With the release of his 9th and possibly solo record, The Black Album, Jay-Z ponders his legacy. Here, in material adapted from his forthcoming memoir, The Black Book, Jigga remembers a cathartic reunion with his late father, explains away the rumors, and tells us why hip hip just doesn’t do it for him anymore.
I wanted my last 12 songs to be my most personal album so far. Writing The Black Book got me focused on recording my last volume, The Black Album. Having to remember stories from my childhood, my days hustling, and my early days in the music business made me ready. Interviewing my mother, I learned things about my parents and their marriage I would have never found out had I not been writing this book. If your parents divorced or broke up when you were a kid, it’s hard to imagine them as two young people who once fell in love, who had dreams for their family and good time and ghits, and were basically human. I think one of the things my friends appreciate the most about me is my love of privacy. For fans, I know this can be frustrating. So the challenge for me in writing my autobiography was to balance that out.
I’ve never been someone who was a headliner. I’ve always been a coach or a team leader. Even in Trenton, when I started hustling. I used to wear a rubber band on my wrist, like a ghetto money clip. The little dudes who were working with me had to earn their rubber bands. They had to make a certain quota for the week to get the rubber band. If they did something that wasn’t thorough, like lost work or put someone on the team at risk, they got their rubber band popped.
With that same philosophy, I always wanted Memphis Bleek to be the star of the label. That’s why Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life begins with him. Bleek went gold, and that’s great for any artists. But I think my presence at the label has been a gift and a curse. There’s no way to explain why the public connects with certain artists. But I know that at another label, Beanie Sigel and Bleek would be bigger stars than they are now.
I’ve read articles where people compare rap to other genres of music, like jazz or rock’n’ roll. But it’s really most like a sport. Boxing to be exact. The stamina, the one-man army, the combat aspect of it, the ring, the stage, and the fact that boxers never quit when they should. Also, historically, boxers wind up in bad shape financially. When I think of athletes who left their game when they were still dominating their sport, I think of Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.
Michael Jordan, who, next to Biggie, is the only nigga outside of my family or team whom I absolutely love, did two years too many. When he went to the Washington Wizards, it killed me as a fan. I knew he was trying to fulfill something inside himself. But for me, as a fan, to see him come out of retirement for the first time, after his father was buried, to come back and win championships, there was nothing better in the world. In 1998, the Bulls were down, Jordan scored, stole the ball from Karl Malone, scored again, then came down, pushed a guy, hit the winning shot! I could have died, I could have laid down and died after that game. It was too perfect. That’s probably why he came back–it was too perfect.
I’ve had moments like that in my career, moments where your skill transcends who you are as a physical being. You almost feel not human. It’s what performers or athletes talk about when they say God was working through them. It’s scary. It’s almost like you have to come back and fuck up to remind yourself and the world you’re human. It’s what performers or athletes talk about when they say God was working through them. It’s scary. It’s almost like you have to come back and fuck up to remind yourself and the world you’re human.
Then there’s something I remember Jordan said about feeling uninspired that I can relate to. When he came into the NBA, he was looking forward to playing with Magic Johnson and Larry bird, and they
It’s almost like you have to come back and f**k up to remind yourself and the world you’re human.
both retired relatively early in Jordan’s career. I feel that way about Big and ‘Pac. They’re both still very present in hip hop; Biggie in terms of his influence and the love people have for him as the greatest MC. We all keep Big alive by sampling; that’s my intention when I use his lyrics, to keep him present in the game. Tupac practically has an album release a year, so competing with him is still a sales and numbers game. But it’s not the same. I wish they both were still here.
I can honestly say I’m bored with hip hop. I spend a lot of time feeling uninspired. I guess I’m spoiled. I grew up in a time where you had Ice Cube and Brand Nubian releasing albums the same year. One was West Coast, gangsta, and political, and the other was East Coast, stylish, and political. Polar opposites but still linked, with crazy support from the same fan. Now, no one makes an album anymore. As soon as they walk into their label’s office, executives are asking for a single. I know I’m guilty of concreting that format, but it just gets dimmer every time it’s copied. A rapper will do their “girl” song, the “club” song, and then their “gangsta white label.” It’s not about the music anymore. It’s about reaching for numbers.
For me, it’s from my heart. If that wasn’t the case, I would’ve stopped years ago. People try and throw me in a commercial box now. I’ve sold a lot of records. I’ve made anthems. The thing is, I don’t necessarily set out to make a hard-core record or a pop record. I don’t even believe in going to the studio to make a huge record. Some of my largest records have had the nastiest hooks. Listen to “Big Pimpin” or “Can I get A…” The hook is “Can I get to a f**k you?/ To the b*tches/ From all my ni***s/ Who don’t love hos.” Now that was a huge record, but it wasn’t “I love you baby.” That wasn’t a formula record. It was just a good record that turned out to be huge.
What More Can I Say?
My dream when I did Reasonable Doubt was to do one album. I thought I was being artistic, making statements. But when we sat down with Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen to negotiate with Def Jam, I was the only artist on Roc-A-Fella that could close the deal. They were only interested in us because of the heat from Reasonable. So once that contract was signed, I knew I would be in the vocal booth for another five to seven albums. In my heart, I always wanted someone else to do it. I wanted to be the businessman.
There wasn’t some big moments when I thought, Okay, this is it. The next album is gonna be the last one. Honestly, I’ve been saying that for a minute. I’ve been running on fumes for a second. It all gets back to inspiration. I’ve heard songs I like, but the last time I remember being truly, truly inspired was when I head “Who Shot Ya.” Biggs [Roc-A-Fella co-founder Kareem Burke] had me drive to Harlem to meet him on a corner in the middle of the night to play me that song. He knows that if I hear something really creative, it’s only going to make me want to be more creative with my music.
There are artists that still get me excited, like dead prez, who remind me of Cube– they’re political and street. 50 Cent benefited from having a compelling life story, a sense of humor, and great timing. He did what I call “DMX-ed” the game. The “Excuse Me Miss” and “Beautiful” kind of records were getting all the love, and he came and made it street again. DMX did the same thing five years ago. Plus, 50 posted first-time numbers like Puff. Now he faces the same challenge we faced, which is to stay relevant over a period of time.
So for at least two years, this is my last album, and I’m only saying two years because I already have people coming up to me in the street who swear they’re depressed that I’m retiring. It would take something real drastic to get me to make another album. People crying in the streets, or a petition with 3 million names on it, or me in a corner like a junkie, withdrawing from rap. But unless I’m inspired by something, I don’t see a full-length album by Jay-Z coming down the pike. But I’m human. Ghostwriting for other artists might actually be my creative outlet. I may do collaborations, but not for a year. I read Miles Davis did this–took a break–and I understand it now. It probably got to a point where he felt he just couldn’t hear what was being played, and he just had to stop. He didn’t play his horn professionally for a couple of years. I truly did this rap game to death. No one can be mad at me for putting it down.
You Must Love Me
I hadn’t seen my father in almost 20 years when my moms started talking about setting up a meeting with us. At first, I didn't see the point, and I told her that. She felt that, with all my success there was still this huge part missing from my life. She didn’t think we should reunite as much as reconcile. I didn’t think I was walking around being angry
For at least two years, this is my last album. Unless I’m inspired by something, I don’t see it.
at the guy, but my mother saw some of the comments I’d made about him on records as me still holding on to pain from my childhood. She was really working both ends, because my father hadn’t gone to her to set up a meeting; he was too proud. He didn’t want me to think that he was trying to get at me because I was this millionaire or famous rapper. I get that from him. I’m not like that so much now, but I definitely can be proud and stubborn. So my mother set up this meeting where he would come to my home. We sent a car to pick him up and everything, but I knew in my heart he wasn’t going to show, and he didn’t.
He couldn’t break my heart twice. The first time he left, that was my biggest and only heartbreak in life. I’ve never let anyone hurt me, definitely not twice. But my mother was real serious; she knew how alcoholism had eaten away most of his organs how little time he was actually working with. So she pushed again.
The second time we set it up, he came. He was crazy uncomfortable. My house is where all my family gets together. We have Saturday meals, and my chef or my mom and sisters cook for my nieces and nephews, and when he came in, he felt completely left out. He was in my home, and we were still a family, and it probably killed him to see that we had survived his leaving—we were still whole. I didn’t come out of my room. My mother kept offering him food, anything to make him comfortable. Finally, she brought out some Gummi Bears I had stashed away from the kids, and he took those. When my mother brought him to my room, she acted like she was depositing him and leaving us to talk, but she went around to the exercise room connected to my bedroom and eavesdropped on our conversation.
When he was there in front of me, it was like looking in a mirror. I’m tall like him, slim—we looked exactly alike. I didn’t have much to say, only a question. I just wanted him to tell me how he could leave his son—one who looked exactly like him—to raise himself. Whatever drama my mother had, she never tried to keep from him. He’s the one who decided it would be the way it was. He tried to hit me with excuses. He said my sister Annie knew where he was, that my brother, Eric, had been to visit him. He was still being proud. I told him I was a child. I wasn’t supposed to look you up, you were
I just wanted him to tell me how he could leave his son—who looked exactly like him—to raise himself.
supposed to be looking me up. He finally broke down and admitted he was wrong. He said he was sorry. Really sorry. I’m sure that was something he’s wanted to say to me for years. I know that I’d wanted to ask that question my whole life. It's rhetorical. There is no answer. But having the opportunity to look him in his face and ask that question was a gift from my mother to me.
I felt unblocked after that conversation. I had long-term relationships with three beautiful women who loved me to death, but I had always been holding back. I had never been in love, because my heart was still broken from my father. The only way that I can be open completely even now is because of timing. Because I buried my father with understanding between us.
The first time I met Russell Simmons was at a rap talent contest out in Queens. Somebody, it had to have been my cousin B-Hi, entered me and didn’t tell me where it was. There’s no way they would’ve gotten me to go to Queens without doing it like that. LL. Cool J was one of the judges. I was crazy young, like 15. I remember I had a gun on me, the same one I used to carry around in an empty VHS box.
I lost. I got second place, which to me, then and now, was the same as coming in 50th. But Russell came down from the stage and was like, “Yo, kid, I want you to call me, here’s my number.” I tried to call him one day, and they told me he wasn’t there. I might’ve tried calling one other time, but after that I went into a**hole mode, like, I ain't calling this ni**a again, you crazy! I never told him that story. Years later, Damon Dash and I had a million-dollar deal on the table with Def Jam. I still have that a**hole in me, like, If he doesn’t remember, I’m not reminding him. Things happen when they’re supposed to, what they say about divine time is basically true.
Me, Dame, and Biggs come from different places. Brooklyn and Uptown. The thing that held everything together was our ambition. We all wanted the same thing, for Roc-A-Fella to win. The record company, the film company—that was all part of the vision. But me and Dame are totally opposite people. He lives for the debate, the negotiation. I love to stay away from that. Even though I’m involved in a bunch of businesses, I’m an artist. I’m more creative. I’m not into all that negotiating, the talking back and forth. Just tell me what happens when it’s over, and we’ll work from there. I’m the studio guy. Dame did the executive thing. Seeing the projects that the three of us conceived all the way through, dealing with the day to day, even protecting me from some of the bullsh*t so I could be a total artist when that was necessary. So it was great, we complemented each other.
I hate that the media has created a story that Dame and I have beef. It makes us look like bi**hes, like we’re out here squabbling over something when it couldn’t be further from the truth. The three of us made a lot of money together, we got nothing to be mad about, period.
We don’t hang out as much as we did before, but it’s no problem. It’s just like people do different things. And when other people around us see that, then it’ll get cliquish, and then it’ll start creating space for someone on my squad, who are basically the dudes I grew up with from Marcy and my family, to say something like, “I don’t fu** with Dame.” Or the same thing on his side. Dame has had the same friends from Harlem since he was a kid, and if they see we’re not together constantly, it gives them the space to say, “I don’t fu** with Jay.” That’s where all these rumors come from.
With Cam’Rom and the Diplomats, it’s even less serious. Cam wants to build his own Roc. Who wouldn’t? But when it’s all said and done, just like I have respect for Russell, Cam has respect for me, and when we see each other, there are no problems. Dame used to manage him, so naturally, their relationship is closer. But I provided the opportunity for him by being the franchise player—he knows that. But to the public, it looks nasty, like some bi**h sh*t, and I hate that, but not enough to get on the radio and straighten things out.
But as far as Dame and I go, I liken our current situation to LA Reid and Babyface. We created wealth and a musical dynasty together. When we see each other, we laugh and kick it like we did before. We just don't hang out every day. When we were building the label we used to hang out every single day. We were going to clubs every night, buying the whole bar out. We’d go to Atlanta, to Freaknik or something, frontin’. We would all wear the jackets with the logo, we’d rent limousines, put Roc-A-Fella on the license plate. Our hangout
Me and Dame are totally opposite people. He lives for the debate. I love to stay away from that.
was driven to promote the company. So everything we did from that moment we woke up to the moment we went to sleep was dedicated to Roc-A-Fella. We all still have that same ambition, but now we’ll go in different directions. I have companies I want to build from the ground up. That’s the high, to create something from nothing. Dame is doing the same thing with film. It’s typical that the media would create beef where there is none, but we’re not typical dudes by any stretch of the imagination. We made history together.
Fade To Black
I know other rappers have written autobiographies or memoirs, but I wasn’t sure that was something that should happen until I was older, like how Miles Davis did it. But in hip hop, everything is accelerated. Miles wrote his book at the end of his musical career, which was decades long. Ten years in hip hop feels like decades. Malcolm X published his at 40; he must have had life closing in on him. I hope to continue to live and grow. I don’t think I’m Miles or Malcolm, but I know that my life story can give real perspective on my generation, the epic times we faced, and the choices we made. I also hope that my story can inspire someone else, hopefully the next young Shawn Carter, locked in a hot little apartment in some project building, with dreams way bigger than his windows.