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Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Newsmaker: Jay Z

The multimillionaire music mogul, who's just been announced as the Friday-night headliner at this year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after-race concerts in November, has found success everywhere that he has laid his hat, writes Ben East.

Given that megastar rappers are not usually prone to blushing displays of insecurity, it wasn't a huge surprise when Jay Z recently named his new album after one of the earliest and most famous constitutional documents in human history - oh, and a sacred Christian chalice. Magna Carta Holy Grail, in which he also compares himself to Pablo Picasso, Muhammad Ali and, er, Nicholas Brody from Homeland, is not, then, a record from a man short of confidence. Releasing it on American Independence Day was natural, too, for a rapper who sees himself as the living embodiment of the American dream. As Magna Carta Holy Grail topped charts all over the world, the Jay Z machine swept all before it once again.

But then, Jay Z is not only one of the most successful hip-hop artists of all time, he's also an entrepreneurial success story that's almost unrivalled in the music industry. Alongside album sales well into eight figures, to date, he's racked up 17 Grammys and six MTV Awards. And he's married to Beyoncé Knowles, the most successful female artist of the 21st century. When he plays the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November, the man born Shawn Corey Carter, in 1969, will be able to reflect on another record-breaking year in which his cocksure maxim - "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man," - never seemed more apt.

He might also look back to where he was 20 years ago, struggling to get a record deal after a tough childhood in one of New York's roughest housing projects. It seems almost bizarre that a man with an estimated worth of US$500m (Dh1.84 billion) in 2013 told CBS News of that time: "I had no aspirations, no plans, no goals, no backup goals." It's a cliché to talk of the battle for survival on the mean streets of Brooklyn, but Carter was caught up in the rampant drugs scene, shot at from point-blank range (the bullets missed, somehow), and even, as the lyrics from You Must Love Me note, shot his own brother for stealing his ring. Eric Carter didn't press charges - legend has it that he was actually apologetic for the mess that crack cocaine had made of him - but the whole episode terrified Jay Z. No wonder. Incredibly, he was just 12 years old.

It would be exaggerating matters somewhat to suggest this was a turning point - Jay Z's memoir Decoded reveals that he was hustling into his early 20s. But while he was dealing, he was also dreaming of being a rap star, and after winning neighbourhood contests, the man known locally as "Jazzy" began collaborating with the likes of Big Daddy Kane and Jaz-O, his musical mentor. Debut single In My Lifetime- which sampled two famous Soul II Soul songs and still sounds impressively fresh 20 years on -was sold out of the back of his car. And with Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, he created Roc-a-Fella Records in 1995 when no major label album deal was forthcoming.

But Jay Z and his cohorts weren't just playing at being successful rap stars. This was serious stuff, as his memoir fascinatingly reveals. "We didn't know the business yet, but we knew how to hustle," he writes. "The difference with us was that we didn't want to get stalled at low-level hustling. We had a plan. We did more than talk about it, we wrote it down. Coming up with a business plan was the first thing the three of us did." Roc-a-Fella, which would release all of Jay Z's records, was finally sold to Def Jam recordings for $10m in 2004, and it was testament to Jay Z's stratospheric rise that by then he was also president and CEO of Def Jam - one of the most influential labels in American music.

Nevertheless, $10m was small change compared to the worth of Rocawear, a clothing label that Dash and Jay Z launched in 1999. From small beginnings as an urban street-clothing brand, Jay Z tapped into the desire for music fans to dress like their heroes. Today, its annual sales are at the staggering $700m mark, and though the rights were sold to a brand group in 2007 (for a not-to-be-sniffed-at $204m), the deal once again revealed Jay Z's business nous - he retained his stake in the company, and still oversees the marketing, licensing and product lines.

Yet despite all the talk of Jay Z's extraordinary net worth, his successful businesses (there's also the management, music publishing and entertainment company Roc Nation, the chain of sports bars and part-ownership of a basketball team) and his high-profile marriage to Beyoncé, the fact remains that none of these enterprises would ever have occurred had his first few records not been either classics of their time and genre, or incredibly well-received.

Reasonable Doubt, the debut album from 1996 (whose first lines are very pointedly "big man, you wanna make some big bucks?" from the film Scarface) was a case in point: a gritty, lyrically dexterous portrayal of his life which never glamourised the mean streets. Rolling Stone instead called it an album "full of a hustler's dreams and laments". Future records would bid for the mainstream, and by the time that Vol 2 ... Hard Knock Life - with its ubiquitous, Annie-sampling hit Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)- was released in 1998, his position at the top of the rap tree was confirmed. It remains his biggest-selling album to date.

Not everything was running to plan, however. Accused of stabbing record producer Lance Rivera in 1999 after Jay Z suspected him of bootlegging copies of new album Vol 3 ... Life And Times Of S Carter, the rapper ended up pleading guilty and received three years' probation for the assault. At the time, he said the sentence was "a wake-up call to let me know it could just all go down the drain; it could all be taken away".

The hustler in him disappeared at that moment, replaced by the hard-nosed businessman. As his memoir notes: "The hilarious thing, if any of this can be considered funny, is that the Rocawear bubble coat I was wearing when they paraded me in front of the cameras started flying off the shelves the last three weeks before Christmas."

Distasteful? Jay Z has never been angelic and, as his career has progressed, albums have tended to characterise him as the epitome of the swaggering, cash-rich rap star. There's been a feud with rapper Nas, and gossip magazines recently alleged he'd tried to cheat on Beyoncé just before their marriage - rumours which are unsubstantiated.

Yet interviewers nearly always note how genial and down-to-earth he is in the flesh. His mentoring skills have been frankly remarkable, discovering Rihanna in 2005, and shaping her pop career via breakthrough hit Umbrella- on which he starred and co-wrote - until she became one of the world's most popular artists, even admonishing her for bad behaviour. The relationship with Kanye West is, these days, more equal, but he began life as a producer for Roc-a-Fella, and was nurtured to superstardom by Jay Z.

And for all the bragging tales of Bugattis in his songs, it's telling that his wedding day in 2008 was a surprisingly quiet, bling-free affair (although admittedly her ring was $5m). Sometimes he can't resist - it was widely reported last year that his first child Blue Ivy gurgles and crawls in a room boasting over $1.5m of baby stuff, and goes to sleep in a $20,000 cot. But during his frankly odd "retirement" between 2003 and 2006, he worked with the UN to raise awareness of global water shortage, and has a number of other philanthropic concerns.

This carefully controlled image means that he can be all things to all people - gigs with Coldplay, and his famous Glastonbury appearance in 2008, moved his music into a completely different sphere. As he pointedly said: "Hip-hop is more about attaining wealth. People respect success. They don't even have to like your music. If you're big enough, people are drawn to you."

Jay Z is certainly big enough. As he moves into middle age, his influence in politics (Obama is a confirmed fan, and they swap text messages), music, fashion and even sport is remarkable. So it's fitting that his most successful single remains Empire State Of Mind, a collaboration with Alicia Keys that says everything about his journey.

"New York, concrete jungles where dreams are made, oh, there's nothing you can't do."

weekend@thenational.ae

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