“When I come back like Jordan, wearin’ the 4-5/ It ain’t to play games witchu.” —“ENCORE” (2003)

“I am the Mike Jordan of recordin’/You might wanna fall back from recordin’. ”

It’s not every day that YN gets to leave his trap to run his trap with rap’s greatest. But if you want to get with Jay-Z while he’s on his world tour, you need to grab that passport and vacate the premises. Shit, if the wife can do her own cover stories, why not I? So it’s off to Paris with Art Director Davina “Secret Weapon” Lennard and Executive Publisher Jonathan “JR” Rheingold. Yeah, we’re not the first to bring you Young Hova on the cover (that EW shit was trash, and that’s coming from me, EW). I assure you that Jay came correct in this interview. It’s the strictly hip-hop talk session y’all been thirsting for.

Things started slow, though. We hit Gay Paree. It takes us a minute to locate Euro Jay. Later that night, we go to a fancy-ass rich-people hotel, and in he walks. Well-suited, sharp as a tack, but clearly a step or two off. He’s dumb tired. He sits next to you, pops some peanuts in his mouth and complains about his blown voice, how he peaked last night, jokes that the tank is on E. It’s the day after the Albert Hall show in London, where he brought out not only his old rival Nas and his lady friend, Beyoncé, but also White rock’s royal couple, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and his boo, actress Gwyneth Paltrow. By all accounts, it was a hell of a show (unlike the one in France, where the only excitement was the XXL crew almost not getting in).

The common complaint against Jay lately has been that he’s changed. He goes on and on about how cool it was that Gwyneth sang “Song Cry” and learned the words on her own. How Bono, for his Ireland show, cut him a promo where he proclaimed, “Jay-Z is Dub”—meaning that the Dublin fans should respect Jay and embrace him as one of their own. What a cool dude Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in Monaco at the video shoot for his first single, “Show Me What You Got.” How he met with a bigwig from Krug and visited his vineyards. It’s those moments of worldwide recognition and acclaim that seem to motivate Jay, the hip-hop ambassador. He’s back ’cause, just like athletes, he misses the limelight. He gained his fame by creating music that one day can be sung back to him five years from now.

But don’t get it twisted—Jay is still a competitive hip-hop nigga from Marcy projects. It’s all in the look he gives you when you mention Cam’ron’s name. The cold ice grill he quickly hits you with when you ask him a question he doesn’t like. The way he tilts his head in disgust when you mention that certain Def Jam artists have been talking greasy. The sadness in his eyes when he tries to make sense of the breakup with Dame and Biggs. The quiet and reflective tone he adopts when trying to use just the right words to describe the new songs he’s working on. Here’s a guy who knows exactly who he is and loves every minute of it.

To see Jay at his most comfortable and approachable, you’ll, hopefully, one day get to break bread with him and his inner circle. Jay loves good wine and good food. Being at the center of a table with friends and colleagues. Cracking jokes, laughing loud, ordering more champagne (no Cris, he insists) and more food. Eat, drink and be merry, niggas. It’s a good life, and let’s try to enjoy every moment of it. Don’t forget where we came from, but celebrate where all the hard work has taken us. That might be a good motto for most of us so-called successful muthafuckas to live by.

Life continues to change here at the house that Stanley Harris built. My managing editor, Juleyka Lantigua, is retiring like Jay after this one drops. She ruled with an iron fist but still showed us how to do this, son. Thanks for building a template with me and weathering the storms. Wish you well in the future.

Next month, YN brings you Mr. Jones and maybe Mr. Jenkins (not my et homie), too.

It only gets stronger, it only gets more intense,

Elliott Wilson