Jay-Z is a hard man to pin down. You just might have to travel all the way to Paris to talk to him. He speaks in fragments. He’s introspective. Philosophical. Careful with his words. Quick. Sharp. But always guarded. Unlike most artists, he doesn’t enjoy this process—baring his soul to a stranger’s tape recorder. But, then again, Jay-Z has never been just another hungry MC. He’s not a businessman. He’s a business, man. CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records turned president and CEO of Def Jam Records. And, arguably, the greatest rapper of all time.

Like EPMD said, business is never personal. But Jay’s has brought the ire of his former Roc partners, Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and several artists on (or formally on) the Def Jam roster. In the two years since he solidified his place in the house that Lyor Cohen renovated, President Carter’s tenure has been clouded in controversy. The most vocal of his detractors, Cam’ron, jumped ship immediately and, earlier this year, fired off a diss song, “You Gotta Love It,” filled with scathing personal attacks. A disgruntled DMX bounced, too, and LL Cool J and Method Man have both been publicly critical of the company’s involvement in their latest, less-than-successful efforts. Now, with Jay-Z coming out of retirement (as if anyone ever believed him) to release his first album in three years, many rap fans wonder how that will affect the highly anticipated Def Jam debut of his former rival Nas?

Course, Jay’s used to the talk, the speculation, the pressure. He’s been the central figure in hip-hop since Biggie and ’Pac passed away. He does this for his culture, remember? He’s back behind the mic because the rap game needs him. He’s still behind his corporate desk because the rap game needs him. Follow the leader.

So the retirement’s over. But this Kingdom Come album is like your most secretive one to date.
I always wanted one of those albums that mystery surrounds. You know, like the Detox album that never comes out like three years in a row… I just went in to do records. I didn’t have the title until I made a song called “Kingdom Come.” I was like, Wow, that’s so powerful. Maybe it should be an album title. I just went in and fucked with it to see what would happen. See what it would sound like. And, at worst, I got to go in the studio and feed the itch of just recording, just doing the creative part. Timeless music—that’s what you be trying to make. Right now in hip-hop, there’s a lot of disposable music, and I believe the genre will suffer unless you have an event album. Unless you have a Detox, unless you have an Eminem or Nas album. You have to have those events in hip-hop.

Your last one, The Black Album, was already such a perfect “event album,” though. Many skeptics feel like you can’t possibly follow that up.
I love that position. I love that challenge. That’s the reason why I’m making albums. That’s the reason why I love hip-hop. It’s a challenge every time. [Here’s] Blueprint, and then Nas went through his thing, and he put out “Ether.” And people was like, When is it over? I was like, I just put out Blueprint!

The hiatus almost makes you the underdog this time?
I didn’t really make myself the underdog. Everybody else did. The people, their position on me, and guys taking their little shots—they made me the underdog. I don’t think people want me in the underdog position. Why would you want that? You got to leave certain people alone, like… I’ve been doing my little remixes and all, but I’ve just been chilling. Like, I’ve been doing my other thing. I’ve been making fuckin’ HP commercials.

Speaking of your other thing, it seems that most of the recent criticism thrown your way stems from your tenure as Def Jam prez.
You know, I told LA the other day, “Man, I have a whole ’nother level of respect for you.” You know, ’cause being an executive is a selfless, thankless job. If [an artist] fails, you did it. If they succeed, they did it. The artist side of me has a whole ’nother level of respect for executives.

So why continue to do it, Jay? Why do the president of Def Jam thing?
I think it’s important. I think people will realize later on. I think it’s very important for hip-hop, when an artist reaches a certain level, to ascend to executive work. There are no Black executives in music today. I mean, very few. You have to show another side of an artist. How an artist’s career can end, instead of being on VH1, like Where Are They Now? or [ending up] bitter and upset somewhere. You know, who better to run the company than the people who done it. I been in the studio.

I know what it takes to make a hook. I know the commitment that you got to put into a career. I know it just starts when you get the hit. It just starts. It’s not over when you get the hit. I seen the whole playing field. Who better to coach against the pitfalls and what’s going on out there? And on top of that, you know, I’m artist friendly. I don’t care. I want people to get the most money they can.

But from Method Man to DMX, there’s been a lot of griping. That must disappoint you.
I mean, you get disappointed and you move on. That’s about it. I know in my heart I done the right thing. That’s why I believe I’m here now, and I’m always going to be here. Because I’m on the side of right. And as long as I do the right thing, whatever happens, that’s on you. That’s your shortcomings. It has to be willingness to work with the people at your company. If there’s a detachment there and you’re not willing to work with the company, then how do you expect the best results?… You know, I told Method Man. It was a time that his project was way, way in the completion, and he had just met Steve Bartels, who’s an important part—he’s like the president of Island, COO, and he has a large hand in moving the building around—and they had never met [before]. And like, You’re just meeting Steve Bartels? Like, how is that possible? You know what I’m saying?

jay2.jpg What, specifically, do you think went wrong with some of the projects that haven’t worked—like, say, LL’s album, for example. What do you think happened there?
I think we did, and I’m sure LL agreed, that we went above and beyond with his project. We shot two videos before the project even came out. That’s not, especially in this climate of business, that’s not typical. You know, people get one video, if that. We shot two videos with Hype Williams off top. Got Jennifer Lopez in the video. Like, the commitment to the project was clearly, clearly there. I think staggering the single, going for urban radio first when it was clearly a more pop-leaning record—maybe that strategy was off a little bit. But, you know, it was a clear commitment to his project. How much can you give a man?

You must have felt disrespected when he showed up to the VMAs with 50 Cent.
Actually, that was a conversation that we had that originally set that up.

Oh, like you and 50 coming together on the Freeway project?
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

It must be disappointing when other albums you feel passionate about—like Ghostface’s Fishscale or the Roots’ Game Theory—when they don’t perform well.
I tell anybody: 150K is 60K now. One hundred fifty was a strong, respectable number. It’s 60 now. I mean, we got to face the reality of what’s going on. It’s not the business—it’s the whole format. We have to find another way. We have to fix it. We have a big digital hole in the world, so you gotta work with it now. How do we get around that? Music is the soundtrack to your life. It’s not going to go anywhere. But the way people are purchasing music has changed. It’s not the same anymore. It will never be the same.

You gotta go for big numbers in the fourth quarter, though, right? So it’s like, why not a Jay-Z album?
I’m like, if it was a good idea for Lyor, why isn’t it a good idea for me to put out a Jay-Z album. [Laughs] Like, Lyor was a genius when he did it. [Laughs]

What about Nas and the perception that you’re holding his album back to put yours out?
I’m not going to put out a Nas album when it’s… I’ll put it out when it’s ready. I’m not holding his album back. It ain’t like his album is ready and I’m like, No, no, Nas. It bugs me out that people really make these things up and have long debates about it, for like hours and days. And I’m like, What are you talking about? I’m not holding Nas’ album back. His album is not ready.

But if you’re a Nas or a Young Jeezy and you’re scheduled to come out a few weeks after a Jay-Z album, shouldn’t you be concerned that your project is gonna get overshadowed?
I think the best thing was—once again, Lyor was the best model for that—when he put me, Ja Rule and DMX out on the same front. I think it gives momentum to a company. People look at it the other way, like no one else gonna sell, but I think it gives momentum. That’s how people have movements. I mean, I’ve seen it. [In 1999] Def Jam was going to sell for 90 [million]. Universal offered them 90. But Lyor held out and put out a DMX, Jay-Z and Ja Rule, all around the same time. No one got overshadowed. Everyone actually benefited from that surge.
87cover.jpgRead the rest of our interview with Jay-Z in XXL’s
December 2006 issue (#87)

Check out exclusive online-only outtakes from the Jay-Z interview in the Countdown to Kingdom Come.