Who is Jay-Z?
Jay-Z is an American rapper, songwriter and producer who grew up in Brooklyn’s drug-infested Marcy Projects. He used rap as an escape, appearing for the first time on Yo! MTV Raps in 1989. After selling millions of records with his Roc-a-Fella label, Jay-Z created his own clothing line and founded an entertainment company. He wed popular singer and actress Beyoncé in 2008.
During a rough adolescence, detailed in many of his autobiographical songs, Carter dealt drugs and flirted with gun violence. He attended multiple high schools, including George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School in downtown Brooklyn, where he was a classmate of the soon-to-be-martyred rap legend Notorious B.I.G. As Jay-Z later recalled in one of his songs (“December 4th”): “I went to school, got good grades, could behave when I wanted/But I had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted.”
Rise to Hop-Hop Fame
Carter turned to rap at a young age as an escape from the drugs, violence and poverty that surrounded him in the Marcy Projects. In 1989, he joined the rapper Jaz-O—an older performer who served as a kind of mentor—to record a song called “The Originators,” which won the pair an appearance on an episode of Yo! MTV Raps. It was at this point that Carter embraced the nickname Jay-Z, which was simultaneously an homage to Jaz-O, a play on Carter’s childhood nickname of “Jazzy” and a reference to the J/Z subway station near his Brooklyn home.
Even with a stage name, Jay-Z remained relatively anonymous until he and two friends, Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, founded their own record label, Roc-a-Fella Records, in 1996. In June of that year, Jay-Z released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. Although the record only reached No. 23 on the Billboard 200, it is now considered a classic hip-hop album, including songs such as “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” featuring Mary J. Blige, and “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a collaboration with Notorious B.I.G. Reasonable Doubt established Jay-Z as an emerging star in hip-hop.
Two years later, Jay-Z achieved even broader success with the 1998 album Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life. The title track, which famously sampled its chorus from the Broadway musical Annie, became Jay-Z’s most popular single to date. He scored a Grammy win for Vol. 2 and another nomination for “Hard Knock Life,” marking the beginning of a fruitful period in which Jay-Z would become the biggest name in hip-hop.
During those years, the rapper released a slew of No. 1 albums and hit singles. His most popular songs from this period include “Big Pimpin’,” “I Just Wanna Love U,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” a duet with future bride Beyoncé Knowles. Jay-Z’s most acclaimed album of this period was The Blueprint (2001), which would later pop up on several music critics’ lists of the best albums of the decade.
In 2003, Jay-Z shocked the hip-hop world by releasing The Black Album and announcing that it would be his last solo record before retirement. Asked to explain his sudden exit from rap, Jay-Z said that he once derived inspiration from trying to outshine other great MCs, but had simply gotten bored due to a lack of competition. “The game ain’t hot,” he said. “I love when someone makes a hot album and then you’ve got to make a hot album. I love that. But it ain’t hot.”
In 2006, Jay-Z ended his retirement from making music, releasing the new album Kingdom Come. He soon released two more albums: American Gangster in 2007 and Blueprint 3 in 2009. This trio of albums marked a significant departure from Jay-Z’s earlier sound, incorporating stronger rock and soul influences in their production and offering lyrics that tackled such mature subjects as the response to Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama’s 2008 election and the perils of fame and fortune. Jay-Z noted he was trying to adapt his music to befit his own middle age. “There’s not a lot of people who have come of age in rap because it’s only 30 years old,” he said. “As more people come of age, hopefully the topics get broader and then the audience will stay around longer.”
Jay-Z next teamed up with former Roc-A-Fella protégé Kanye West for 2011’s Watch the Throne. The album proved to be a triple hit, topping the rap, R&B and pop charts shortly after its August release. It went on to garner multiple Grammy nominations, winning the Grammy for Best Rap Performance with “Otis,” which sampled the late R&B singer Otis Redding.
In July 2013, Jay-Z unveiled his 12th studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. The effort earned a mixed reception from critics but otherwise fared well with fans, going on to top the Billboard 200 and achieve double-platinum status. That winter Jay-Z earned a whopping nine Grammy nominations, sharing the win for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration with Justin Timberlake for the hit single “Holy Grail.”
Rocawear, Tidal & Other Business Ventures
During his hiatus from rapping, Jay-Z turned his attention to the business side of music, becoming president of Def Jam Recordings. As president of Def Jam, Jay-Z signed such popular acts as Rihanna and Ne-Yo, and helped West’s transition from producer to a best-selling recording artist. But his reign at the venerable hip-hop label wasn’t all smooth sailing; Jay-Z resigned as Def Jam’s president in 2007, complaining about the company’s resistance to change from ineffectual business models. “You have record executives who’ve been sitting in their office for 20 years because of one act,” he lamented.
In 2008, Jay-Z signed a $150 million contract with the concert promotion company Live Nation. This super deal created a joint venture called Roc Nation, an entertainment company that handles nearly all aspects of its artists’ careers. Along with Jay-Z, Roc Nation signed such top artists as Rihanna, Shakira and T.I., among many others, to its roster.
Jay-Z’s other business ventures include the popular urban clothing line Rocawear and Roc-a-Fella Films. He also owns the 40/40 Club, an upscale sports bar that opened in New York City and later added venues in Atlantic City and Las Vegas (since closed), as well as Atlanta.
A part-owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team since 2004, Jay-Z helped spur the relocation of the franchise to a brand-new home in downtown Brooklyn, the Barclays Center, in 2012. In 2013, he launched a full-service sports management company, Roc Nation Sports, and sold his Brooklyn Nets shares in order to pursue certification as a sports agent. As Jay-Z once rapped about his business empire, “I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man.”
The business of Jay-Z made headlines once again in March 2015, when he and several of his high-powered friends, including Madonna, Nicki Minaj and Jack White, announced the relaunch of Tidal, a streaming music service. The service gained a reasonable stream of followers — a touted 1 million in September 2015 — but also endured a revolving door of top management and legal issues. In early 2017, Jay-Z agreed to sell a 33 percent stake of Tidal to telecommunications giant Sprint.
In June 2019, Forbes named Jay-Z the first billionaire rap artist, citing his ownership stakes in Armand de Brignac champagne and Uber as contributing factors.
On June 15, 2017, Jay-Z became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He tweeted about the honor: “I remember when rap was said to be a fad. We are now alongside some of the greatest writers in history.”
Later that month, on June 30, Jay-Z released his 13th solo album, 4:44, exclusively to Tidal and Sprint subscribers. It was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America less than a week after its release, solely based on download numbers. The highly personal album, which includes guest artists Beyoncé, Damian Marley and Frank Ocean, was an immediate commercial and critical success, praised for the rapper’s candid lyrics and a new level of artistic maturity.
In an interview which aired on iHeartMedia, Jay-Z called the title track, “4:44,” “one of the best songs I’ve ever written.” His lyrics appear to address the marital issues and infidelity his wife Beyoncé sang about in her confessional album Lemonade:
“I apologize, often womanize / Took for my child to be born / See through a woman’s eyes / Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles / Took me too long for this song / I don’t deserve you,” he says in the song, referring to the birth of their children.
Other tracks include “Kill Jay-Z,” which the rapper told iHeartMedia “is about killing off the ego,” and “The Story of OJ,” a comment on the culture of success. “‘The Story of OJ’ is really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward,” he said in the iHeartMedia interview. “We all make money, and then we all lose money, as artists especially. But how, when you have some type of success, to transform that into something bigger.”
When the list of the year’s Grammy hopefuls was announced November, Jay-Z led the way with eight nominations for his work on 4:44. He wound up getting shut out when the winners were announced the following January, though he did receive the 2018 Salute to Industry Icons Award.
OTR II and ‘Everything Is Love’
Soon afterward, the hip-hop king announced that he and Beyoncé were teaming up for the OTR II Tour that summer, an extension of their 2014 effort. The tour kicked off in Cardiff, Wales, on June 6, and 10 days later, the couple gave their fans another reason to get excited with the release of a joint album, Everything Is Love. Initially available for streaming solely on Jay-Z’s Tidal, the album was accompanied by a music video for the track “Apes**t,” which showed the Carters in their aristocratic element as they sang and rapped among the world-famous art pieces of the Louvre in Paris.
Political and Charitable Work
After staying out of the political arena for much of his career, Jay-Z emerged as a strong supporter of Barack Obama during his first campaign for president in 2008. He appeared at rallies and had only high praise for the African American candidate. During one rally, Jay-Z told the crowd that “Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Obama could run. Obama’s running so we all can fly.”
Jay-Z once again backed Obama for his 2012 re-election bid. That same year, he stepped forward as a supporter of gay marriage. As he told CNN, denying same-sex couples the right to wed “is no different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination plain and simple.”
In October 2015, Jay-Z held his first annual charity concert called Tidal X: 10/20, starring Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Usher and other top-selling artists. The following February, it was announced that Tidal was donating $1.5 million from concert proceeds to numerous organizations, including Black Lives Matter and Sankofa, a nonprofit started by Harry Belafonte.
In August 2019, Jay-Z and the National Football League announced a partnership in which Roc Nation would advise on entertainment selections for NFL promotional spots and events, including the Super Bowl. Additionally, the two sides agreed to work together on social activism efforts through the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative.
The announcement was criticized by supporters of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who hadn’t played in the NFL since igniting a national anthem-kneeling controversy in 2016, but the hip-hop mogul expressed a belief that he could affect the social change sought by Kaepernick by working with the powerful sports league.”You can either go home, you can pack your bag and sit in the house, or you can choose to take it head-on,” Jay-Z said. “And that’s pretty much how we operate at Roc Nation. We seek to identify things that we want to be a part of and things that we believe that we can add value to, and we step in and we come with these ideas.”
Very protective of his private life, Jay-Z did not publicly discuss his relationship with longtime girlfriend, popular singer and actress Beyoncé, for years. The couple even managed to keep the press away from their small wedding, which was held on April 4, 2008, in New York City. Only about 40 people attended the celebration at Jay-Z’s penthouse apartment, including actress Gwyneth Paltrow and former Destiny’s Child members Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé welcomed their first child, a daughter named Blue Ivy Carter, on January 7, 2012. Concerned about their privacy and safety, Jay-Z and Beyoncé rented part of New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital and hired extra guards.
Shortly after the birth of his daughter, Jay-Z released a song in her honor on his site. On “Glory,” he expressed his joy of becoming a father and revealed that Beyoncé had previously suffered a miscarriage. Jay-Z and Beyoncé also posted a message along with the song, saying “we are in heaven” and Blue’s birth “was the best experience of both of our lives.”
In February 2017, Beyoncé announced on Instagram that she and Jay-Z were expecting twins. “We would like to share our love and happiness. We have been blessed two times over. We are incredibly grateful that our family will be growing by two, and we thank you for your well wishes. The Carters, ” she posted.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé welcomed twins, a boy and a girl, in June 2017. Although the couple didn’t immediately confirm the twins’ birth or their names, People magazine reported that they had filed trademark documents at the United States Patent and Trademark Office for the names Sir and Rumi. In the early morning hours of July 14, Beyoncé made it official, posting a photo in which she holds their 1-month-old twins.
In an article published by T: The New York Times Style Magazine in November 2017, Jay-Z opened up about his marital problems, acknowledged his infidelity and discussed how he and his wife were able to rediscover their bond through therapy.
“I grew so much from the experience,” he said. “But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a … you’re at such an advantage.”
He echoed many of those sentiments in an interview with CNN’s Van Jones in January 2018, acknowledging the difficult patches with Beyoncé and the progress they’d made in repairing their union. “For us, we chose to fight for our love,” he said. “For our family. To give our kids a different outcome. To break that cycle for black men and women.”
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