The invite said the doors would open at 8. But by then, the line in front of The Box, Serge Becker’s reservations-only, bordello-meets-sideshow nightclub, was already snaking down Chrystie Street.
The crowd was made up of all sorts. White guys in nice suits; a black girl out of a music video with a cumulus cloud Afro in blue leggings and a shearling coat; the Indian guy behind me in a heavy flannel shirt with a fitted baseball cap; clusters of blondes whose lives had been irrevocably altered by Lindsey Lohan’s sartorial style. There was a lot of name-dropping. It was a Friday night downtown, so it all made sense.
A more perplexing issue that evening was discerning what we were all there for. Jay-Z’s publicist had sent the invitation early that same morning. It read, “Jay-Z invites you … to an evening of magic, experience, ‘The Turn.’ Doors at eight, performance at nine.
It seemed to be merely another event in the media blitz surrounding the release of Jay-Z’s memoir, Decoded, a fascinating book whose narrative was dangerously close to being eclipsed by the high-powered marketing campaign that surrounded it. There was the conversation between Jay-Z and Cornel West at the New York Public Library, the live interview by Charlie Rose at the Brooklyn Museum and the sleek launch party at Miami’s Delano Hotel a few weeks back. That night, Jay-Z had the lyrics to his hit “Big Pimpin’” blown up and grafted onto the bottom of the pool for the occasion. In a white tent nearby, his wife, Beyoncé, nibbled on chicken skewers.
But back in New York, inside The Box, the heavily draped and heavily carpeted, aubergine-and-burgundy-hued club, a bored-looking gymnast hung suspended from the ceiling in a hula-hoop. The DJ played lots of Wu Tang, and some Jay-Z (only early Jay-Z). It was past 10, and the stage was empty. Despite the fancy invite, it was a cash bar. Only a few people were getting bottle service, and when they got Champagne, it was accompanied by sparklers and half-hearted cheers. To my left, a young white couple flirted hard and drunkenly. She was an assistant of some sort to someone famous. He was wearing an off-the-rack suit and was just drunk enough to be slurring his words. They were trading work stories. He was impressed that she had flown with her boss without carrying an ID. Fame had gotten her on, first class and everything. “Crazy,” he told her, “you are, like, totally living the life.” She batted her eyes and lapped it in. Then she asked him, “Yeah, so what do you do?” After taking a mouthful of his beer, he said, “Well, I’m definitely living the life, too; I’m on Wall Street.” This was the glossy, blended, present reality of hip-hop, a place where everybody can live “the life” if they can afford it.
At 10:30, Jay-Z’s publicist was outside scanning the street. I hunkered down on a fire hydrant a few feet away from her. A black Mercedes as sleek as a bullet and as long as a hearse pulled up, flanked by black Navigators. A bunch of enormous men in black suits hopped out of the Navigators. They circled the Mercedes. Jay-Z got out.
If one didn’t know his face, he might have looked like the smallest of the bodyguards. He walked to the other side of the car without saying a word. The bodyguards tightened around the back door. A shiny red, 5-inch high-heeled shoe dropped down, and then another. Then 41 inches of leg, and then another. Wearing shimmery nude stockings, the kind salsa dancers wear, the same ones she wore in her video for “Single Ladies,” it was Beyoncé, in a sparkling miniskirt and a black jacket. The stage makeup was gone, the gorgeousness still there, but she looked more human, slightly tired, slightly worked.
Jay-Z made for the door and in a second disappeared. Beyoncé, a foot or so behind, moved past the cape of guards. Their entourage followed: Angie Beyince, Beyoncé’s shorter, heavier cousin, who that night was sharing her cousin’s affection for Texas-size weaves and red lipstick. Ty-Ty, Jay-Z’s cousin, was dressed exactly like him, both of them in stiff, all-black suits. He looked like a twin, or a presidential poison-testing double. A snazzily dressed older white woman went behind and said something to the club’s bouncers, who seemed momentarily bewildered by the A-listness, the high-techness and the professionalism of the entrance of the Knowles-Carters and their team.
By the time I got back in the club, the Knowles-Carters were seated and sequestered above in the balcony, where they would stay all night. Beyoncé would dangle her hand over the ledge with her gold polished nails and her diamond wedding ring, a gem on steroids that flashed bling like a strobe light. Another hand would flick her long, blond, flaxen hair and be politely impervious to the eyes below that couldn’t stop watching her ignore them. She didn’t drink and was only mildly interested in the circus burlesque transpiring on the stage below.
When the show ended, Jay-Z stepped out from behind the curtains, futilely admonishing us to make some noise for the performers. Not possible–all of the applause was clearly for him. Jay-Z held a prop in his left hand, a half-filled Champagne glass. He gave his shout-outs.
He proclaimed that he had just signed a young wizard to his label. He told us to make some noise for the God of Rap, his newest acquisition, Jay Electronica, and then Jay-Z disappeared back to Beyoncé and their balcony to bob their heads in perfect sync with each other. Jay-Z scanned the crowd, only smiling when he saw people he knew, waving at them with his phone in hand. To his left sat his business manager, John Meneilly.
There were far too many sequins to say that it looked regal, and it would be cheap and inaccurate to compare the scene to the Kennedys’ Camelot. Besides, this was hip-hop, not politics. No, not politics but definitely imbued with the same trappings: the guards and cars as calculated and as choreographed. Because far more than a rapper, more than a former drug dealer, Jay-Z fashions himself as a mogul. Which makes Jay-Z something that America never produced before: the experience of a rapper-turned-magnate is totally new, and this is what that scene on the balcony was, the cousins, and the attendants, the Queen B. It was the high-powered court of a man who, now 40 years old, is quickly on the way to becoming not just the King of New York but also one of his generation’s greatest capitalists.
SHAWN COREY CARTER was born in Brooklyn to Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves. The youngest of their four children, he spent Saturdays listening to his parents’ records while his mother scrubbed down the house. When his parent split a few years later, he was devastated. Although he had lived in the Marcy Projects his whole life, the departure of the man that he apparently looks just like would trigger a progression of events that revealed Marcy’s “menace” to him. “No one hired a skywriter and announced crack’s arrival,” he writes in Decoded. “But when it landed in your hood, it was total takeover. Sudden and complete. Like losing your man to gunshots. Or your father walking out the door for good.” Only a kid, a teen, our boy opened for business, his ware the crack cocaine in the palm of his hand. “I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen,” Jay-Z writes of dealing, and in many ways it is where he first tested his business acumen.
After feeling the rush of a bullet grazing by, he decided to focus on his music instead of his street sales. His is a Midas touch–he has now had more No. 1 albums than any artist except the Beatles and Elvis Presley. And in hip-hop, Jay-Z’s prowess as a rapper is set in stone near the top of the pantheon. But more and more he is affirming that his real interest is what he always told us it was: business.
He vacations in the South of France; he makes songs with Coldplay’s Chris Martin about sitting in his beach chair; and he cracks jokes over dinner with Bill Clinton. In the years since he divided his record label and clothing kingdom, Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear, between himself and his former partners, Jay-Z has spread his money and influence out into the city. From 2004 to 2007, he was president of the record company Def Jam. He is a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets with Bruce Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov and in on their Barclays Center project in Brooklyn. Jay-Z holds a 1.5 percent stake in the team.
He is an investor in the Spotted Pig and co-owns the 40/40 club, an almost eight-year-old sports bar franchise with locations in New York and Atlantic City. And then he has the feel-good investments: along with Tommy Mottola, Will Smith and Steve Stoute, he purchased Carol’s Daughter, a Brooklyn-based beauty line that has expanded rapidly and successfully under their control. He also put a little over $1 million in with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith to Bill T. Jones’ Broadway musical Fela! And only the recession ended his most elaborate plans, to open a series of hotels in Chelsea and the meatpacking district to be called the J Hotels.
Jay-Z is worth $450 million. He made most of that after he sold his companies, Roc-A-Fella and Rocawear. Roc-A-Fella was founded in 1996 when he and partners Damon Dash, a promoter from Harlem, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke decided to use their own funds, acquired by various means, to start a record label. Immediately, without any fanfare, they were punching above their weight.
The co-author of Decoded, dream hampton, has been in many ways hip-hop’s preeminent literary midwife in a world where authorial endeavors are few (Q-Tip and Puff Daddy also tapped her to write their books). She pointed me back to one of Jay-Z’s first videos. “If you look back at the true history of things,” she told me, “you can see it in the ‘Dead Presidents’ video, where Jay had Biggie on there as a guest. At the time, Big had a multiplatinum album out and Jay was a total unknown. But they weren’t necessarily peers, so what Jay had was capital, what he had was already a reputation on the street.”
Jay-Z is vague about the numbers, but one gets the sense that he made heaps of money on the streets. It is unlikely that he would ever speak on the matter candidly. “No one is more paranoid than Jay,” Ms. hampton explained, not suggesting that he is crazy, but rather that his exploits are real, not rumor.
“Biggie, for whatever years of his hustling or whatever, wasn’t in the position to create his own label. Because there was a time when things were incredibly shaky for Big,” Ms. hampton said. “There was a time when Puff got fired from Uptown and Biggie was, you know, very much in limbo, very, very depressed. He drank more than I’d seen him drink, he started smoking cigarettes, which was not something I’d known him to do before then. But whatever he was going through emotionally he wasn’t in a position to start his own label. … Jay had the resources.”