Jay-Z (Contemporary Musicians)
Rap musician, record company executive
Jay-Z is all too familiar with the hard knock life. In his hit single "Hard Knock Life," Jay-Z samples the musical Annie's signature song of the same name. "These kids sing about the hard knock life, things everyone in the ghetto feels coming up," Jay-Z said of the orphans in Annie in a People feature. "That's the ghetto anthem." The rap star grew up in a single-parent household in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, New York. Known for his honesty, Jay-Z has admitted in both his autobiographical lyrics and interviews that he sold drugs as a teenager. For Jay-Z, rap was his way out of the hard knock life. The money that came with a successful rap career would took him out of the Brooklyn projects, and rap music gave him a means to express his feelings about knocks and blows he has taken.
The way, however, was not easy and Jay-Z encountered more hard knocks along the road. When he could not get a record deal, Jay-Z, along with two friends, formed his own record label. He also had run-ins with the law. The timing of Jay-Z's arrest in early December of 1999 for the stabbing of record executive Lance "Un" Rivera at a Times Square nightclub could not have been worse. His much-awaited album, Volume 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter, was due to be released right after Christmas and it was uncertain whether the negative publicity from this latest incident would hurt sales. However, for a man who grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn this was just another one of the hard knocks that has formed his voice in rap.
Jay-Z was born Shawn Carter on December 4, 1970, in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of four children. He grew up in the well-known Marcy Projects, where the J and Z subway trains run. His mother, Gloria Carter, worked as a clerk in an investment company. Jay-Z's father, Adnis Reeves, left when he was 12. "To me, that was basically the end of our relationship," Jay-Z told Vibe. "That was when the hurt and then the healing began for me, from that day right there." Jay-Z's relationship with his father served as fodder for many of his songs, including the Black Album's "Moment of Clarity," in which he forgave Reeves for abandoning his family. Jay-Z reconciled with his father in 2003, six months before his father passed away from a liver ailment.
When Jay-Z was first starting out in the rap world, he was introduced to Damon "Dame" Dash, who, by the time he was 19, had already gotten record deals for two acts. Dash soon became Jay-Z's manager and Dash's childhood friend, Kareem "Biggs" Burke, was then hired as Jay-Z's road manager. For two years, the three worked unsuccessfully to obtain a record deal. The trio then decided to form their own record company, Roc-A-Fella Records, in which they would all serve as partners. Jay-Z's role was that of marquee artist, Dash ran the company's day-to-day operations, and Burke, according to Vibe, served as "a barometer of the streets." After Roc-A-Fella secured a deal with Priority Records for the distribution of their albums, Jay-Z was ready to release his first record, Reasonable Doubt.
Jay-Z rose to fame with his 1996 gold-certified single, "Ain't No N-G-A (Like the One I Got)," a duet with Foxy Brown. The controversy started immediately. The single's title was not the language that even the most daring disc jockeys wanted to play. According to Janine McAdams of Billboard in June of 1996, "For now, 'Ain't No N-G-A' has radio production rooms working overtime. None of the stations contacted for this story advocate the use of the n-word over the air, but their solutions are varied: Some edit the word out; others substitute 'brother' or 'player.'" Still, radio stations pointed out that, however reluctant they were to broadcast that and other offensive words, the public knew when it was cut out anyway. In some cases, the change altered the content enough to lose its intended impact and appeal.
Despite the hardcore quality of his first album, as Shawnee Smith of Billboard, noted in November of 1999, it was Jay-Z who also began to transform the hip-hop scene from its hardcore "gangsta rap" to something that bears a more refined stylehat of "Armani suits, alligator boots, Rolex watches, expensive cars, broads, and Cristel," At the end of 1996, Havelock Nelson reflected on the year in rap for Billboard. Jay-Z, Nelson said, "masterfully reinvented himself after receiving battle scars from his previous rhyme life."
Announced His Retirement
In addition to making music, Jay-Z was also interested in the corporate side of the business. Since 1994, Jay-Z had been producing records for other artists as chief of operations for the Roc-A-Fella label. The same handle he had for money in the drug business translated well into the music industry. He talked about his future at that time; "Although my album has already gone gold, it will be my last one. From this point, it's all about the business." Jay-Z did not retire from rap, however. Jay-Z told Vibe that he realized his music had a powerful effect on his fans. "There were cats coming up to me like, 'You must have been looking in my window or following my life' ... It was emotional. Like big, rough hoodlum, hardrock, three-time jail bidders with scars and gold teeth just breaking down. It was something to look at, like, I must be going somewhere people been wanting someone to go for a while." So he returned to rap in 1997, with the album In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. In 1998 his best-sellingVol. 2: Hard Knock Life won him a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album.
In 1999, Jay-Z headlined the Hard Knock Life Tour, which also featured DMX, Beanie Sigel, and others. Jay-Z used his stature as a hit-producing rap star to ensure that the rappers he wanted would be included on the tour. At the outset, there were fears that violence would break out on the tour. The tour concluded without incident, however, and was a resounding success.
A documentary crew joined the tour, filming the rappers as they performed, hung out backstage, and traveled in tour buses. The resulting film, "Backstage," was released in September of 2000. Some reviewers lamented that the documentary did not provide a complete picture of Roc-A-Fella's place in the rap world. Although, Elvis Mitchell of the Contra Costa Times noted, hardcore fans are already familiar with the rivalries of the rap business. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said that "The film makes no attempt to guide hip-hop novices. It just tosses the viewer into this musical experience, which will seem vital to some and depressing and repetitious to others."
In 1999, Jay-Z was preparing to release his fourth album. In the December 27, 1999, issue of USA Today, Steve Jones wrote that he noticed in a session he sat in on with Jay-Z and rapper Beanie Sigel, that Jay-Z never writes down a lyric. "I don't write songs," Jay-Z explained. "I just sit there and listen to the track, and I come up with the words. It's a gift. A gift from God." In the article Jay-Z also discussed his upcoming album, Vol. 3: The Life and Times of Shawn Carter. He talked about how his life had changed in the few short years of his success. "With five million records out there, there are all kinds of things that you have to deal with," he said. "Even though it's just been a year, people think that things change with you and start treating you differently. Street people start thinking that maybe you've gone soft. But I'm the same dude. That's why I did the song, 'Come and Get Me.' I'm still holding firm in my position."
Arrested in Stabbing Incident
In early December of 1999, Jay-Z was charged with first-degree assault and second-degree assault after Untertainment Records executive Lance "Un" Rivera was stabbed once in the stomach and once in the shoulder. According to Newsweek, Jay-Z suspected that Rivera had released bootleg copies of his fourth album, an act that would lead to the loss of millions of dollars in rightful profits. When the two came face to face at a record-release party for rapper Q-Tip held in a New York nightclub, eye-witnesses reported that there was an altercation between the two. In the commotion that followed, Rivera was stabbed. At his arraignment in early 2000, Jay-Z pleaded not guilty.
In the weeks between the stabbing incident in New York, and the release of his new album, Jon Caramanica talked about Jay-Z's difficult week in early December of 1999. "After the breakout success of last year's Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, the expectations on Jay-Z were greater than ever," Caramanica wrote. "In fact, it's been speculated that the entire stabbing incident was part of some large marketing conspiracy to guarantee strong buzz and sales. In hip-hop, where crime is often flipped as a marketing tool, having your artist splashed across the cover of the Daily News may well work financial wonders, but that option seems absurd for a man in Jay's position. Still, the very existence of such a theory hints at an underlying belief that Jay, of all rappers, is too smart to go out like this.
Business, never personal." Jay-Z commented in Vibe in December of 2000 on the fact that, one year after the stabbing incident, a trial date still had not been set. "I feel that if it was any other person," Jay-Z said, "it wouldn't still be dragging on this long." Yet he maintained a positive attitude. He told Vibe, "Everything happens for a reason. It's another learning experience for me."
Despite the mixed reviews of Vol. 3: Life and Times of Shawn Carter and his legal troubles, Jay-Z was still on top of his game. The album was an instant platinum success, emphasizing that he still had the power to be a number one seller in the genre he helped to define. In 2000, Jay-Z released Dynasty: Roc la Familia. He told Vibe, "I could make records as long as I have to desire to really dig deep and challenge myself to do it. I can do it for as long as I want." Dynasty featured a host of new producers, including Just Blaze and Kanye West, who would go on to produce some of Jay-Z's biggets hits. Jay-Z shared equal mic time with up-and-coming Roc-A-Fella artists on the album, including Memphis Bleek and Beanie Siegel. The album produced a few hits, including the huge success that was "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me)."
Laid The Blueprint
Already in the public eye in 2001 with a chart-topping duet with R. Kelly, "Fiesta," Jay-Z dropped what would become an instant classicThe Blueprintn September 18, 2001. Selling nearly a half million albums in less than a week, The Blueprint was universally praised by critics and loved by fans. The first track on the album, "Takeover," was a searing attack on New York rapper Nas (Nas would reply with his own track, "Ether," attacking Jay-Z in the following weeks), a five-minute narrative over a blistering, thumping sample of the Doors' "Five to One." But "Takeover," wrote All Music Guide critic Jason Birchmeier, was "just one song. There are 12 other songs on The Blueprintnd they're all stunning, to the point where the album almost seems flawless." Besides the battle track, the album also showcases Jay-Z's songwriting skills on tracks like "Song Cry" and "Heart of the City." Birchmeier concluded that The Blueprint is "a fully realized masterpiece."
In the months that followed, the battle with Nas heated up. In response to "Ether," Jay-Z delivered an exclusive freestyle to a New York radio station, "Super Ugly," that dug deep at Nas. Among concerns that the battle could result in tragedy (as was the case with the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in the 1990s), the battle slowly faded away. "Ultimately, Jay-Z and Nas have too much at stake for foolishness," wrote Village Voice contributor Selwyn Hinds, "and together they crafted a piece of hip-hop myth that will live for years to come."
Jay-Z recognized this in an MTV Unplugged session. Performing the track "Takeover," he referred to the act of the battle as "the truest essence of hip-hop," but one whose place was solely in recorded material. The MTV session, featuring the Roots as Jay-Z's backing band, was released in late 2001. Jay-Z was the first hip-hop artist to record such an MTV Unplugged session, and Jay-Z's material translated to an Unplugged session surprisingly well. "Hip-hop with live instrumentation has seldom sounded this good," wrote Hinds in the Village Voice.
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse, a double album with 25 tracks and numerous guest starts including Rakim, Dr. Dre, Lenny Kravitz, and Beyoncé Knowles, followed within a year. The release was generally thought to be unfocused and too long; many reviewers agreed that if Jay-Z had edited the album down to a single disc, it would've been another classic. All Music Guide reviewer John Bush observed: "It's clear Jay-Z's in control even here, and though his raps can't compete with the concentrated burst on The Blueprint, there's at least as many great tracks on tap, if only listeners have enough time to find them." A few months later, Jay-Z released The Blueprint 2.1, featuring the best tracks from The Blueprint 2 on a single CD.
From Marcy to Madison Square
Jay-Z began talking about retiring from the stage even before releasing The Blueprint 2. He told reporters that his next album, the follow-up to The Blueprint 2, would be his final official release. The original concept for the release was to make a prequel to Reasonable Doubt, with no guest stars and a different producer for each track. What resulted was The Black Album. Though somewhat removed from the original concept, Jay-Z often and rightfully referred to the release as his most introspective album. From the track "December 4th" (Jay-Z's birthday), featuring spoken word interludes from his mother, to the bittersweet closing track "My First Song," Jay-Z used his final turn in the studio to make an album that was at times hilarious and heartbreaking, and above all, honest. As he put it himself, "There's never been a n***a this good for this long, this hood or this pop, this hot for this long." If The Black Album is indeed Jay-Z's final release, he couldn't have gone out on a better note.
The Black Album was accompanied by an autobiography, The Black Book; a line of sneakers for Reebok, the S. Carter Collection; and a final sold-out show at New York's Madison Square Garden. Speaking to MTV's Sway, Jay-Z tried to explain why he planned to retire while still enormously popular. "I'm in the comfort zone as far as making music," he said. "I'm a young guy, and I still have to challenge myself in life. I have to step outside my comfort zone. That's just part of being alive."
Reasonable Doubt, Roc-A-Fella, 1996.
In My Lifetime Vol. 1, Roc-A-Fella, 1997.
Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, Roc-A-Fella, 1998
Vol. 3: The Life and Times of Shawn Carter, Roc-A-Fella, 1999.
Dynasty: Roc la Familia, Roc-A-Fella, 2000.
The Blueprint, Roc-A-Fella, 2001.
Unplugged (live), Roc-A-Fella, 2001.
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse, Roc-A-Fella, 2002.
(With R. Kelly) The Best of Both Worlds, Universal, 2002.
The Blueprint 2.1, Roc-A-Fella, 2003.
The Black Album, Roc-A-Fella, 2003.
Billboard, June 29, 1996; November 23, 1996; December 28, 1996.
Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), September 7, 2000.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), December 4, 2003.
Jet, September 27, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1999; December 31, 1999.
Newsweek, December 13, 1999.
New York Times, December 26, 1999; December 30, 1999; January 1, 2000.
People Weekly, April 5, 1999.
Rolling Stone, October 14, 1999.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 2000.
Teen People, June 16, 2002.
USA Today, December 27, 1999; January 3, 2000.
Vibe, December 2000.
Village Voice, December 14, 1999; January 22, 2002; January 1, 2003.
Washington Post, December 14, 1999; January 2, 2000.
"From A- to A," Slate Magazine, http://slate.msn.com/id/2091248 (April 4, 2004).
"Jay-Z," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 4, 2004).
"Jay-Z: What More Can I Say?," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/bands/j/jay_z/news_feature_112103 (April 5, 2004).
aura Hightower and Jennifer M. York