I hold many a fond memory of my mid-pubescent years sitting on a friends balcony, kicking back with a few brews and listening to rap music. We would flick through a range of our favourites and introduce each other to new artists and songs that had caught our fancy. It was through this process that I first discovered the artist Jay-Z. While those days of juvenile discovery are long gone, Jay-Z still remains a feature of my music library; usually amongst a few staples I crank out when pushing through an intense workout.
More than any other musician, Jay-Z has captured my intrigue on a personal level. While I’m a big fan of his music, it’s his story which is so completely captivating. While I wouldn’t call Jay-Z an idol (I don’t believe grown men should hold others so completely up on a pedestal), he has evolved as a kind of mentor-from-afar. Through listening to his extensive catalogue of music, watching interviews and biographical accounts and reading a couple of books, I’ve learnt a great deal from this unlikely source; some of it which I’d like to share with you all. But first, a brief backstory for the unacquainted.
Who is Jay Z?
I’m sure you all know who Jay Z is, if not for his own music exploits, at least as the husband of Beyonce. What you may not know, is where the man, the name and the brand came from.
Believe it or not, Jay Z’s mother didn’t actually name him as such. Born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969, the stage name Jay Z was adopted as homage to his mentor Jaz-O. Growing up in the Brooklyn housing projects during the crack epidemic, Shawn wound up selling drugs (hustling) for a living from his teenage years right through until he was 25, just prior to his first album release. This period of his life dealing crack has been a central theme throughout his music career, perhaps one that made him the success he is today.
His first album, Reasonable Doubt, was released in 1996 and is widely acknowledged as one of the great rap albums of all time. From that point, Jay-Z’s music career has gone from strength to strength, producing thirteen number 1 albums (a record for a solo artist), picking up 21 grammy awards and selling over 50 millions albums worldwide. To me, he is the best rapper of all time; a master of wordplay (double entendre after double entendre), flow and storytelling.
Perhaps even more impressive than his music career is Jay-Z’s business acumen. As of writing this, he estimated to be worth over $600 million. Yes, you read that correctly. Although he’s sold so many albums, the greater part of this fortune has accumulated from business ventures outside his recording career. It is here I believe we can learn the most from one of America’s great modern day poets. The best part is, he’s documented his beliefs and values throughout his music.
These are 7 pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up from among the multitude Jay-Z has imparted throughout his career.
1. Live with Ambition
“I’d rather die enormous than live dormant, that’s how we on it” Can I Live? (Reasonable Doubt)
I like to think of Jay-Z’s earlier work as ‘ambition rap’, one of the reasons it’s so motivating for me. Reasonable Doubt was his first studio release as he was just starting out trying to make it in the music business. His deep-seated ambition was present throughout the whole album and you can see Jay-Z was already dreaming of big things even way back in 1996. Whenever I need a dose of motivation I throw on one of the old classics and get to work.
2. Surround Yourself With Excellence
“It’s the Dream Team meets the Supreme Team
And all our eyes green it only means one thing
You ain’t fucking with my clique”
At the start of his career, Jay-Z latched on to a mentor in the form of semi-established rapper Jaz-O. From there he formed a partnership with Damon Dash to form Rocawear and build his Rockafella music empire. He’s since gone from strength to strength, mentoring and partnering with artists Kanye West, Rita Ora & Rihanna. There’s a rule that says you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. He seems to have got that pretty well down.. Let’s not forget who he married..
3. Life is All About Progression (Don’t Live in the past)
“Hov’ on that new shit, n****s like “How come?”
N****s want my old shit, buy my old albums
N****s stuck on stupid, I gotta keep it movin” On to the Next One (Blueprint 3)
This is one I adopt religiously in my own life. I hate to dwell on the past unless it’s to provide a lesson for the future. We evolve, we adapt and we move on. It’s best to leave the past where it belongs. Jay-Z raps about it extensively in his latter work, producing lyrics such as the one above.
4. Hustle is a Key to Success
“I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell, I am a hustler, baby, I sell water to a well” U Don’t Know (The Blueprint)
One of the key reasons for Jay Z’s incredible success is that he’s willing to outwork his competition. Out-hustling them, if you will. On the streets he used to spend weeks on end selling to junkies from dusk till dawn. When he was learning the rap craft he locked himself in a room for hours on end listening to beats & writing lyrics. Once established in the music game he pumped out album after album for years on end and then promoted the living shit out of them. Success leaves clues; hard-work seeming to be the common denominator.
5. Re-invent Yourself
“I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla” Moment of Clarity (The Black Album)
From Brooklyn crack-slinger to mafioso style rapper to global superstar to business mogul. Jay-Z is a master of re-crafting his role and re-styling his image. He’s done it in his musical style; from gangsta rap to colabs with Justin Timberlake. He’s done it in his personal style: from baggy sweatpants and jerseys to tailored suits. Perhaps most importantly, he’s done it in his branding; from a street level, gun brandishing drug dealer to an approachable and respected figure, sought out for D & M’s with Oprah.
6. Create Your Own Opportunities
“I was forced to be an artist and a CEO from the beginning..” Decoded
When Jay-Z was starting out, there were no record labels willing to sign him. Not one to give up, he got together with Dame Dash and Kareem Biggs to create Rockafella records; their own label. This was completely unprecedented at the time. Similarly, when looking to branch out into clothing, rather than partner with an established company, they formed their own; Rocawear. Jay-Z would later make over $200 million from this choice and cement himself a place at the top of music earners. It pays to take risks..
7. Keep One Eye on the Big Prize
“You can want success all you want, but to get it, you can’t falter. You can’t slip. You can’t sleep. One eye open, for real, and forever.” Decoded
I heard an interview with Jay-Z where he said his goal was to make a million by the age of 30. This was way back as a young man selling crack on the streets of Brooklyn; a rather improbable goal to say the least. Well, it came true many times over and one of the reasons was a blend of patience and long term vision. Even at the peak of his career, Jay-Z was always looking to move beyond his current level, particularly in looking for ways to expand the rap genre. He has played a tremendous role in turning hip-hop into the mainstream, commercially successful force it is today.
“I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of not trying.” Beach Chair (Kingdom Come)
Here a few of my favourite songs you need to listen to..
Can I Live (Reasonable Doubt)
D’Evils (Reasonable Doubt)
Renegade (The Blueprint)
Public Service Announcement (The Black Album)
What are your favourites?