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.”