The Last Hustle

Jay-Z Leaves Hip-Hop With Something to Remember Him By—The Black Album, With Matching Sneakers

Instead of illuminating the person he is now—a grown man who golfs—Jay applies his newfound insights to his past, delving into his motivations for hustling. "At least let me tell you why I'm this way," he says on the first track, "December 4th," and proceeds to use the album to explain, justify, and even apologize for his past. On "Allure," he raps, "I put my feet in the footprints left to me, without saying a word/the ghetto's got a mental telepathy/man, my brother hustled so naturally up next is me." Of course, this introspection isn't simply a function of his artistic integrity. Jay-Z is adding nuance to his personal mythology to make his legacy more compelling. Nowhere is this more evident than in his mother's guest spot on "December 4th," in which she describes the auspicious debut of her 10-pound, eight-ounce son Shawn: "[He] didn't give me any pain when I gave birth to him, and that's how I knew that he was a special child."

In his own words, Jay-Z is irreplaceable. So whether you buy the brown-on-beige S. Carters or the Black Album special edition color scheme, Jay-Z reminds you on "Justify My Thug" that you can't really wear his shoes. "Try to put your dogs in it/Ten-and-a-halfs, for a minute-and-a-half/Bet that stops all the grinning and the laughs." But though he's concerned with protecting his mystique, Jay-Z seems to genuinely crave inspiration. When I met with him, I gave him a copy of a critical—and I do mean critical—essay on Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, and The Blueprint that I contributed to the book Classic Material. The following day, he called to tell me that it provoked him to write a new second verse for "Public Service Announcement." He said that what he appreciated most about the piece was its honesty, and invited me to come to Baseline and hear the cut.

After a long scheduling delay, I finally returned to the studio, as E!, Extra, CNN, and New York 1's celebrity chaser George Whipple waited for on-camera interviews. I ran into Jay-Z and he said he thought he'd be able to play it for me. An hour later, however, he got pulled into a two-hour meeting with Reebok, and that was that. When I heard it a few days later in the comfort of my own home, I was struck by part of the new verse: "Hope you don't think users are the only abusers niggas getting high within the game/If you do then how would you explain I'm 10 years removed still the vibe is in my veins/I've got a hustler's spirit, nigga period."

Confidence artist Jay-Z got rich by not making it personal.
photo: Jonathan Mannion
Confidence artist Jay-Z got rich by not making it personal.

Those lines clarify a lot. In hip-hop, a culture that confuses cleverness with wisdom, Jay-Z is certainly one of the best. But he's a hustler first, an artist second. Producer Kanye West is also a rapper, with his solo debut due early next year. In an interview I did with him in August for Vibe, he told me, "My claim to fame is to be honest." So towards the end of our recent conversation, I asked West what would happen if Jay-Z talked about all the things he's seen, not just the safe, dangerous stuff—if he started making music from the pit of his stomach. He paused, and then said: "Can you imagine that? I wouldn't have a chance."

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