The Last Hustle

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

You can now walk a mile in Jay-Z's shoes. As of April 2003, two different S. Carter by Reebok models went on sale for $99.99. So not only can you drink the Armadale vodka he hawks at the club he owns and dress your entire family in outfits from his Rocawear clothing line, you can buy footwear with his signature on the back. But after listening to Jay-Z's most revealing record ever, The Black Album, you still won't understand how it feels to inhabit his pristine 10-and-a-halfs.

Jay-Z wears each pair a maximum of twice. "I've noticed that when people have had money for a long time, they never talk about it, they don't show it," he told me during an interview at Baseline Studios in New York—wearing jeans, a jacket, and S. Carters, of course. "But I'm that same kid from that neighborhood with that insecurity, who feels like if I get the car I'll feel better about myself because it's been too long feeling bad about myself. Lyor Cohen wears New Balances 80 times. If I wear Reeboks two times, I gotta get rid of 'em." He paused and smiled. "I'll get there one day." After saying "If I wear," Jay-Z began an almost imperceptible "N" sound, but stopped himself before completing the word "Nikes," replacing that financially inconvenient stutter with "Reeboks." Jay-Z has the first sneaker deal for a non-sports star to protect.

He's also got a reputation to look after. Jay-Z is a confidence artist, and he's gotten rich by not making it personal—teaching the swagger but seldom betraying the emotional limp that caused it. Now, after nine studio albums and undisclosed millions in revenue, Jay-Z says he's retiring from rap. He claims that he's no longer inspired by the hip-hop world, but the content of The Black Album and his contemplative conversational tone suggest that he isn't just bored by what other people are doing—he's bored by the alter ego he's outgrown. The risk-averse rapper calculates, however, that it's the smooth criminal the public has fallen for—the reason he can sell athletic footwear without a jump shot—and he's not about to jeopardize his financial future. Instead, he's doing his best to preserve the myth for posterity.

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.

On a Metro North train the day after The Black Album is released, a young woman carrying a Rocawear bag listens to the album on her headphones. She's mouthing the lyrics already. Jay-Z's recording persona is so compelling because though he's still a caricature—certain features are disproportionately emphasized—he's an elegantly rendered one. Says Kanye West, the producer responsible for some of Jay's most sinuous beats, "Jay-Z can't be a loser. He can't say anything that could come off as uncool. And if he does he has to figure out the coolest way to say it." Somehow, in spite of the disposables he's picked up along the way—shiny shirts, Shaquille O'Neal collaborations, rotating cast of Roc-A-Fella sidekicks, endless product placements—Jay-Z's Teflon nonchalance seems timeless.

"Coming up, I experienced the worst pain a person can experience, period," Jay-Z said. "Your pop is your superman, and when that's taken away from you, you never want to put yourself in that position again." He explained the birth of his cool candidly. "I always grew up [thinking], if you say you don't care about it, then no one can hurt you. People called me jazzy, I was a cool guy for my age, but that's where it stemmed from."

Jay-Z patented his chilly brand of calm on his classic debut, 1996's Reasonable Doubt, which is still his favorite. "It was my first album, so I didn't have a target audience," he said. "I didn't know anything about making music. That was the best album for me because I was just doing what came naturally." Reasonable Doubt is honest not in the sense of soul-baring but in the sense of unselfconscious. "I was just trying to tell a story and keep it in rhyme form so that my friends would be like, 'Wooo,' " he said. Concealed within the album are a wealth of tricky lines you brush past at first. On the hustler reality check "D'Evils," he raps, "You know the demon said it's best to die/And even if Jehovah Witness, bet he'll never testify." "I call that the Easter egg hunt," Jay-Z told me. "With every album I try to do that, but I think that was the one that had the most Easter eggs."

Since Reasonable Doubt, writing has become an exercise in restraint for Jay-Z. He admits as much on The Black Album's "Moment of Clarity," where he rhymes, "I've dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollars/They criticize me for it yet they all yell holler." Jay-Z explained: "Now I know how to make a song so I know when to turn it on and turn it off. I know when to take my foot off the pedal, when I'm gonna lose everyone." By his next album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, he was playing the market—Jay-Z worked with Puff Daddy and commissioned dubious Hype Williams videos. At the beginning of the record comes a stage whisper that sets the tone: "Man look at these suckers/I ain't no rapper, I'm a hustler."

Jay-Z's friend Notorious B.I.G.—who was able to balance his street persona with pop success, and whose posthumous Life After Death earned 10 platinum plaques—provided the template, not to mention the producer. Jay uses Vol. 1 to pay homage to B.I.G. while claiming his recently deceased friend's King of New York crown. Jay-Z may also have been inspired by the third member of the holy trinity of rap he anoints on the razor-sharp Vol. 1 track "Where I'm From": Nas. Nas's debut, 1994's Illmatic, was a cognoscenti record that sold gold. Right after Reasonable Doubt came out in June of 1996, Nas released It Was Written, which made concessions to commercial radio, notably via the single "Street Dreams." It Was Written was certified double platinum in two months, just as Reasonable Doubt was certified gold. Since then, none of Jay-Z's albums has sold less than platinum. But though he'd prioritized his cash flow, Jay-Z didn't put all his Easter eggs in that basket. Throughout his career, he has often enlivened the radio with cunningly addictive tracks like 2000's "I Just Wanna Love U." And even when his music is mediocre, there's a line or two hidden in there for the close listeners—and maybe for him too. One gets the sense that he's trying to keep himself amused.

In 1998, shortly after the release of the mega-selling Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life, Jay wanted to make an album for his original audience. "I'll never forget that day," said DJ Premier, who has collaborated with Jay-Z since he was down with Big Daddy Kane. "The phone rang, and it was Jay—at that time we had each other's numbers," recalled Premier. "He said, 'I want to do this thing called the Black Album. I want to take a good two or three weeks and just lock in with you, you do nothing but this album. I want you to produce the entire thing. I'm not gonna do no singles. I'm not gonna do nothing, just throw it out.' I was down, and then there was talk of a Black Album in the street, but it never happened."

Five years later, Jay-Z has released a very different Black Album—one that doesn't include any production from Primo—but he still feels constrained by fame. "We as artists are faced with keeping it real and going back to the 'hood and making the hardcore record, so we don't get criticized like 'Aw, he fell off,' " he said. "Whenever a person tries to go and do different things, they condemn it as a sellout attempt. Myself included, we can't be afraid to grow. What's the point if we can't talk about the things we've seen?" Andre 3000's album is one of his favorites right now: " 'Y'all don't hear me, y'all just wanna dance.' I can relate to that. He wants to be totally honest, he wants to tell the truth, but 'Y'all just wanna dance.' I know what he feeling right there."

That frustration shows on The Black Album. Though Jay-Z never steps out of character—he does the dancefloor ditty, the narco-nostalgia, the ego trip—he no longer seems entirely comfortable playing his role. When during a listening session, he played the track "99 Problems" for a group of journalists, he took great pains to explain that the word bitch as used in the song doesn't refer to women, and therefore isn't misogynistic. Either he thought we were a very gullible bunch or he felt conflicted about his use of the term, embarrassed even. I doubt he offered any such disclaimer when he played "Can I Get a . . . " back in 1998. Later on, when I asked him about the fluffy phoned-in Neptunes single "Change Clothes," he said, "It's not degrading at all," as if that justified its existence.

Having come clean about his crowd-pleasing career path on the new album, Jay-Z claimed in person that he was trying to recapture the uncompromising rhyme style of Reasonable Doubt. "I stopped dumbing down more than ever," he said. Maybe, but Jay-Z has sold his character so well that he seems afraid to swap it for a newer model. Said Kanye West, "I think Jay probably does want to rap about more honest stuff, but that's not what he came into the game to rap about." He fulfills his audience's expectations for quick-fix singles like "Change Clothes." And he still plays the intelligent gangster who, like the Eskimos, has a hundred words for snow—when he said, "I'm running on fumes" during the brief Q&A after the listening session, he could have been referring to the long dissipated crack smoke that he still conjures in rhyme. According to Kanye West, "Jay wanted to take it back to before he was in the industry, to the drug game, to make it like how Reasonable Doubt was." But back then, Jay-Z's life and his recording persona coincided; he had barely retired from street life. That's no longer true, which may be why, though he offers the finessed violence of old on "Threat," Jay-Z adds an unmistakable wink to the track. He doesn't carry a gun anymore.

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."

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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