The Fame And Fortune Of Jay Z

Rapper and businessman Jay Z came up hard in Brooklyn to become a major mogul. We’ll look at the world and message of Jay Z’s fame and fortune.

This May 1, 2013 file photo shows Jay-Z at "The Great Gatsby" world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision via AP)

This May 1, 2013 file photo shows Jay-Z at “The Great Gatsby” world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision via AP)

If you know Jay Z, you know his story. He never stops rapping about it.

The Brooklyn kid who came up hard, dealt crack, broke out and up into the music business, went big. And then bigger. To mogul status. Empire builder. Beyonce on his arm. Warren Buffet at his side. Swanning through the White House.

A king, he raps in his new album. A god. Well, definitely an icon.

This hour, On Point: The life, times and message of American icon, Jay Z.

– Tom Ashbrook


Andrew Rice, contributing editor for New York Magazine, whose latest piece is “‘Oh, I’m So Good At Math': Lessons From The Jay-Z Business Model.” (@riceid)

James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies, professor of English at Lehigh University, and founder of Hip Hop Scholars.(@DrJamesPeterson)

Interview Highlights

James Braxton Peterson on Jay Z’s pivotal role in the hip hop world:

“Jay Z has sort of perfected the craft of rapping and rhyming.”

– James Braxton Peterson

“Where we can all, I think, find some consensus and agreement is on the fact that Jay Z has sort of perfected the craft of rapping and rhyming. Obviously this form has been around since the mid-’70s, has gone through different developments in different eras. Hip hop culture has kind of unfolded as the information era has unfolded. And so, along with the sort of corollary technological developments and the differences in production styles, hip hop has endured as American popular culture. And Jay Z has — and we could debate about the content of his work, and I think that’s worth having a discussion — but the actual form of rapping, he’s simply one of the best. When you take a look at his work, his use of prosody, his use of illusions, his rhyme schemes, his style, his braggadocio, all of those things situate him close to or at the top in terms of the ranking of MCs and different rap artists over the course of the history of hip hop culture.”

Andrew Rice on Jay Z’s business savvy and Samsung’s promotion of his new album:

“He would be an equally fine subject matter for a business school course … In a way, he has not only a great deal to offer scholars of poetry and music but also people who are looking for lessons on how to make money off of music, which as increasingly difficult thing to do these days.

“Just like everyone else in America, I was taken by surprise when, during Game 5 of the NBA finals, all of a sudden a three-minute commercial — which is like the “Lawrence of Arabia” commercials comes on:

“Basically what happened is, if you went to the website you’re directed to, you found out that if you owned a Samsung phone or tablet, you could download an app; that app would give you kind of clues to the nature of the songs, the lyrics and so on, and ultimately would give you a free copy of the album. The benefit for Jay Z of this deal was that Samsung bought one million copies of the album at $5 a piece, so it gave him $5 million. He basically broke even, one analyst told me, on the cost of producing the album, before he even put the thing out. The promotion — Samsung basically paid for gigantic promotional campaign that helped to push the album to the top of the billboard charts where it is now.

“Jay Z’s brand is really about being very good at branding.”

– Andrew Rice

“Jay Z’s brand is really about being very good at branding. So what Samsung buys with the association with Jay Z is the world knows, Jay Z’s fans and everyone else knows if Jay Z is associating himself with Samsung, then this must be a company that has a similarly kind of canny approach to business. His genius as a business man, if not necessarily as an artist, is that he’s been able to make it so that selling out is not just the culmination of his work, but actually the subject of his work.”

Peterson on Jay Z as a pop cultural icon:

“Over the course of time, Jay Z has positioned himself as the kind of cutting edge, at the vanguard of what’s cool.”

– James Braxton Petereson

“Over the course of time, Jay Z has positioned himself as the kind of cutting edge, at the vanguard of what’s cool. It started off just being what’s inner city, urban cool or what’s drug dealer chic type of coolness. Then he kind of expanded that into broader sets of black popular culture … At this point, his sights have been set on Americana more broadly conceived, and he’s kind of situated himself at the top of popular American culture. And he’s done that not just through the music but through all the different sort of brand influence or opportunities that he’s had … He’s done it with his own brands as well as with other brands.

“The important piece of this Samsung deal is that the album got earlier to his specific listeners. That three or four day lead time is very, very important. It’s not just about getting the album in advance; it’s about being the cool people who have the cool phone to get the cool album in advance. And that’s the kind of currency that Jay Z’s business persona and his artistic persona have crafted over the course of time. As a pop cultural figure, he really thrives at the intersection of art and commerce. And that goes from everything he does in terms of marketing and promotions to the actual music and the content of the music itself.”

[Advisory: The following song, “Holy Grail” (featuring Justin Timberlake) from Jay Z’s new album “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” contains explicit language.]

Rice on the “gangster story” in Jay Z’s music:

“I think that the gangster story has, for a very long time — you could even make the argument from the very beginning of his career — has been in his rear view mirror. His music has always been about making a transition from one life to a very different type of life … I think he never was rapping about violence in the same way that N.W.A. was.”

Peterson on Jay Z’s wealth and charity vs. social justice:

“I think we should still challenge him, both on the ethos of capital accumulation in this particular moment and moving away from charity — he talks a lot about charity, but I don’t hear him talking so much about justice.”

– James Braxton Peterson

“My sense of what Jay Z’s brand is probably a little bit darker … which is to say that he’s extremely well gifted at holding forth on this model of what capital accumulation looks like in the 21st century. We’re in this era where inequality is expanding, where we’re struggling with the Democratic party and with progressives to understand what that means, what does it mean in this kind of late, global, capitalist system where inequality expands even as we reach certain benchmarks in our society. I think Jay Z is a model in that particular moment where capital accumulation can still be aspirational because of where he’s come from and how he articulates. And even though he’s a singular figure, he is still a man amongst the people in certain ways. So he’s able to walk a very, very thin line where he can still, I think, be aspirational and inspiring to some folk. But I think we should still challenge him, both on the ethos of capital accumulation in this particular moment and moving away from charity — he talks a lot about charity, but I don’t hear him talking so much about justice.

“Jay Z speaks about … the ways in which his neighbors in his own building were very, very reluctant when he moved in. And he raps about a little bit, talking about blue bloods looking down on him and trying to clown him and things like that. He experiences racism; it’s quite a bit different than the kind of structural racism that young black men from his community experience on a day-to-day basis.

“Jay Z is still going to experience certain forms of elite racism and elitism in the kind of communities he’s in.”

– James Braxton Peterson

“We need to understand, number one, capital accumulation might be popular to rhyme about but we can’t ignore the inequality and the experiences of those folk who are still suffering from social injustices in the community out of which Jay Z emerged. I think we have to really challenge him to stay rooted in that set of experiences.

“Jay Z is very much invested in this concept of anonymous charity. He’s given a lot to different causes and he does so a lot of times anonymously. I think what I’d love to see him talk about is the difference between charity and justice. Because you can be extremely wealthy and you can give to certain causes and that might make you feel good and that might help a lot of different situations, but there’s also the issues around social justice — sentencing disparities around crack cocaine, which you [Jay Z] used to hustle. How do we get that to be realized in the criminal justice system right now? How do we work to get jobs in the community out of which you emerged?

“I think that consummate transcendence just doesn’t work in any way because Jay Z is still going to experience certain forms of elite racism and elitism in the kind of communities he’s in. And we, as his listeners and constituents, have to continue to push him and challenge him. And it’s not about necessarily changing his music or making his music all about social justice — though that would be great for me — I think it’s more about helping our artists to understand they can play a very, very important role in the range of social justice efforts going on.”

Rice took a different take on Jay Z’s approach to social justice:

“Jay Z’s message is the best revenge, or the best kind of social justice, is redressing economic injustice. You can argue whether that’s really the right way to go about it. [TOM: It’s very practical.] That’s what Jay Z would probably tell us — the best revenge is becoming very rich.”

Peterson on the reach of Jay Z’s impact (yes, including Miley Cyrus twerking):

“We have to be careful about who’s listening to Jay Z and when they’re listening to him. I don’t think that most of his fans are teens, by the way. I’m sure that he has a lot of teenage fans, but Jay Z’s audience is getting older, and those of us who have been following him for a long time, for instance, understand that Miley Cyrus shout out in a very different way.

[Advisory: The following song, “Somewhereinamerica” from Jay Z’s new album “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” contains explicit language. The final lyrics reference Miley Cyrus.]

“What he’s saying is that Miley Cyrus is a stand in for every young, white girl across this nation who might be dancing or twerking to a Jay Z song; it’s him bragging about his impact and his capacity to earn in this particular industry.”

– James Braxton Peterson

“There’s a whole context and story and back and forth between him and Miley Cyrus. Miley Cyrus talked about partying to a Jay Z song in one of her songs, and then she sort of leaked out the fact that she never really listened to Jay Z. And he kind of chastised her a little bit for that. What he’s saying is that Miley Cyrus is a stand in for every young, white girl across this nation who might be dancing or twerking to a Jay Z song; it’s him bragging about his impact and his capacity to earn in this particular industry within the context of this exchange he’s had with Miley Context over the last couple of years.”

One of our callers said he was uncomfortable with Jay Z’s use of the N-word. Peterson reflected on the historical meaning of the word and its continued use:

“I think this is a particular word. I’m not interested in censoring any artist, by the way, but I do want artists to understand the historical significance and import of this word. Certainly within certain private speech communities, black speech communities or racist communities, the term is used often and in different ways that exist outside of its traditional definitions. All of that is OK. But once you put it on a record … it engenders all of its historical weight. And that’s what makes it so complex.

“Instead of trying to censor it or instead of trying to bury the word, I’m much more interested in raising critical awareness around it and how it gets used. And I think it would be great if artists could spend a little bit more time thinking more critically about how and when it gets used … The word doesn’t play the same for each generation. There are younger people who might be listening to Jay Z’s album and they interpret it a little bit differently than older folk do. I think for younger people, sometimes, they disassociate or divorce the term from its historical legacy. And what I would challenge them to do is not to do that. I’m not saying you can’t have linguistic felicity, that it can’t mean different things in different contexts, but that only works in private speech communities. Once you put it in public, you put it on a record, you cannot divorce it from its historical context, and that’s where it gets complicated.”

[Advisory: The following song, “Open Letter,” contains explicit language.]

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Magazine: ‘Oh, I’m So Good at Math’: Lessons From The Jay-Z Business Model: “When he started out, his lyrics reflected a life not far removed from drug dealing. A few years ago, he and his wife, Beyoncé Knowles, were photographed in the White House Situation Room, with Jay-Z occupying the chair of President Obama, a fan. To a degree that rivals any entertainer, Jay-Z has managed to reconcile the dualities of black and white cultures, Bed-Stuy and Tribeca, art and commerce. There’s a reason why he likes to call himself, among many other things, J-Hova. But behind the bombast and heroic couplets, there is a man named Shawn Carter. His success is not just a metaphor: It is the product of a canny commercial intelligence.”

USA Today: Jay-Z’s No. 1 ‘Magna Carta’ Extends Rap’s Hot Streak: “Magna’s tally, the year’s second-highest sales week behind Justin Timberlake’s 968,000 for The 20/20 Experience, was higher than predicted and especially impressive considering the freebies. ‘The advertising and promotion broadened the scope of who the consumer is,’ Bakula says. ‘You have people who weren’t rabid Jay-Z fans being exposed and getting wrapped up in the story and content. In one widely watched NBA game (with a commercial that announced the album and giveaway), you’re reaching a massive audience.'”

Spin: Don’t Believe The Hyphen: Jay-Z Would Like To Be Called Jay Z Now: “The rapper formerly known as Jay-Z has been known to stylize his name as Jay-Z for some time. Now word has trickled down through the powers-that-be that Jay-Z is what we’re all supposed to be calling him for the foreseeable future. Billboard editor Joe Levy reported the name change last night on Twitter, citing label sources. And Billboard has now adopted that punctuation (or lack thereof) in its articles.”


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