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Feb 9: Black History Maker, Jay-Z

Jay-Z pulled himself up by his bootstraps to eventually become the reigning rapper of New York City
Jay-Z, BK Reader
Jay-Z. Photo credit: Atlanta Blackstar

One of the greatest, most successful hip-hop artists of all time, Jay-Z was born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4, 1969, in Bedford Stuyvesant.

Carter's father, Adnes Reeves, left the family when Carter was only 11 years old. The young rapper was raised by his mother, Gloria Carter, in Brooklyn's drug-infested Marcy Projects. He had a rough adolescence, detailed in many of his autobiographical songs. He attended Eli Whitney High School in Brooklyn, where he was a classmate of rap legend Notorious B.I.G.

Carter turned to rap at a very young age as an escape from the drugs, violence and poverty that surrounded him in the Marcy Projects. In 1989, at age 19, he joined the rapper Jaz-O to record a song called "The Originators," which won the pair an appearance on an episode of Yo! MTV Raps.

It was at this point that Carter embraced the nickname Jay-Z, which was a play on Carter's childhood nickname of "Jazzy," and a reference to the J/Z subway station near his Bed-Stuy home.

From Jaz-O, he learned how to navigate the rap industry. He also participated in the group Original Flavor for a short time. Jay-Z subsequently decided to make an untraditional decision and start his own label rather than sign with an established label like Jaz-O had done.

Together with friends Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, he created Roc-a-Fella Records in 1996, a risky strategy for cutting out the middleman and making money for himself. Once he found a reputable distributor, Priority Records (and then later Def Jam), Jay-Z finally had everything in place.

In June of that same year, Carter released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. Although the record only reached No. 23 on the Billboard charts, it is now considered a classic hip-hop album, featuring songs such as "Can't Knock the Hustle," featuring Mary J. Blige, and "Brooklyn's Finest," a collaboration with Notorious B.I.G.

Reasonable Doubt established Carter as an emerging star in hip-hop. In 1998, he released the DVD "Streets Is Watching," for which he recorded the soundtrack by the same name. The album fared well commercially, reaching #3 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and having two singles ("It's Alright" and "Love For Free") appear on The Billboard Hot 100.

Two years later, Carter achieved even broader success with the 1998 album Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life. The title track, which famously sampled its chorus from the Broadway musical Annie, became Carter's most popular single to date and won him his first Grammy nomination.

"Hard Knock Life" marked the beginning of a fruitful period in which Carter would become the biggest name in hip-hop. Over the span of those years, the rapper released a slew of No. 1 albums and hit singles. His most popular songs from this period include "Can I Get A ...", "Big Pimpin'", "I Just Wanna Love U", "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "03 Bonnie & Clyde", a duet with Beyoncé Knowles.

Since his album "Hard Knock Life/Volume 2," every Jay-Z solo album has gone at least double platinum. Carter's most acclaimed album of this period was The Blueprint (2001), which would later be named on many music critics' lists of the best albums of the decade.

In 2003, Carter shocked the hip-hop world by releasing The Black Album and announcing that it would be his last solo record before retirement. Asked to explain his sudden exit from rap, Carter said that he once derived inspiration from trying to outshine other great MCs, but had simply gotten bored due to a lack of competition.

"The game ain't hot," he said. "I love when someone makes a hot album and then you've got to make a hot album. I love that. But it ain't hot."

During his hiatus from rapping, Carter turned his attention to the business side of music, becoming president of Def Jam Recordings. As president of Def Jam, Carter signed such popular acts as Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Young Jeezy and helped effect Kanye West's transition from producer to bestselling recording artist.

But his reign at the venerable hip-hop label wasn't all smooth sailing; Carter resigned as Def Jam's president in 2007, complaining about the company's resistance to change from ineffectual business models.

"You have record executives who've been sitting in their office for 20 years because of one act," he lamented.

In 2006, Carter ended his retirement from making music, releasing the new album Kingdom Come, followed by two more albums American Gangster and Blueprint, which sold a total of 3 million copies. This trio of later albums marked a significant departure from Carter's earlier sound, incorporating stronger rock and soul influences in their production and offering lyrics tackling such mature subjects as the response to Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama's 2008 election, and the perils of fame and fortune.

Jay-Z next teamed up with former Roc-A-Fella protégé Kanye West for 2011's Watch the Throne. The album proved to be a triple hit, topping the rap, R&B and pop charts shortly after its August release and went on to garner multiple Grammy nominations, winning one for Best Rap Performance.

In July 2013, Jay-Z unveiled his 12th studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. The effort earned a mixed reception from critics but otherwise fared well with fans, going on to top the Billboard 200 and achieve double-platinum status, earning another whopping nine Grammy nominations, sharing one win for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration with Justin Timberlake for the hit single "Holy Grail."

On June 15, 2017, Jay-Z became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He tweeted about the honor: "I remember when rap was said to be a fad. We are now alongside some of the greatest writers in history." 

Later that month, on June 30, Jay-Z released his 13th solo album, 4:44. It was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America less than a week after its release, solely based on download numbers. The highly personal album, which includes guest artists Beyoncé, Damian Marley and Frank Ocean, was an immediate commercial and critical success, praised for the rapper's candid lyrics and a new level of artistic maturity.

Carter's other, ongoing business ventures include the popular urban clothing line Rocawear and Roc-A-Fella films. He also opened the 40/40 Club, an upscale sports bar with locations in New York and Atlantic City and Las Vegas (since closed), as well as Atlanta.

A part-owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team since 2004, Jay-Z helped spur the relocation of the franchise to a brand-new home in downtown Brooklyn, the Barclays Center, in 2012. In 2013 he launched a full-service sports management company, Roc Nation Sports, and sold his Brooklyn Nets shares in order to pursue certification as a sports agent.

As Carter once rapped about his business empire, "I'm not a businessman -- I'm a business, man." He has often been called "The God MC," which is why he has been called J-Hova (Jehovah).

The business of Jay-Z made headlines once again in March 2015, when he and several of his high-powered friends, including Madonna, Nicki Minaj and Jack White, announced the relaunch of Tidal, a streaming music service.

Carter married his longtime girlfriend, the popular singer Beyoncé Knowles, on April 4, 2008. They live together in an 8,000 square-foot penthouse apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City with their three children Blue Ivy, Sir and Rumi.

In a 2010 cover story, Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed Carter "The King of America." Embodying the rags-to-riches rap dream, Jay-Z pulled himself up by his bootstraps as a youth to eventually become the reigning rapper of New York City.

While that may sound like hyperbole, Carter's ever-growing list of accomplishments places him in largely uncharted territory. Carter has won 10 Grammy Awards and has released 11 No. 1 albums, more than any other solo recording artist in history. Ranked #10 on VH1's 50 Greatest Hip Hop Artists, and he was ranked #7 in the 2008 Forbes The Celebrity 100 list.

He campaigned for Barack Obama and has visited the president in the White House. He is married to arguably the biggest name in pop music, and he signed a $150 million contract with the concert promotion company Live Nation.

Despite all that, Carter remains hungry for new achievements. "There's something else to shoot for," he says. "There's always an extra level you don't know about."

From rags to riches, Jay-Z, has turned his life's misfortunes into megafortunes. In an era when the purveyors of hip hop culture often are the last financial beneficiaries, Jay-Z has managed to stay on top. From the beginning, with the decision to found his own label, to his co-purchase of the New Jersey Nets, he has had the foresight to continually advance his position. 

His role in Hip Hop is critical now more than ever, as so many of today's young aspiring rappers look to his example. The Streets Are Watching. And they should pay close attention: Because, besides being a phenomenal writer and rapper, Jay-Z truly is a business. Man.

Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, we acknowledge your successes, and we honor your outstanding artistry and leadership in business.


February is Black History Month! Every day this month, BK Reader will profile one Black History Maker born or raised in Brooklyn. There are countless Brooklynites— past and present— who have contributed to America's fabric as pioneers or leaders in art, entertainment, sports, science and government. This month, we present to you 28! Click here to see all of the profiles.