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.”
They had so much in the way of resources that they put out Jay-Z’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, without major label support. When Def Jam came around, interested in Jay-Z, instead of signing him to a typical deal, the company bought a 50 percent stake in Roc-A-Fella for seven figures. Mr. Dash, Mr. Burke and Jay-Z retained control of the label. It was a checkmate move for a label only one year old.
WHILE MUCH OF this business savvy is now solely credited to Jay-Z, in the shadows there lurks the ever-fading wild-style touch of his former manager and business partner, Mr. Dash, who was ubiquitous in hip-hop at one point. There he is in many of Jay-Z’s videos, tugging his diamond chain across his neck back and forth, with his hat cocked to the side, licking his lips, doing a dickhead’s jig to the music. These were the golden years, the years of excess. Roc-A-Fella was a big-deal label in some ways, but it was also a victim of its own hype. Most often, there was only one serious moneymaker on the roster, Jay-Z himself. It was up to Mr. Dash to try to expand it.
In the late ’90s, Jay-Z and Mr. Dash walked out of a disappointing meeting with executives at Iceberg, a European sportswear company, with a clear understanding that they would have to create a line for themselves.
“In the beginning it was laughable,” Jay-Z writes, “since we had no idea what we were doing. We had sewing machines up in our office, but not professional ones that can do twelve kinds of stitches; we had the big black ones that old ladies use. Eventually, we got some advice from Russell [Simmons] and did the necessary research, got some partners, and launched Rocawear properly. … I’m lucky that Iceberg didn’t give us the bullshit we asked for in the first place … because we might not have ever started a company that is poised to bring in a billion dollars in revenue.”
The company that gave Jay-Z his true liquidity was Rocawear, not Roc-A-Fella. It was a company that was Mr. Dash’s baby. But even a really fantastic country can only have one king. Dan Charnas, the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop, broke it down for me. “Jay is an amazing guy, but Jay didn’t always like Dame’s choices. Dame wanted to sign Kanye West the producer as Kanye West the artist, and Jay, while not ever nixing the idea, he wasn’t so sure. He was somewhat less enthusiastic about that than Dame. So Dame was just starting to prepare Roc-A-Fella for life after Jay-Z ’cause Jay-Z said he was going to retire in 2003. He was just starting to do that when Jay pulled the plug on him.”
The humbling of Mr. Dash has been biblical. His luck post-Rocawear has been that of Job. A man once crowned one of hip-hop’s greatest moguls by CNN in September saw the Tribeca loft he owned and lived in with his on-again, off-again wife, Rachel Roy, the designer of the eponymously named fashion line, foreclosed on and sold. When Mr. Dash broke with Jay-Z in 2005, he sold his stake in Rocawear to him for a reported $30 million. Two years later, Jay-Z would sell the brand to Iconix Brand Group, owner of Candie’s and Joe Boxer, for a staggering $204 million. In a Village Voice profile, Mr. Dash said, “The people that I was helping, once they realized their dreams, they did what a criminal does. They stabbed you in the back.”
The coordinator of Mr. Dash’s new art gallery in Tribeca, DD172, refused my requests to speak to him, citing a previous profile in The Observer that she felt was “mean.”
I cold-called a few other numbers of people supposedly connected to Mr. Dash. I sent out a text-message blast begging for a contact to him. I received a text back from a successful hip-hop business manager.
“Yes, isn’t he important?” I responded.
“Historically maybe. Now he is n—a scraps.”
“What?” I typed back.
“You know, um, like pieces of a man.”
THERE ARE TWO men who are said to have taken Mr. Dash’s place in Jay-Z’s business maneuvering. One is John Meneilly, his manager, a former executive of Provident Financial. Mr. Meneilly is in many ways the exact opposite of Mr. Dash: He is older, Irish and, last but not least, refuses to speak to the press. He worked for Mr. Dash and Jay-Z before he took over Mr. Dash’s old role. The newer force on the scene is Steve Stoute, Jay-Z’s business partner, marketing guru and friend.
Mr. Stoute is the man behind Jay-Z’s deals with DJ Hero, Heineken and Reebok. Once known as the manager of Nas, Mr. Stoute now helms his own advertising firm, Translation. He is a convincing pitchman, part post-racial philosopher, part Gordon Gekko. He speaks in terms of concepts, usually ones he has come up with himself, and I could not help but imagine that the only thing missing from our conversation was a PowerPoint presentation. To him, Jay-Z’s success derives from the rapper’s decision to “go narrow and deep.” “Most people go wide,” he said. “You go narrow and deep, very myopic, very pure to what you believe in, which is the narrow, and find depth in that, depth in that. Jay is one of the very few who took the long route, letting it cross over to him rather then crossing over to it.”
For Mr. Stoute, crossing over isn’t a bad word. It is a talent. And though he can seem slick, he is likable, perhaps because one gets the sense that his ideas, even the ones that seem misguided or bizarre, are ideas he truly believes in.
“The tanning of America,” he told me, “is a natural evolution of what I’ve seen hip-hop do for culture. What hip-hop culture has done to young adults. Over the last 20 years, this similar mental complexion–and I call it tanning, seeing the world as the same complexion–this whole notion is that young adults come through, and because of what hip-hop has done and the clothing, all of those things, they arrived at a similar complexion mentally.”
It is difficult to discern what the sociological fallout of such race bending is. Are white youth becoming more sensitive to the history, victories and plights of black America, or are black youth relinquishing blackness? Tanning is an idea that seems improvised, something made up to make sense of Jay-Z’s astoundingly lucrative appeal.
JAY-Z’S PARTNERSHIP WITH Bruce Ratner has brought him into the big business of New York City development. Mr. Ratner sought out Jay-Z because he wanted to buy the New Jersey Nets, bring them over to Brooklyn and build them a stadium. An alliance with Jay-Z was a priority because Mr. Ratner knew he would need the support of homegrown Brooklynites who were also big-time. It is, after all, a $4.9 billion project. In August 2004, Mr. Ratner’s group beat out the two other competing bids to become the official owner of the Nets. They paid $300 million. The Nets on the court, however, have not been as illustrious as their owners, and in the six years since their purchase the team’s worth has fallen 10 percent. This did not dissuade Russia’s second-richest man, Mr. Prokhorov, from buying a controlling stake in the team last year. Two hundred and fifty million dollars later, it was becoming an increasingly motley crew: the middle-aged developer, the rapper and the Russian, who together now own 22 acres of Brooklyn.
Unlike the controversial Racino Aqueduct Casino project, where last month the New York inspector general’s report revealed that Jay-Z was not actually an investor, only a potential performance fixture, Jay-Z has become a frontman in the Atlantic Yards-Barclays Center project, which has been hotly contested by local neighborhood activists all along. Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a 7,000-person-strong coalition that “is formally aligned in opposition” to the project, has described Jay-Z as being little more than Mr. Ratner’s “marketing device.” This seems loaded, but there is some truth to it. At the groundbreaking in March, Jay-Z brought the crooked-arm language of the left to bear, saying the project is “so overwhelmingly in favor of the people: the job creation, the housing that’s being built.” It was time again for shout-outs, and this time he dedicated them to “Brooklyn–we did it again,” and to Biggie Smalls. Jay-Z is a natural orator; he can say much or nothing, and it not only sounds good, it also sounds heartfelt.
Not that he doesn’t mean it, but it is a distinct 180 from the sentiments of Mr. Ratner, a man sprung from an Ayn Rand novel, who told Crain’s in 2008, “Why should people get to see plans? This isn’t a public project.”
At the groundbreaking, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Mr. Ratner sat together on the platform. Everyone was smiling, and then Marty Markowitz, the bouncy Brooklyn borough president, stepped forward anxiously to introduce Jay-Z and gush over his beautiful wife. Cluelessly, Mr. Markowitz then praised him for making it from “bricks to billboards.” Sure, it was an allusion to one of Jay-Z’s lyrics, but bricks is one of the better-known slang terms for packages of cocaine. Jay-Z’s very formidable face froze and then bulged with shock. One wonders if he will ever be able to leave the bricks behind. If anyone will ever let him. When I emailed Marty Markowitz for a comment, he emailed me a paragraph that once again mentioned “bricks to billboards.” It is hard to know if Jay-Z’s past is a concern to him in business. Maybe he doesn’t even care.
IN A 1970 profile, Hunter S. Thompson observed, “O.J. [Simpson] is a Black Capitalist in the most basic sense of that term; his business sense is so powerful that he is able to view his blackness as a mere sales factor–a natural intro to the Black Marketplace.” Jay-Z’s business sense is more complicated than that. His brand of capitalism is a strange hybrid of his class origins and the figures in his bank account, acquired by any means necessary. It is an inversion that highlights Jay-Z’s intelligence and rhetorical skill: The words of Malcolm X are twisted into the mantra of getting money.
The same way that rappers turning 40 changed the music and its possibilities (see Ghostface Killah lamenting going bald, or Jay-Z’s line “And I don’t wear jerseys/ I’m thirty plus”), rappers turning fabulously wealthy will stretch the art as well. This perhaps will have to be Jay-Z’s most innovative turn. How to become not just a businessman but also, as he says, “a business, man,” that remains relevant and cutting. This is what LiveNation was banking on when they signed him to a $150 million, 10-year bundled touring-label deal. The hope is that, like the Rolling Stones, Jay-Z will be able to connect to his fan base as they grow up alongside him. Jay-Z will have to walk the fine line of maintaining a corporate veneer and actually being cool.
And as a power broker, he will have to decide if having workers from his 40/40 club in New York filing a class-action suit against him in 2008 for failing to pay them minimum wage is just another day of business or an unacceptable ethical lapse from a man who should know better.
IN DECODED, JAY-Z is at his most uncomfortable addressing a conversation that occurred between him and Elizabeth Mendez Berry, a journalist from The Voice who questioned him about the Ché Guevara T-shirts he took to wearing in 2001. He had one on at his listening party, an imprint of Ché’s face framed by rhinestones: “‘You don’t feel funny? You’re wearing that Ché T-shirt and you have–’ she gestured dramatically at the chain around my neck. ‘I couldn’t even concentrate on the music,’ she said. ‘All I could think of is that big chain bouncing off of Ché’s forehead.’” He writes that he decided not to “dismiss her as a hater,” and he clumsily tries to make sense of the contradiction that led him to write “Public Announcement”: “I’m like Ché Guevara with bling on/ I’m complex.”
I recited those lyrics to Manning Marable, a professor of African-American studies at Columbia University and the foremost scholar on black economic life in America. I explained the intended paradox behind Jay-Z recasting himself as a Ché Guevara dressed by Jacob the Jeweler. Isn’t this black capitalism at its best?
“He may feel that.” Mr. Marable said. “And he does have a social conscience. … He is aware of the social implications of his art. And so, all of that is good, and I’m not critical of him as a artist or his social conscience; I’m just saying as a critic of capitalism, the strategy itself … It’s black only in the sense that he is black.”
He explained that Jay-Z’s becoming an NBA owner is a fine investment as a personal investment, and he has every right to do so, but “that doesn’t mean that it is a strategy for a black capitalism. There the question is how to develop strategies that maximize the growth of capital and ownership within the black community.” And then he said, chuckling, “Him buying up 1 percent of the Nets is not going to do that.”
The problem is how to create a self-sustainable model that he himself controls. For Mr. Marable, the most insistent failure of black capitalism is the question of ownership: “The more successful you are, you will ultimately get brought out by larger white-owned companies. And that has historically always been the case. The wealthiest black capitalists in the United States would be Robert and Shelia Johnson [founders of BET], but they don’t even own their own company anymore. They got bought out. Even for them, their strategy has resulted in a loss of black ownership. And that is the irony of it.”
“I SAY IT all the time. African-Americans are the best consumers in the world. Because we buy things that aren’t even marketed to them!” Mr. Stoute’s confusion about whether to use “we” or “them” when he discusses the black consumer was still there, but his post-racial business neutrality was gone. He was talking about Carol’s Daughter, the hair and skin care company, which was founded by Lisa Price, an African-American business owner, in her house using her mother’s formulas. He is, rightfully, quite proud of that investment. “Jay, myself and Will Smith are investors in this woman from Brooklyn’s dream. Because it is like, when does that happen? Who is supposed to give her money? I mean, we gotta do it, right? It is almost an obligation.” This is the sort of capitalism that Jay-Z is atypically well funded to undertake; it is cyclical funding, and there is something communal and innovative about it. It doesn’t have the thrills and gloss of Wall Street, but it is so revolutionary, so novel, that it is difficult to conceive what it would even look like if it occurred on a large scale.
Malcolm X said, “The ghetto people knew I never left the ghetto in spirit,” and Jay-Z uses that quotation as footnote 13 for his song “Public Service Announcement” in Decoded. Malcolm X was assassinated almost four decades before the Johnsons became the first black billionaires, in 2001. This is how much things have changed not just for Jay-Z but for the black agenda since the civil rights era. The world is new, he knows this; as he infamously rapped hours after Barack Obama was inaugurated, “My president is black and my Lambo is blue.” In the same way that Jay-Z is almost certainly the first former Marcy Projects resident to own a Lamborghini by legally achieved means, he is also the first to have enough power to shape the future of the borough. And it very well may be that his revolution is that of a billionaire whose spirit never left the ghetto, but whose class interests did. Or he may become an arts patron whose deep pockets softly fund an entire cultural revolution, as Madame C. J. Walker, the first black self-made female millionaire, did for the Harlem Renaissance. “An artist like Jay-Z, with the consciousness he has, could make a real qualitative difference; he could develop human capital, skills,” Mr. Marable said. “Otherwise, he is more symbolic than substantive. He reminds us that a talented and gifted individual can make a big difference, and that is good, but doesn’t really transform people’s lives in any kind of radical way.”
Not oblivious to this, Jay-Z has said, “What myself, Puffy, Will Smith and Denzel are doing, it’s all new territory for [African-Americans].” It is a strange city of possibilities he lives in.
Ms. hampton, a self-described socialist, told me in our last conversation, “Am I on some food, clothing and shelter shit like any good socialist? Sure. Am I friends with one of the most successful capitalists of my generation? Of course. All those things are happening simultaneously, and that is just distinctly American.” And now Shawn Corey Carter, like many before him, has entered the land of American firsts, where folks don’t always have blueprints but know the streets and the folks back home are always watching.