NEW YORK (Billboard) - At just about any given moment of any given day -- including this sunlit June Friday afternoon -- Jay-Z is a busy man.
Sitting on a swivel chair at his Roc the Mic studios in downtown Manhattan with a glass of Santa Margherita white wine in hand, he tackles interview after interview with Japanese reporters, pausing only to use the restroom or ask his assistant to get him a refill or an order of food from his sports club, 40/40.
But while he handles his international duties, his Roc Nation team -- seven people, including his assistant, longtime publicist and engineers -- make sure his empire runs smoothly. His employees are scattered around the room, some perched on stools or couches, others standing or sitting on the floor, some with laptops before them. His assistant is booking flights, hotels and car service for the BET Awards, which is taking place that weekend; his publicist whispers on the phone about another magazine story.
Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter and raised in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, is the first to admit he could not have achieved half of his successes on his own. But it’s his overarching big-business vision and talent that have positioned him as one of the most well-known and influential artists of his time.
PAYING THE PREMIUM
Following in the footsteps of Madonna and U2, the 39-year-old rapper last year signed a 10-year, $150 million (91.8 million pounds) deal with the concert promotion giant Live Nation that includes touring, publishing and recording.
In May, Jay-Z parted ways with Def Jam, his longtime label home, at the cost of $5 million, but gained control of his future master recordings. In June, he signed a deal with Atlantic to distribute his upcoming, 11th studio album, “The Blueprint 3”; a month later, he signed a deal with Sony for all future Roc Nation releases.
“I still owed an album to Def Jam, but I wanted to have it back for a number of reasons, the most important being that it wasn’t consistent with the type of business I planned for me or where I was positioning myself. Everything in my life I had taken charge of, but yet I was still an artist signed to a label. It seemed a little archaic in my plans,” he says. “I’ve always prided myself on being a principled person. It was more so the principle than the amount of money. It was about owning my own masters and owning my own companies, but you have to pay for the privilege, and that comes at a premium.”
During his career, Jay-Z has sold more than 29 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Forbes recently released its Hip-Hop Cash King list and crowned Jay-Z the highest-earning rapper of the year, knocking down last year’s winner, 50 Cent. According to Forbes, which based its numbers on earnings between June 2008 and June 2009, Jay-Z pulled in $35 million in the past year, mostly from his international tour and his ownership stakes in 40/40 and the New Jersey Nets.
Heading over to Sony seems an ideal fit for Jay-Z, who has a close relationship with Columbia Records co-chairman Rick Rubin, not to mention the fact that his wife, Beyonce, is signed to the label. At one point he thought Def Jam would be more appropriate for such a partnership. But he says the Universal Music Group label passed on the opportunity to develop him into the kind of mogul he wanted to be. (Def Jam had no comment on its relationship with Jay-Z.)
“You have to figure, this is like four years ago, and to them it was just like, ‘Are you crazy? No! Make a song!’” he says. “To me it was like, ‘I’ve sold companies for huge amounts of money. I’m an entrepreneur -- that’s what I’ve been all my life. I can’t just sit here and make records and not do anything else. Why wouldn’t you want to do this with me?’ I felt underutilized.”
Now all of Jay-Z’s ventures are coming into alignment. He will release “The Blueprint 3” September 11, eight years to the day from the debut of the original “Blueprint.”
“This being the end of the trilogy, I wanted to bring it full circle,” he says. “The first ‘Blueprint’ was based on soul samples and more of a place where I came from and the records I listened to growing up with my mom and pop. This ‘Blueprint,’ I liken it to a new classic, simply because we -- Usher, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, myself -- are becoming the people that we looked up to musically growing up, like Marvin Gaye and Frank Sinatra.”
“Blueprint 3” has taken longer to record than any of Jay-Z’s previous albums. The rapper says he finished the project in November, then held it back as he negotiated with Def Jam. “The time gave me a chance to step back, touch it, step back, touch it, rework it. Then I had to keep motivating myself because of the current state of music. My album is a single album, but it’s part of a collective -- the collectiveness of hip-hop,” he says.
So Jay-Z took his time, and let his hair grow out -- as he usually does when he’s in the studio -- and came back with collaborations with producers Kanye West, No I.D. and Timbaland, as well as musician contributions from MGMT, Drake, Mr. Hudson, Rihanna and Kid Cudi. (As of now, there are no collaborations with Beyonce, although he doesn’t rule out the possibility.)
The album’s first single, “D.O.A. (“Death of Auto-Tune),” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 24. On it he rhymes “I know we’re facing a recession, but the music y’all making gonna make it the great depression ... this ain’t politically correct/This might offend my political connects/This is the death of Auto-Tune, moment of silence” over a sample from Janko Nilovic’s “In the Space.”
“In hip-hop our job is, once a trend becomes a gimmick, to get rid of it. We’ve done that since the beginning of time. This isn’t some newfangled thing,” Jay-Z says about the track, which criticizes the overuse of the pitch-correction technology. “When people were wearing the black medallions Ice Cube came along and said, ‘Get it outta here!’ When Hammer was selling 50,000 records, Q-Tip came and said, ‘Get it outta here!’ Then Biggie Smalls came and said, ‘Your life is played out like Kwame in the f---ing polka dots. Get the polka dots outta here!’ It’s just a part of hip-hop.”
Oddly enough, the song was inspired by West, who used Auto-Tune on his most recent album, “808s and Heartbreak.” “He actually sparked the idea,” Jay-Z says. “When he heard the beat he said, ‘Man, this is just so hard! This has to be against everything. No Auto-Tune. None of that type of stuff!’” He adds that he and West recorded one track with Auto-Tune for the album that didn’t get used.
Despite his reputation as one of the masters of the music industry -- or maybe because of it -- Jay-Z still finds himself a target for rappers looking for beefs. One longtime naysayer is the Game, who recently attempted to call out Jay-Z during a show overseas.
“I hear it all the time -- ‘Yo, he should let the young guys, the new generation of guys come in.’ But you don’t become the front-runner in music because someone lets you. You have to claim your shoes,” Jay-Z says. “If you grow up listening to hip-hop, you love hip-hop and that’s the end of it. But if you’re a 30-year-old rapper still trying to make music like you’re 15, then you’re making it narrow. At my age, I can’t relate to a 15-year-old. I deal with mature and relevant topics for my age group -- it has to all be based on true emotions. The more diversity and the more mature we make hip-hop, the bigger the net you cast.”
Jay-Z criticizes some new artists for passing the buck and blaming others for their lack of popularity, but he acknowledges that more successful rappers need to serve as mentors to help develop the genre.
“Kanye is really the father to the next generation -- he’s from the school of Q-Tip, and now Drake and Kid Cudi are from the school of ‘Ye,” he says. “And, when you look at Kanye, you have to look at Lil Wayne. I think they’re like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.”
As the new album’s release date approaches, Jay-Z will put out another single that he hopes to introduce in a nontraditional way. He first generated buzz for “D.O.A.” by performing it live for the first time at WQHT New York’s 2009 Summer Jam concert, and last year he debuted the promo single “Jockin’ Jay-Z” at West’s New York concert. But neither “Jockin’ Jay-Z” nor “Brooklyn Go Hard,” another promo single released last year, are on “The Blueprint 3.”
Any strategizing about singles is just one more part of the promotional power of Jay-Z Inc., which constantly hums in the background. Jay-Z also has a deal with Iconix, the company that purchased his Rocawear fashion line, and a partnership with Scion, which bought the clothing line Artful Dodger in 2007. “We bought that for $15 million, and we’ll continue to build that company. It hasn’t been active in the last year because of what’s going on with the recession, but, when everything bounces back, we’ll focus on it. We’re also looking to buy other companies together as well,” he says.
Then there’s Roc Nation and its various departments, which are practically a full-service business for musicians, from the label to management and publishing. The company also has a deal with Pollux, through which Roc Nation will soon release Rihanna and Kanye West fragrances.
Jay-Z is perfectly aware that this kind of branding -- done for years in the hip-hop world and only now gaining recognition in the overall music business -- is key to his success. “All these things are just part of the culture -- it’s part of living your life,” he says. “It’s not really separate, and if it all has some type of synergy and is all in one place, it has a cohesiveness that it wouldn’t normally have if the guy from Arden was doing your fragrance deal and then this guy was doing your movie deal. They’re not really conversing with each other. If the conversation is happening all in one place, then there’s a more organic and natural thing.”
When Jay-Z speaks like this, it’s easy to imagine him as a full-time mogul, especially since he threatened to retire from hip-hop in 2003. But don’t expect him to leave the stage any time soon. “One day you’ll wake up and say, ‘Man, it’s been five years since this guy has put out an album,’” he says. “Then you’ll realise that I’m gone.”
For now, though, he’s just getting started.