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FEATURE: Jay-Z, ‘Bout Me

Photography Michael Lavine
Photography Michael Lavine

Working with Jay-Z keeps you on your toes. You’ve gotta be prepared to roll at a moment’s notice. And once things are in motion, plans change, then get rearranged. Start times for photo shoots and interviews are moved around, then locked down, then moved again. But if you want to work with arguably the greatest rapper of all time, you deal with it. It’s not like you don’t know how busy he is.

Over the past 13 years in hip-hop, Jay-Z has gone from an on-the-come-up lyricist (1996’s Reasonable Doubt), to a label owner (Roc-A-Fella Records), to a multiplatinum-selling rapper (1998’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life), to a classic-album-recording artist (2001’s The Blueprint), to a major-record-label executive (Def Jam president), to the builder of a sprawling empire, with a successful clothing line (Rocawear), stakes in an NBA team (New Jersey Nets), a chain of trendy sports bars (40/40 Club), his own fragrances (9IX and X) and a creative new venture (Roc Nation). That’s not even delving into his smaller, lesser-known, unconfirmed, secret or on-hold business dealings.

But most recently, Jay’s time has been dedicated to The Blueprint 3, his 11th solo album and 14th overall including three collaboration LPs. It’s the second follow-up to the Brooklyn MC’s classic, The Blueprint, released on the eight year anniversary of the reverred disc, which is also the eighth anniversary of 9/11. But unlike any of Hov’s previous LPs, BP3 doesn’t have a Def Jam or Roc-A-Fella logo on the back. After 12 years signed to Def Jam—three of those as pres—Jay split ways with the powerhouse label, after buying back his last remaining album from the company for a reported $5 million. He’s since been focused on Roc Nation, an entertainment, publishing and management company he has in an unprecedented partnership with mega concert promoters, Live Nation. The Blueprint 3 is the first release off of Roc Nation and is distributed by Atlantic Records for this one project.

Jigga’s new effort has stirred up several meaty issues of discussion since its existence became reality about three months ago. Despite Hov’s possible living-legend status (that depends on whom you’re talking to, of course), the hip-hop audience has been a bit underwhelmed by the constant trendsetter’s last two efforts (2006’s Kingdom Come and 2007’s American Gangster). So some topics have been: What will Jay have to offer on an album so closely tied to a classic? And after all his wealth and success, can he still relate to rap and its audience?

On June 5 of this year, Jay addressed the issues with defiance. That evening saw New York’s Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex introduce the initial single off The Blueprint 3, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” a semiautomatic attack against those who’ve overdosed on T-Pain’s famed vocal-assistance technology. Yet, as polarizing as it was provocative—“D.O.A.” was celebrated in some parts for its brashness and No ID’s rugged, bluesy production—some critics found a reason to accuse Jay of being out of touch or, even worse, a bullying elder statesman. Mr. Carter considers the criticism ludicrous. In his eyes, his attack wasn’t on the youth, but instead on the lack of originality. A veteran with a reputation for quality, he sees hip-hop as a genre coming awfully close to the danger zone. For Hov, it’s simple addition by subtraction: To save the culture, the artists that routinely damage it by simply following trends (Auto-Tune, for instance) must perish.

If it’s an indisputable success, The Blueprint 3 could cement Jay as the first 40-year-old rapper (or almost 40) to truly dominate the music globe—a major feat in a time when hip-hop seems to skew younger than ever. Still, even in that potential triumph lies another interesting question: Will Jay-Z become bigger than hip-hop? Scratch that. Considering his staggering résumé as it stands before the release of BP3, is Jay already above rap’s clouds? And, if so, does it make a difference?

After weeks of waiting patiently, and some tennis-match-like back-and-forth scheduling, XXL’s Bonsu Thompson sat down with the tireless businessman and self-proclaimed God MC to talk about the one thing that matters most to his truest fans, the foundation of his entire kingdom: hip-hop. —Matt Barone

Because you had so much time to live with this new album, do you think it’s your most thoughtful body of work?

No, it’s just the approach. I don’t think it changed the music any. You can look at it both ways. The Blueprint was all natural. You could tell the rawness of the spontaneous thoughts. Or you can have someone who plans and plots and makes sure everything is the same. Lyor [Cohen, CEO of Warner Music Group] asked me, after he listened to the [new] album, “Did you mess up by putting an album out every year? Should you have taken your time and done it like this one?” And I was like, “No, it’s just process.” I don’t think The Blueprint was bad. But this album has to come out. It’s just really cohesive. It feels really good.

What would you say is The Blueprint 3’s grand statement?

I keep using this phrase “new classic,” because it has classic sounds and instrumentation, like how music was recorded before. That’s why the whole album cover [features] white instruments just left in the corner, no color. It’s all about the instruments. It feels classic in that approach, but it’s new subject matter, new flows. It’s not like an Amy Winehouse thing: a take on what was already done. I mean, if you listen to “D.O.A.” just the sax alone, those type of sounds. The subject matter is right now. It’s a hot-button issue right now.

It’s funny that you stress the subject matter being current. One criticism of “D.O.A.” has been that the topic is a year old.

A year past or a year early?

A year too old. Music was being saturated by Auto-Tune the most last year. So were you thinking business first, like, Kanye’s coming out with this 808s & Heartbreak album, so I’m going to hold off on the criticism ’til he’s in the clear?

No, that’s not how it happened. It really just happened in the studio. We were just having a discussion about the game and music and where everything is going. So No ID plays this track, and Kanye jumps up. Actually, Kanye gave me the idea. He jumps up and is like, “Man, this is hard. This is against everything.” I don’t know if he knew where I was going to take it, but he sparked the idea. I came back the next day and did the record.

What’s puzzling is that your own buddies, like Kanye and Pharrell, wear the brightest shirts and tightest jeans, but you’re clearly not going at them. You’re going after the cats that are trying to be like them, and not themselves. Correct?

Yeah, once it becomes… A trend is a trend. I follow trends. I set trends. Now, when a trend becomes a gimmick, it’s time to get rid of it. As far as hip-hop. Like, when they were saying “bling bling” on CNN, it’s time to never say that word again. It was just about the aggression of everything. I saw everyone, ’cause it was successful, following one path. You turn on the radio, and that’s all you hear. I’m not saying I hate T-Pain. What I’m talking about is a trend that’s becoming a gimmick. And if we continue down this path, we’re going to open the door for another genre of music. Same way when rock was doing hair metal it opened the door even wider for hip-hop to come through and put rock music in trouble for 10 years and more. Right now, there are a lot of indie bands coming out, which is making rock more exciting: the MGMTs and the Kings of Leons. You keep messing around, making generic music, people are going to start turning off one at a time. And if these guys [keep] making great music, guess what? [Fans are] gonna go to them. If you look back in the history of music, that’s what happens all the time. I’m just saying, Stay up. Be aware. Be innovative. Let’s keep making this shit interesting. I love Drake. I’m not hating on young people. Like, when people say that, I’m like, What are you talking about? It’s just stupid. I’m not hating on young people. I love Drake. I worked with him on the album. Every time they ask me what I’m listening to, it’s So Far Gone and Kings of Leon. Them two [acts] owe me money. I’m not Bill Russell, [saying] Michael Jordan ain’t shit. I’m saying Lil Wayne and Kanye are like LeBron and Kobe. My job as someone at the forefront of the game is to leave it in a better position than when I came in. Same way that Russell [Simmons] left it to me. ’Cause this thing saved my life. Literally. So I have a responsibility to it karmically. And after that it’s on you. I did my part. I made “D.O.A.” I said it. I made the statement. I made the push. Here, y’all take it from here.

You’ve been getting a lot of heat about your second single “Run This Town,” featuring Kanye and Rihanna. Critics and the blog world have said ’Ye out rapped you.

I think that thing has gone a little too far. I think it’s more about that than the song now. What I’m saying is that’s just life. If [whose verse was better] was the thing, and we based [song quality] on that, after I’ve done 400 songs, I’m sure once the average of who was better on the song weighs out, I’m pretty high. Some nights [L.A. Lakers player] Pau Gasol can score more points than Kobe Bryant—not saying that Kanye is Pau Gasol, ’cause you have to be really clear with that—[but] as long as I’ve been in the game, that’s going to happen, once or twice or even three times.

With a successful Blueprint 3, you could really make it cool to be a 40-year-old rapper. But, playing devil’s advocate, success could also encourage 40-year-old rappers who should hang it up to continue rhyming professionally, because Jay did it. Ever consider that possibility?

No matter what I do, any person that gets to this stage of their life is going to do whatever is in their heart. I think people should make music as long as their heart is in it. As long as they’re pushing past the deadline four times and they’re still making more records. Like, there are thousands of boxers that could have retired before they had that fight, Muhammad Ali for one. But you never stop— because of one, your passion or greed, your financial situation, there may be a need, you know? The thing that I can do is stretch the subject matter. Whether Kingdom Come was your favorite album or not, “30 Something,” you have to deal with that subject matter [in that song]. If [the target audience is] 15 to 25, that’s too narrow. What am I going to listen to at 26 and beyond? That’s a quarter of my life. That’s such a small slice of the pie. We have to expand the genre. I would love to listen to hip-hop all day. Of course, now there are other things making their way into my CD changer or iPod, because of the lack of material. It doesn’t speak to me. Everyone is speaking to the kids, thinking that’s the key to success. The sad part of it is that all these [rappers] saying it are 30 years old, at least. Sometimes 35. It’s misleading. It’s that lack of growth that will keep us in a certain place.

Understood, but you’re one of the few rappers whose movement is still followed by artists old and young. How conscious are you of that position?

I think that, as long as the heart is in it. Because even if you miss it, it’s art. Like, Kool Keith, he may not sell any records, ever. But I think his type of art is needed, and there are people who follow his music. I think, when it’s done… Larry Holmes in the ring for money, that type of thing, then I don’t want to see that. But, like I said, if the genre needs the game to be stretched out, ’cause you have those guys who are 35 years old trying to make the smiley face or whatever, competing with Soulja Boy.

Ha! That’s a Trey Songz record with Soulja Boy on it. It’s hot. They’re clearly aiming at the young kids with that track.

It’s not funny, though. [Laughs] I mean, like, Jim Jones, for example. And I don’t mean this because we never see eye to eye–. He made “Na Na Nana Na.” [Laughs] What’s the difference between “Smiley Face” and “Na Na Nana Na”? “Na Na Nana Na Na” could’ve been called “Smiley Face.” [Sings] I got the smiley face, na na nana na na.

[Editor’s note: Jay-Z is not criticizing Trey Songz’s “LOL (Smiley Face)” record, but rather, taking issue with veteran rappers who make music targeted to 15-year-old rap fans.]

For more of the ‘Bout Me interview, make sure to pick up XXL‘s October issue on newsstands September 15.

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