Jay-Z’s Hard-Knock Week


If I shoot you, I’m brainless. But if you shoot me, you’re famous. What’s a nigga to do? When the streets is watching, blocks keep clocking. Waiting for you to break, make your first mistake . . . —Jay-Z, “Streets Is Watching”

Last Wednesday night, Jay-Z (né Shawn Carter) allegedly made that first mistake. During a release party for Q-Tip’s new album at the Kit Kat Club, a fight broke out in the VIP section that resulted in the stabbing—once in the chest and once in the back—of Lance “Un” Rivera, record executive and, by all accounts, a friend of Jay’s. It’s rumored that Rivera, who has worked with Biggie Smalls, Lil’ Kim and Cam’ron among others, had been facilitating the bootlegging of Jay’s new album, Vol. 3—The Life & Times of S. Carter, and that the attack was retributive.

Just hours before, Jay had performed selections from the album to a packed Irving Plaza, where he’d held his own listening session. The next night, after eluding police for over a day, he turned himself in, eventually getting released on $50,000 bail. If convicted of the attack, he could face up to 25 years in prison.

It’s hard not to kill niggas. It’s like a full-time job not to kill niggas.

In the era of Tupac and Biggie, the world of big talents and even bigger talkers, Jay-Z has always been the silent counterpart to his rowdy peers, near enough to the fray without ever being part of it. His slick-yet-reflective hustler persona (recall the tasteful ostentation of a fedora, white silk scarf and tie on the cover of his first album, Reasonable Doubt) was a far cry from typical thugdom. He knew how to get ugly; he just didn’t.

Not that it wasn’t ever called for. The player haters, the madd rappers, the wannabe flossers—they all take their toll over time, but still Jay remained unfettered, a shining example of the delicate balance between street credibility and pop appeal. The undisputed King of New York, he still had white kids in Oklahoma and grannies on the Upper East Side singing along to his version of “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” Nowhere to go but down.

Y’all niggas ain’t worth my shells. All you niggas trying to do is hurt my sales.

Far from an aberration, the bootlegging of Jay-Z’s album—and it most certainly has been bootlegged; check a street corner near you—is part of a larger epidemic. Recent releases by Nas, Rakim and Mobb Deep hit the streets months before the official release dates, though in slightly different versions.

Jay and Def Jam had been planning an extensive marketing campaign to boost the album to sales of a million copies in the first week of release (according to Def Jam, the album’s December 28 release date is unchanged). A little bootlegging around town would hardly damage their chances. That something so banal, so inevitable, could have triggered this series of events is not just stupid, it’s tragic.

Everybody want a piece of your scrilla, so you gotta keep it realer.

After the breakout success of last year’s Vol. 2—Hard Knock Life, the expectations on Jay-Z were greater than ever. In fact, it’s been speculated that the entire stabbing incident was part of some large marketing conspiracy to guarantee strong buzz and sales. In hip-hop, where crime is often flipped as a marketing tool, having your artist splashed across the cover of the Daily News may well work financial wonders, but that option seems absurd for a man in Jay’s position. Still, the very existence of such a theory hints at an underlying belief that Jay, of all rappers, is too smart to go out like this. Business, never personal.

Just before the attack, Jay, ever the poet, allegedly told Rivera, “Lance, you broke my heart.” But the real betrayal here has little to do with financial squabbles and crushed trust. Rather, it’s about spending an entire career cultivating a commercially and creatively successful persona; then, just on the verge of a complete triumph, tossing those years of perspective out the window over what amounts to, at most, a few thousand dollars and a bruised ego. The life and times of Shawn Carter are spiraling downward. Et tu, Jigga?