got a beef with another MC. Everybody. Which is cool, could be creative, but uplifting is what the nature of hip-hop is about, and I think people are forgettin’ where to draw the line. That beef shit is played out.”
The main source of beef in modern hip-hop is, of course, 50 Cent, the neighborhood bully of the culture, who’s currently got issues with Nas, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, the Game and Dr. Dre. Asked if the concert had been partly about 50, Nas says, “If the shoe fits . . .”
Thus, for Jay, who looks at life as a chess game, the “I Declare War” reconciliations can be seen as a dual-purpose move. Jay aligned himself with two men who released songs about 50 this year: Nas, who made “Be Easy,” and Jadakiss, who made “Checkmate.” But Jay didn’t say a word about 50. For 50, beef is part of the marketing plan, but now if he attacks Jay he’ll be seen as the aggressor attacking the popular and retired Jiggaman, and Jay will have a tremendous sympathetic advantage. Not mentioning 50 was more powerful than anything Jay could’ve said.
Jay-Z is supposedly retired. He says there’s no album forthcoming any time soon, but this year he rocked two big concerts (he re-created the Nas reconciliation the following night in Philly) and supplanted Busta Rhymes as the World’s Best Guest Rapper on the strength of his part on three of the year’s hottest records: Kanye West’s “Diamonds (From Sierra Leone)” remix, Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy” remix and Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” remix, as well as some other songs. It all leads to the question “Will he unretire?” The answer depends on which day you ask. One day I ask if he wanted to get back in the game. He says, “I’m itching,” and he clenches his shoulders, and you could see the pulse of excitement about going back to the studio. “Music is boring. Needs a punch, needs a kicker, needs a chronic, needs a detox. This Kanye album could be it, but music . . . it needs a moment.” But a week later, when asked, “How close are you to making a record,” he says, “Not close,” and his shoulders stay low as he says it, his body reflecting how settled he is about it. “I was itching, but you know — I’m not itching today. It comes and goes. I wanna be starving to do it. I wanna get my Pookie on. Like, OK, it’s calling me. I wanna do it with my full attention and passion. I didn’t want to just do it because it’s November and shit.”
But the rhyme processor in his mind hasn’t stopped working. He has songs in his head. “I got six or seven good ones and a bunch of other silly ideas,” he says, “but six or seven that could go tomorrow.” He builds on and remembers these songs by rhyming when he showers: “Every day, every shower.”
Then he stands up and starts to freestyle, rhyming so calmly that at first I think he’s still just talking. “It’s who you are, man/You gotta understand/Clothes don’t make the man/Man make the clothes/When I stunt and I pose/I’m a pimp but ain’t stuntin’ no ho’s/All I’m wantin’ is dough/Maybe a lady for comfort/When foes is lined up at my do’/But no, not to shoot outwith me/Put on a cute outfit and hit me off/So my mind’s right when niggas come to/Pick me off.”
Then he says, “I think that’s a good place to end it.”