Empire State of Mind:
How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office (Updated)
By Zack O’Malley Greenburg
Published by Portfolio
ebook ISBN: 9781101476079
Copyright © 2012 by Zack O’Malley Greenburg
At 12:10 a.m. on October 4, 1969, Brooklyn’s last Myrtle Avenue elevated train rumbled off into the night: Two months later Shawn Corey Carter—better known as Jay-Z—entered the world, making his first home in the nearby Marcy housing projects. The sprawling complex of drab six-story brick buildings today sits five blocks from the Myrtle Avenue line’s ghostly remains, a block-long hollow structure that nobody ever bothered to knock down. During Jay-Z’s formative years, the rest of Bedford-Stuyvesant was similarly neglected by the authorities; as the drug trade flourished in the 1980s, lessons of supply and demand were never farther than the nearest street corner. Even now, hallmarks of Marcy’s past remain: the padlocked metal gates guarding each parking space, the apartment numbers stenciled in white paint beneath street-facing windows to help police catch escaping perpetrators, and, of course, the rusted railway skeleton over Myrtle Avenue, just steps from the platform where the J and Z subways now roll into a modern train station.
The following pages will explain just how Jay-Z propelled himself from the bleak streets of Brooklyn to the heights of the business world. In making that journey, he’s gone from peddling cocaine to running multimillion-dollar companies, with worldwide stops at sold-out concerts along the way. Once Jay-Z got going, it took him less than ten years to complete that voyage, thanks to innate talents honed through hustling. His story is the American dream in its purest form, a model for any entrepreneur looking to build a commercial empire.
Jay-Z wouldn’t be where he is today were it not for his remarkable abilities as a rhymester and wordsmith. Most hip-hop buffs place him in rap’s pantheon, alongside the likes of Rakim, KRS-One, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G. Jay-Z’s first album, “Reasonable Doubt,” packs a life’s worth of lyrics into a single disc, backed by beats thick with soul and jazz. Though his first album is still considered one of hip-hop’s greatest, he garnered criticism for heading in a pop-oriented direction in subsequent efforts. Jay-Z readily admits this was all part of his plan to sell more records. “I dumbed down for my audience, doubled my dollars,” he says in one song. “They criticize me for it, yet they all yell, Voila.”
While some of Jay-Z’s catchier choruses have drawn the scorn of purists, radio hits like “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” were instrumental in broadening hip-hop’s appeal. Jay-Z has helped a cultural movement born amid the ashes of the South Bronx flourish in the fertile fields of the American mainstream. With his aid, hip-hop has gone all the way to the White House. Barack Obama referenced Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” at a press conference in early 2008 and reportedly called Jay-Z early in his first presidential campaign to ask “what’s going on in America.” Mid-career classics like “The Blueprint” (2001) and “The Black Album” (2003) earned critical acclaim, and both sold more than two million copies. “The Blueprint” (2009) was Jay-Z’s eleventh number-one album, breaking Elvis Presley’s record for a solo act. At the time of this book’s publication, Jay-Z had sold over fifty million records worldwide.
This book’s focus is not music, but business, a field in which Jay-Z’s prowess rivals his considerable musical talents. He pulled in $63 million in 2010, more than twice as much as the next highest paid hip-hop impresario, Sean “Diddy” Combs. Jay-Z is regularly recognized by Forbes, Fortune, and others as one of the most successful moneymakers in his industry and beyond. In 2010, he earned more than all but seven CEOs in the country; executives who made less than Jay-Z include Howard Schultz, Michael Dell, and Ralph Lauren.
One of the main reasons for this success is Jay-Z’s ability to build and leverage his personal brand. 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 9IX 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 (Jay-Z owns a stake in both) before heading to an evening performance of the Jay-Z—backed Broadway musical “Fela!” and a nightcap at his 40/40 Club. But leave the gold jewelry at home, ditch the baggy shorts and athletic jersey, and don’t even think about drinking Cristal: pop-culture arbiter Jay-Z has pronounced all of these items verboten. Instead, consider wearing a platinum Audemars Piguet watch along with a crisp pair of jeans and a dress shirt, preferably by Rocawear, while drinking Armand de Brignac “Ace of Spades” champagne. He’ll profit at every step. As he says in one of his songs, “I’m not a businessman—I’m a business, man.”
Jay-Z has a nose for money. It drew him away from music and toward the drug trade as a teenager, then back to music as a young adult. In the middle of his career, it took him from the studio to the boardroom, then back to the studio. It’s led him to a little bit of both in recent years, creating marketing synergies at every turn. He has a unique ability to set trends and profit from them, and he has milked many of his ventures for astronomical profits. Jay-Z pulled in $204 million for selling his Rocawear clothing line in 2007; the following year, he secured a ten-year, $150-million deal with concert promoter Live Nation at the top of the market. By my estimate—informed by three years of evaluating the fortunes of billionaires and writing about the business of hip-hop for Forbes—Jay-Z’s personal fortune stands at nearly half a billion dollars. With a little luck, he’ll make it to ten figures before his social security checks start to arrive.
part three 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