It’s Jay-Z’s World

With 13 No. 1 albums and the president as his best friend, Jay-Z is the king of cool. How the media built his throne. By Allison Samuels.

Jim Ross/Invision/AP

Three stories sit atop the cover tagline on the July 22 issue of New York magazine: “Jay-Z’s Money. Jay-Z’s Music. Jay-Z’s Art.” It’s somewhat baffling why the publication chose to use a merged picture of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer and not the face of Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z, given his dominance between its pages.

From all appearances, never before has there been a hip-hop artist or rapper with quite the talent, savvy, charm, or skill of Jay-Z. The news media follow his every move as if he were a head of state. Major corporations and businesses such as Samsung jockey to secure cutting-edge deals with him worth millions. Very lucrative deals set up both to attract a broader, hipper consumer and to profit from that ever-so-cool Jay-Z swagger.

And Jay is cool. He’s married to “the baddest chick’’ in the game (Beyoncé), and manages the career of other “baddest chick’’ in the game, Rhianna. If that weren’t enough, he’s best friends with the president of the United States and just this week scored the 13th No. 1 album of his career with Magna Carta Holy Grail.

But what exactly is it about Mr. Carter that endlessly fascinates the mainstream public? Is it his laid-back rapping style that seamlessly meshes with the clever word play used on his most popular tracks? Or is it that all-at-once familiarity he exudes during interviews and performances that also rarely seems to reveal the unaffected distance he knowingly keeps from his adoring fans? Yes, Jay-Z is “real people,” but he’s also oddly untouchable at the same time. So smooth is he, as The Washington Post recently noted, that he turned his fans into his customers with the release of Magna Carta, and none seemed to mind.

In a unique twist, Samsung purchased 1 million copies of the album to give away to customers before it hit stores. The giveaway included an app that could be downloaded on the company’s smartphone. Magna Carta sold nearly 528,000 albums in its first week of release.

“Jay hung on the longest and really won the game by continuing to do his thing and by evolving,’’ said one well-known rapper who didn’t want to be identified. “In the beginning, unless you were Will Smith, the white community had no desire to elevate a rapper the way they are doing Jay now. It’s a new day but Jay also has a charisma that overshadows his music. He’s the event and not his music. Music doesn’t really even count at this point for Jay. That’s a rare gift for a black dude to have, believe me.’’

Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. had their lives cut short well before they could reach their celebrity peak, noted one music executive. At 43 years old, Jay-Z had the intelligence, patience, and talent to keep on making hip-hop music while constantly exploring other areas to build up his brand. He began with his Rocawear clothing line and most recently added a top-level sports agency.

Still the perks of high visibility and mega stardom aren’t the gifts every rapper yearns for. While many in the hip-hop game revel in Jay’s mega success, they also question what will happen when the deafening applause stops for the rapper/businessman still so passionate about the music and winning the game. While Magna Carta Holy Grail is enjoying brisk early sales, it also received some of the rapper’s worst reviews from major music critics.

“It’s a slippery slope when you’re overly adored by the public like Jay is right now,’’ said another well-known rapper/producer. “He’s been masterful at keeping it going and he’s smart enough to know it may be over at any time. He’s rich enough that won’t matter. But for me personally, having the audience put me on pedestal while demonizing a young kid like Trayvon Martin just doesn’t work for me. I’ve been to jail and Jay has had his hustle in the street too. But we’re somehow different in America’s mind because we entertain them. I don’t need that type fakeness.’’

While Jay-Z’s looming presence in hip hop for the last few years has made him appear to some to be the only game in town, a few of his peers have continued to gain power and wealth under the radar.

When Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre, stepped onto the L.A Live stage for the Black Entertainment Television Experience in Los Angeles in last June, the crowd couldn’t get enough. He joined Snoop Lion (formerly Snoop Dogg) in performing several songs from his iconic album The Chronic, released 20 years ago this year. He and Jay-Z have long been friends.

While the rapper/producer, who gained early fame in the seminal group N.W.A., does appear in sporadic performances, he now prefers to stay behind the musical curtain and rarely agrees to interviews these days. But don’t mistake the 48-year-old's absence from the hip-hop forefront as his absence from influence.

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“I’m around enough,’’ says Dr. Dre. “I’m around as much as I need to be.’’

Young’s handprint on the industry is most visible today through his own set of headphones called “Beats by Dre.’’ The headphones have rapidly become a bestselling brand. The California native also recently announced a joint donation with Jimmy Iovine of $70 million to USC. The gift would establish the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for the Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.

“Everybody has to choose where they want to stand or end up,’’ said a popular hip hop producer. “You can be in front where all the cheers are or in the back where you put all it together. I love the fact that Dr. Dre and Jay both have the option of handling their business in the way they feel works best for them. That’s hip hop’s way of growing.”