Jay-Z's journey from New York slum kid to superstar has made him a household name. He talks about besting Elvis, his respect for rock stars and why, despite a multifaceted career, he plans to give it all up and live on an island with his wife, Beyoncé.
Brooklyn boy done good
Jay-Z's journey from New York slum kid to superstar has made him a household name. He talks to Michael Odell about besting Elvis, his respect for rock stars and why, despite a multifaceted career, he plans to give it all up and live on an island with his wife, Beyoncé.
For once the world's most successful rapper is lost for words. The multi-million-selling Jay-Z is trying to articulate how he felt the day he surpassed Elvis Presley's record of 10 No 1 albums - the most for a solo artist - in the United States. It happened a year ago upon the release of his 11th album, The Blueprint 3. Beating Presley would be a milestone for any act but hip-hop has long had issues with "the King". Public Enemy's Fight the Power denounced him as "straight- out racist simple and plain" before exhorting listeners to "[expletive] him and John Wayne".
"It wasn't 'Yeah, [expletive] Elvis!'," Jay-Z now says of his accomplishment. "But it made me appreciate: I am not a small couch placed in a large room. I am a major piece of furniture. The thing with hip-hop is that it is a small world, a closed world, and it has its own values. But to surpass Elvis made me realise that it was a big deal outside of the hip-hop scene. Elvis is a yardstick everyone understands."
Elvis is a yardstick everyone understands, but money and power are probably even better ones. By any measure, Jay-Z has evolved into something far bigger than even the world's top rapper. Fourteen years after he enjoyed his first major success - and with his Greatest Hits released this year and his new book, Decoded, published last month - he has evolved into something more akin to a corporation.
"I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man!" he is fond of saying.
He began selling records out of the boot of a car in Brooklyn, New York. These days he is signed to Live Nation in a US$150 million (Dh550 million) deal. But that's just the core of his vast enterprise. He launched a clothing line, Roc A Wear, and later sold it for more than $200 million); he has a multimillion-dollar stake in a US pro basketball team, the New Jersey Nets; and he owns a string of bars and property as well as a beauty products company and a stake in a Broadway theatre production. There are also obvious business synergies in his status as half of a celebrity marriage to R&B titan Beyoncé, with whom he has recorded several hits.
I meet Jay-Z at The Lanesborough hotel on London's Hyde Park corner. Jay-Z has stayed here ever since Mariah Carey called him and told him to get out of another hotel because she said The Lanesborough was the last word in olde world luxury. And though it asserts old school values, Jay-Z says the hotel's staff treats him and his wife like family.
"I'm always interested to test out luxury, the very best that's out there," he says. He is occupying The Lanesborough's Royal Suite, which costs a princely £7,500 (Dh44,573) a night (plus sales tax) and which is intended "for royals or visiting heads of state". His favourite spot in the place is the smoking patio, where he says the day before he puffed through an obscenely pricey Cohiba Special Edition cigar.
But for all his love of opulence, Jay-Z, 41, does not otherwise come across like any other rap artist. With Diddy or Fiddy there is the sense of a ghetto persona played up for a fascinated white audience. And interviews are rarely without interruptions for advertising or branding messages: Fiddy with his clothes, drinks and films; Diddy with his clothes, films and headphones.
Jay-Z is different. He is quiet and thoughtful. Most surprisingly, as we sit in The Lanesborough's wood-panelled library, he seems shy. He laughs with a child-like "huk-huk-huk", which suggests his sense of humour is an underused app. He is not wearing items from his clothing line but a simple T-shirt that reads: "Contacts vs Content". The shirt, he says, makes an important point: it's not about who you know, it's about what you say.
"We live in this crazy world of celebrity and people are definitely more interested in the photograph of two well-known people in a club on a beach or at the airport than what is actually being said there," he says. "That always amazes me. What about the content? Will people ever get over the shallow part of just seeing famous people?"
How on earth did a ghetto kid who started out at the same time as LL Cool J and didn't find success until 10 years after his rival ever make it to the Royal Suite? Even now, he says, there are moments when he is reminded of the journey. While he was at The Lanesborough his road manager, Tyran "Ty Ty" Smith, showed him a website on a laptop. It featured the whereabouts of old faces from the Marcy Projects, a social housing project in Brooklyn where he spent much of his childhood.
"A lot of them, they dead," Jay-Z says. "Blackie is dead. Vance is dead... You know that gives you a moment's pause. That is when you stop and think about where your life was headed. How is it one man gets shot in the projects and another one gets to live the life of a king? I think about that a lot."
Growing up as Shawn Corey Carter, he had two parents: mother Gloria and father Adnes, who had four children in their Brooklyn apartment in the projects. At nine he showed promise as an English student at school. He had a sheaf of paper held together with a bulldog clip that he used as a pad and on which he wrote stories. When he was 10, the Sugarhill Gang enjoyed their ground-breaking hit Rapper's Delight, and he began writing his own rhymes.
But when he was 11 his parents separated. His father, grieving after his brother was stabbed and killed in a street fight, left the family home.
Though suddenly having a single parent just made him like everyone else on the estate, he told Oprah Winfrey last year that his father's departure made him recoil emotionally. He became "really quiet and really cold". He trusted no one. The anger and the loss fed through into his behaviour. His brother, Eric, older by four years and who had begun using drugs, took his jewellery. Jay-Z shot him, hitting him in the arm.
"How come I had a gun age 12? That's the life in Marcy... I was an angry, stupid and confused kid trying to work my situation out. I would never do that now. I'm a different person. And Eric and I are good now. He was doing up buttons on my suit on when I got married."
In the 1980s, New York was deluged with crack cocaine. He remembers the sound of Uzi submachine guns on the Marcy walkways as drug wars raged. By 13, Jay-Z was a dealer himself, lured by the chance to make money. One day he confronted an enemy gang member and was shot at three times but wasn't hit.
"You learn to work alone," he recalls of those dangerous times. "You learn to accept wins and losses alone. You learn that the police and courts are not there for you. That's a different world. Beefs are settled by other means."
But as an aspiring rapper, even in the highly competitive world of the New York underground, he was good enough to win the mentoring of local artists Jaz-O and Big Daddy Kane. He even accompanied the former to London to make an album.
"For me that was off the scale," he says. "You could get to London just by rhyming!"
Jaz-O's record never made it. Jay-Z returned to Brooklyn to continue as a dealer. He says he still remembers the feeling of power but also the risk associated with putting on a bulletproof vest. "Soon as you get into that street business you better be planning a way out," he says. "The careers there are short."
He found success relatively late. He was 26 when Hard Knock Life, which sampled a number from the smash Broadway musical Annie, became a global hit in 1996.
It was followed by a succession of eight albums, at least three of which - his debut, Reasonable Doubt, along with The Blueprint and The Black Album - are considered showpieces. By 2003, he was able to announce his retirement, feeling he had nothing left to prove, and became president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings.
It's hard to overestimate how his songs managed to permeate US culture. Even Barack Obama knew his music and used a subtle Jay-Z reference to settle a political dispute with Hillary Clinton during the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008. Rebutting some personal Clinton criticism he mimicked flicking dirt of his shoulder and got an uproarious crowd response. It was a reference to Jay-Z's track Dirt off My Shoulder from The Black Album and a powerful cultural moment: here was the eventual first US president conversant with hip-hop and not afraid to use its currency.
In 2006, Jay-Z, after saying the lure of the studio had been too hard to resist, resumed his recording career with Kingdom Come and since then he has become networked into pop music's aristocracy like no other rapper.
Since he was invited to headline the UK rock festival Glastonbury in 2008 in spite of criticism from the likes of Oasis, he's gone on to become a rock festival staple. This year alone he's headlined four major international rock festivals, and is the supporting act for U2 on the Australian leg of their world tour.
He'll join his friend Chris Martin and his band, Coldplay, for a New Year's Eve gig in Las Vegas. And he has expressed an interest in developing his music and career along the lines of other rock bands he admires. Jay-Z has been spotted at indie rock gigs by Grandaddy in New York and watching rock acts such as Muse and Thom Yorke at the Coachella music festival in California. He's also recorded material with the White Stripes' Jack White in an unlikely collaboration (White has expressed his distaste for hip-hop), although he won't be drawn on what it sounds like and when it will be released.
"Rock music has something hip-hop doesn't right now," he says. "Thom Yorke and Muse are putting on amazing shows and doing things in their own way. And rock stars seem to have a longevity that hip-hop artists don't have. You got Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson still making records and attracting audiences. I would like to emulate those guys."
One day, perhaps if he surpasses the Beatles' haul of 19 No 1 albums, Jay-Z will finally bow out. And then he will fall back on what he calls his "Marlon Brando retirement plan". He will buy a private island and he will sit there eating and drinking and getting fat. "I just want to eat and drink the best stuff," he says. "That's what I enjoy. That's what the payback will be for all the hard work."
And Beyoncé, you didn't mention her?
"She be on the island. But I don't think she plan to get as fat as me. I'm a be fat!"
The Jay-Z file
BORN: December 4, 1969, Brooklyn, New York
REAL NAME: Shawn Corey Carter
EARLY NICKNAME: Jazzy, hence the later Jay-Z
SCHOOLING: Eli Whitney High School, Brooklyn
FAMILY: Mother, two sisters and one brother; married Beyoncé on April 4, 2008. "I absolutely want kids," he has said. "That's the only thing I really don't have."
CORONATION: Rolling Stone magazine, in its June 10 cover story, proclaimed him "The King of America".
FAMOUS FEUD: Had a five-year fierce rivalry with Queens rapper Nas over the imaginary "King of New York" crown. The two stunned the music world by taking the stage together and declaring peace in 2005.