Moving On Up | The Nation


Moving On Up

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In 1982, the year hip-hop began to make it seem like the '60s might finally be over, oversized radios were pumping the utopian futurism of Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and the urban neorealism of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." Downtown darling Jean-Michel Basquiat, known on the New York streets as SAMO, painted a memorial to Charlie Parker that read: most young kings get thier head cut off. The current owner of that painting is a relatively new player in the art-world bull market named Shawn Carter, known around the world as Jay-Z.

About the Author

Jeff Chang
Jeff Chang, a 2008 USA Ford Fellow in Literature, is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop...

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Ten years ago, Jay-Z made his debut with the critically acclaimed album Reasonable Doubt, a portrait of a Bedford-Stuyvesant drug dealer on the verge of his biggest break. Impossibly cool on the surface, his hustler persona was unmistakably desperate at the core. The album was powerfully encapsulated by one of its track titles--a credo that doubled as a refrain, as simple as it was haunting: "Can I live?"

The question seemed particularly timely. Within a year of Reasonable Doubt's release, two rap kings met bloody ends: Tupac Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas, and Shakur's rival and Jay-Z's close friend The Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles. But hip-hop's restless competitive ethos abhors a vacuum at the top, so Jay-Z stepped up and seized the rap crown. During his reign, he underwent a transformation from street hustler to high-end brand name, helping found what advertisers now call the "urban aspirational" market.

Three years ago, having reached what he thought was the limit of his rap powers, he retired on top, like Michael Jordan after his Jazz-killing jumper, with a fine, revealing record, The Black Album. He was burying his rap persona, or at least he said he was. In the summer of 2005, Carter's 18-year-old nephew was killed in an auto accident, driving the Chrysler 300 that had been a graduation present. Who can say how much death has figured in Jay-Z's rise and return? Perhaps living means never quitting.

In 2004 he was named CEO of rap's most storied label, Def Jam, the same one he helped rebuild as a hungry artist. (The deal included the chance to repossess his master recordings, a rare contractual clause rife with racial symbolism.) A tastemaker nonpareil, he started wearing button-downs and Evisu jeans, and urbanwear felt the shock waves. When, having learned of Roederer Cristal's distaste for its urban customers, he stopped drinking the $200 bottles of champagne, thousands joined his boycott. He is the most famous co-owner of the New Jersey Nets and has supported a controversial proposal to move the team to his beloved Brooklyn, a project that has already unleashed rampant real estate speculation.

It wasn't much of a retirement. Before long he was guest-starring on countless recordings and launching high-profile shows and tours. Not even a growing beef with disaffected Roc-A-Fella rapper Cam'ron and his crewmate Jim Jones could slow Jay-Z's hustle. His hobnobbing with champagniers in France or with Gwyneth and Chris in London, as well as requisite outings with his glamorous girlfriend Beyoncé Knowles, became gossip-column fodder. As Brooklyn's answer to Bono, he held court with Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela and traveled to Tanzania and Nigeria to shoot an MTV documentary on the global water crisis. He could have rested on such clout. But he decided he wasn't ready not to risk his neck anymore.

In November he roared out of rap retirement with Kingdom Come. The record is strangely disengaged and absolutely disposable. But its release has occasioned a dazzling display of brand leveraging. In a photo spread for a fawning GQ Man of the Year cover story, Jay-Z threw up a Black Power fist while dressed in a Club Monaco cardigan, a Purple Label button-down and his own Rocawear sweats. The man who used to show off a Che Guevara shirt, his ice chain covering the red star on that famous beret, had repackaged hip-hop's rebellion into a symbol of the postmulticulturalist good life.

As Budweiser Select's "co-brand director," he appeared in a commercial with NASCAR drivers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to announce Kingdom Come's release date during Monday Night Football and the National League championship series. (By comparison, former mentor Sean "P. Diddy" Combs launched his new album with a Burger King-sponsored video on YouTube.) On an HP commercial, Jay-Z outlined a typical executive day with his usual bravado, commenting on an online chess move he had just made: "This game is over. I wonder if he knows."

Jay-Z himself fueled the engines of this monopoly mediascape. When the album leaked onto the Internet, he countered with free previews of Kingdom Come on 220 Clear Channel stations. Then he got in the charter jet for a twenty-four-hour, seven-city tour blitz. Captured online and on TV almost in real time, this act of twenty-first-century omnipresence seemed to spin his hilarious evangelical-baiting, God-complex nickname, J-Hova, into something else. The world was his witness.

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