The Coolest Mogul; Multimillionaire Business Exec Shawn Carter-Jay-Z to You-Is 36 and Still Hasn't Lost His Street Cred. How'd He Manage That?
Ali, Lorraine, Newsweek
Byline: Lorraine Ali
No flashbulbs go off when Jay-Z enters the small downstairs lobby of Soho House, an exclusive hangout looking down on Manhattan's trendy meatpacking district. In fact, no one really even notices the 6-foot-2 guy in droopy jeans and zip-up hoodie until coming face to face with him in the elevator. "Jay!" shrieks a surprised passenger. The passenger's with a shorter friend who's stunned into silence. If only they'd known they'd meet the premier music mogul, entrepreneur and hip-hop MC of their generation--they would've worn their good sneakers. The taller one chatters nervously about some club in Jersey, as his stout buddy's face settles into a frozen smile. Jay-Z puts them at ease with a few simple interjections. "Really?" "Yeah, that's cool." By the time they reach the fifth floor, the guys are comfortable enough to shake hands with him. They even give him a slap-on-the-back goodbye.
No civilian could ever get that close to Diddy--let alone dare touch him. But Jay-Z, a.k.a. Shawn Carter, is not your average hip-hop high roller. Carter, 36, is so conspicuously bling-free and so consistently pleasant that you wonder if he morphs into a megalomaniacal tyrant behind closed doors. At dinner--for which he's dressed in shell-toed Adidas, baggy Rocawear jeans and a Ferragamo blazer--he orders a $615 bottle of wine at dinner, then looks uncomfortable throughout the cork-sniffing/glass-swirling/tasting routine. He appears more laid-back than ambitious, more warm than studied, charismatic but not aggressive. He even raps in his own natural speaking voice--unlike almost any rapper you can think of. It's not that there's no distinction between the star and the man--it's that he navigates between them so gracefully.
There must be something burning beneath Carter's low-key exterior. How else does a high-school dropout from Brooklyn's roughest projects end up in Manhattan's swankiest executive suites? Carter is now worth an estimated $320 million, runs the seminal hip-hop label Def Jam and dates probably the hottest woman on the planet, Beyonce Knowles. And he's got a brand-new CD about to come out--his 10th in 10 years--"Kingdom Come." It's his first since he "retired" as a rapper in 2003, and judging by the buzz, it should be one of his most successful. This month, in partnership with the United Nations, he appears in an MTV documentary about the water crisis in Africa. Whatever is at work in him, it's made him one of the most compelling figures in the music business.
Carter still sees himself as an outsider--the street-smart guy in the boardroom, the black man in a roomful of whites, the rapper convening with the secretary-general. "I don't look at myself as part of that executive club," he says. "I look at myself as the oddball who made it here. I'm sure all the other execs ask behind my back, 'How'd he get here?' I know my story's an uncommon story. I'm amazed at it still. I just played Poland and they knew all the words to my songs. Poland! They were singing the B-sides . I'm like, 'What is this? Who am I?' "
That's been the question at least since Carter was a teenager obsessed with rhyme and rapping. "Before I started recording I had this green notebook that I used to write in incessantly," he recalls. "I would walk through the Marcy projects, where everyone's playing basketball, with my notebook, and that was not a cool thing. You went to school because you had to, but you did not carry books." As a raw rapper, he couldn't get any label to give him a record deal, so in 1995 he and now-estranged business partner Damon Dash started Roc-A-Fella Records with Kareem Burke, and quickly established the label with seven multiplatinum Jay-Z albums in a row.
Carter's outsider intuition is redefining Def Jam's roster. He's proved adept at timing the label's releases, promoting records and finding talent. (Of course, his own records make money, too.) Since coming onboard two years ago, he's brought in Kanye West--offering hip-hop its newest hope--as well as the highly respected Roots, his old rival Nas and such lucrative discoveries as Young Jeezy, Ne-Yo and Rihanna. …