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.
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.