‘Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office’ part one

Empire State of Mind:
How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office (Updated)

By Zack O’Malley Greenburg
Published by Portfolio
ISBN: 9781591845409
ebook ISBN: 9781101476079
Copyright © 2012 by Zack O’Malley Greenburg


Buy the Book





Some people think Jay-Z is just another rapper. Others see him as just another celebrity. The reality is, he is first and foremost a business. And as much as Martha Stewart or Oprah, he has turned himself into a lifestyle.


You can wake up to the local radio station playing Jay-Z’s latest hit, spritz yourself with his 91X cologne, slip on a pair of his Rocawear jeans, lace up your Reebok S. Carter sneakers, catch a Nets basketball game in the afternoon, and grab dinner at The Spotted Pig before heading to a music store to pick up Jay-Z’s latest collaboration with Kanye West, and a nightcap at his 40/40 Club. He’ll profit at every turn of your day.


Empire State of Mind reveals the story behind Jay-Z’s rise to the top as told by the people who lived it with him–from classmates at Brooklyn’s George Westinghouse High School, to the childhood friend who got him into the drug trade, to the DJ who persuaded him to stop dealing and focus on the music. This book explains just how Jay-Z propelled himself from the bleak streets of Brooklyn to the heights of the business world.


Zack O’Malley Greenburg is a staff writer at Forbes, where he has covered finance and music since 2005. He has profiled the likes of 50 Cent, Jon Bon Jovi, and Richard Branson, and his stories have taken him from the casinos of Macau to the diamond mines of Sierra Leone. He has also written for The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, and McSweeney’s. He lives in New York City.




One of the wonders and strengths of free enterprise is its openness to newcomers. Entrepreneurs from the most unlikely backgrounds can achieve astonishing success. The key is offering products or services that other people want, even if they didn’t realize they wanted them before they saw them. As Steve Jobs famously answered when asked if he wanted to do market research: “No, because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”


Shrewd recording artists like Jay-Z are hyperaware of this, as I learned while spending an afternoon with him and Warren Buffett in 2010. Musicians create offerings that more often than not are ignored or are greeted with indifference. As Jay-Z puts it, “That model still exists of just putting artists out and seeing what works.”


Shawn Corey Carter epitomizes the essence of the American entrepreneurial spirit. His extraordinary tale—rising from a less-than-ideal childhood to great success—is incisively and sensitively chronicled here by Zack O’Malley Greenburg. You usually learn more about business by studying the lives of its great leaders than by studying courses in business school. And Jay-Z’s fascinating and inspiring biography is proof of this.


Jay-Z’s achievements are especially notable because entertainers are notorious for quickly making money and even more quickly losing it. The things that set Jay-Z apart from this norm are what make Zack’s book timely and the examples and lessons it highlights timeless.


In a way, Jay-Z was fortunate because, by entertainment standards, he started late. As he told me in 2010, “My first album didn’t come out until I was twenty-six, so I had a bit more maturity.” That meant his music was better. “[My debut] album had all these emotions and complexities and layers that a typical hip-hop album wouldn’t have if you were making it at sixteen, seventeen years old. That isn’t enough wealth of experience to share with the world.”


Starting late also meant that Jay-Z had a better grasp of the “here today, gone tomorrow” syndrome. He determined early on that, as much as humanly possible, he would control his destiny. “That was the greatest trick in music that [executives] ever pulled off, convincing artists that you can’t be an artist and make money. For many years artists were dying broke because record companies took advantage of them.”


Jay-Z would therefore make great music and control the business side as well. Moreover, before most others, Jay-Z saw that the digital revolution was disrupting the traditional way of doing things in the music industry. He knew the only way he’d survive and thrive was to make sure he had his arms around all aspects of the business—and not only the music side, but also the extensions of his brand into other areas.


As with any true entrepreneur, Jay-Z is also an iconoclast who knows the importance of not being confined by the conventional wisdom. One conventional axiom in the music industry is that it’s primarily a young person’s business. That Jay-Z is still phenomenally successful in his early forties is amazing. He is because he worked hard to make sure his music speaks not only to a young audience but also to his contemporaries, who are entering middle age.


To that end, Jay-Z is also willing to work with other artists, such as Eminem and Bono, at concerts. He feels that too many performances leave audiences with the feeling that the promoters are out to get every last dollar from them. He wants his events to leave customers feeling the opposite—that they got a heck of a lot more than they bargained for. Like a wise capitalist, Jay-Z always keeps one eye focused on the future.


Entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs have a strong belief in themselves. Jay-Z demonstrated that trait when he laid out $5 million in cash to buy back the rights to a future album the one that would become “Blueprint 3″—from Def Jam’s parent company, Universal Music Group.


There’s an intriguing addendum to the transaction that added a harrowing element of risk: “What people don’t know,” he told me, “is that the day before I flew from Hawaii, I was doing some recording and put it on an iPod. On the plane] I had on jogging pants. And my iPod, with all the music I had recorded, [went] missing. It was on the plane somewhere…Every day I would wake up and check all the Internet places and everywhere. It was like that for three months.”


Imagine laying out $5 million and not knowing if your music would end up being bootlegged all over the Internet! In the end, though, Jay-Z’s boldness paid off. The lost iPod never fell into the wrong hands, and he was able to convince Live Nation to pay him a $10 million advance for “Blueprint 3.”


Zack brings to life the characteristics that Jay-Z shares with other legendary entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and others: passion; the knack for imagining what doesn’t exist; and the iron-willed self-discipline to make that come into existence—what Thomas Edison formulated as “1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration”—as well as the desire to control as much of your destiny as possible; risk-taking by breaking the bounds of the conventional way of doing things; and the ability to bounce back from setbacks.

These are the common characteristics of the entrepreneurial achiever. Seeing how they come together in an individual like Jay-Z is inspiring—and a challenge to the rest of us.

—Steve Forbes
December 2011


part two of  Empire State of Mind appears here tomorrow.  If you’re enjoying this selection from the Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club, go to your local library or better still,  Buy the Book


Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club is a free service made possible with the help of the Sprott Foundation

About Dawn Montgomery

Dawn Montgomery doesn't believe in boxes. In 2009 she gained access to the hidden job market by connecting with commuters on the GO train, receiving coverage from The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Hamilton Spectator, plus interviews with Canada AM, CHML 900 and That Channel; however, this was not the first example of her "box?...what box?" thinking. On arrival as an immigrant to Canada the anticipated job and accommodation were no longer available, so she sourced another opportunity and, seven days later, with suitcase of heels and coordinating bags, drove 1804k to the logging and mining community of Ear Falls (pop. 1500) Ontario; it was January, the journey took five days, she stayed two years...the path less travelled is a familiar one!
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