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Jay-Z & Timbaland »

What do you get when you take the greatest living rapper and the greatest hip hip producer. You get one hot album. Sign the petition and lets make it happen.

by rocafan on 11/25/2003 10:33:00 PM

Time Magazine Article

At 33, an age when hip-hop cliche holds that most rappers are irrelevant, bankrupt or dead, Jay-Z is idolized, loaded and routinely spotted within kissing distance of Beyonce Knowles (which is its own special way of being alive). Jay-Z is also profoundly bored. "I've had it with the rap game," he says. "Time to focus on other things. That's why I'm retiring."

Jay-Z has announced his retirement before, but the bulk of his fans still don't believe he's serious. Some think Jay-Z is trying to pull off an elaborate marketing ploy; others can't understand why he would retire from the hip-hop fantasy life. The truth is, it's his fantasy to pull off marketing coups. To coincide with his retirement, Jay-Z is taking a commercial victory lap that includes a final record, The Black Album; a Reebok shoe; a concert tour; and an autobiography to be published by MTV Books (which just might help get the video for his single, Change Clothes, a bit more airtime). All the cross-promotion ensures that Jay-Z will depart the field like a conquering hero — or a Happy Meal.

And that's exactly how he likes it. In many ways, Jay-Z is a pioneer: the first rapper to acknowledge that he cares as much about making money as he does about making records, and the first to use acquisitiveness as the major theme of his music. He has written a few great songs about other subjects — D'Evils, an allegory about the dangers of rap life, is his personal favorite — but he says, "I've talked about wanting to have enough to get out since my first album. I was always more interested in the business side of things."

Jay-Z's final album is a typically magniloquent send-off, with production by the Neptunes and Eminem, among others. The hooks on tracks like What More Can I Say blare like processionals for a hip-hop king, and Jay-Z raps over them with effortless self-aggrandizing. He has kept listeners engaged all these years not with his humility but with a relaxed Brooklyn baritone that makes him sound a bit like a ghetto Sinatra (callous but with enviable style). His upbringing has also made fans a little more sympathetic about his avarice. Born Shawn Carter, Jay-Z grew up in Brooklyn's infamous Marcy projects, shot his brother in an argument at age 12, hit the streets to sell drugs soon after, dodged some bullets at close range and then, at 23, dedicated himself to making millions through rap. "I've taken the whole ride," he says. "I didn't skip any floors. I started at the lower lobby. Went all the way up to the penthouse."

He now owns considerably more than the penthouse. Roc-A-Fella Records, the label Jay-Z co-founded in 1995 when no other label would sign him, has expanded into a diversified corporation, selling everything from clothes to vodka. Under the day-to-day management of his friend Damon Dash, Roc-A-Fella posts estimated annual revenues of $1 billion. "Why should he make records?" asks Russell Simmons, architect of Def Jam, the original hip-hop conglomerate. "Records are a distraction. He could be missing an opportunity to get really rich. I haven't produced a record for 15 years." Simmons, who once oversaw classic albums by Run D.M.C. and LL Cool J, adds, "Making records is over."

This is a remarkable statement, no less so because it's true. Hip-hop has oozed into so many areas of culture that rapping is now like a mail-room job at CAA, the first rung on a potentially prodigious financial ladder. In this light, Jay-Z's retirement is the ultimate act of conspicuous consumption. He has climbed high enough that he can afford to stop.

While a retiring rapper seems like a particularly absurd joke ("Most rappers get up at 5 p.m. anyway," laughs Jay-Z) and the marketing tie-ins surrounding The Black Album would make George Lucas blush, Jay-Z is taking his departing moment seriously, in part because it was brought on by a serious moment. In 1999 he was arrested for stabbing Lance Rivera, a rival producer, in a crowded New York City nightclub. Jay-Z's friends claim that Rivera was bootlegging some of the rapper's music. All Jay-Z will say is that "it was the dumbest thing I ever did." (He pleaded guilty and received three years' probation.) "That was the turning point for me," he recalls. "It was like, O.K., this can all go away fast. You work hard for years, and it can all go away in a night. Slow down, big boy. Think."

Last summer Jay-Z took the first vacation of his life. "Went to the south of France, Sardinia, Corsica, Monte Carlo. For a month I didn't do anything," he says. "We saw some things. We lived life. And that pretty much sealed the retirement." The use of we is as close as Jay-Z comes to talking about his relationship with Beyonce, but he says he sees a future in which he has kids ("the biggest thing missing in my life"), runs Roc-A-Fella and maybe even takes over as president of his corporate music parent, Universal Records. "I really want to make music that lasts. People in the business are chasing hot records, but a hot record is only hot for six months," he says. "Sing me the lyrics to The Thong Song," he challenges.

The problem is that Jay-Z may not be able to outrun his legacy. He begins any criticism of the state of rap with "You know, I love hip-hop ..." but he believes that the numerous rappers behind him on the ladder lack his style and have turned rap into a much crasser art form. Jay-Z has always had fairly catholic tastes, but he now finds himself listening more to John Mayer and Coldplay than to rap. "There's not a bunch of hip-hop artists that you can relate to once you hit 30," he says. "I think, unfortunately, rap music is made to destroy itself. You have to be fresh and sell to an audience that's 16 to 25. They demand that you 'keep it hood,' 'keep it real.'" He says this sadly, but he can't deny responsibility. Today's records show: rap artists are doing it his way.

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