Rapper. One of the greatest successful hip-hop artists of all time, Jay-Z was born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4, 1969, in Brooklyn, New York. “He was the last of my four children,” Jay-Z’s mother later recalled, “the only one who didn’t give me any pain when I gave birth to him, and that’s how I knew he was a special child.” Jay-Z’s father, Adnes Reeves, left the family when Jay-Z was only 11 years old. The young rapper was raised by his mother, Gloria Carter, in Brooklyn’s drug-infested Marcy Projects.
During a rough adolescence, detailed in many of his autobiographical songs, Shawn Carter dealt drugs and flirted with gun violence. He attended Eli Whitney High School in Brooklyn, where he was a classmate of the soon-to-be-martyred rap legend Notorious B.I.G. As Jay-Z later remembered his childhood in one of his songs (“December 4th”), “I went to school, got good grades, could behave when I wanted/ But I had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted.”
Carter turned to rap at a very young age as an escape from the drugs, violence and poverty that surrounded him in the Marcy Projects. In 1989, he joined the rapper Jaz-O—an older performer who served as a kind of mentor—to record a song called “The Originators,” which won the pair an appearance on an episode of Yo! MTV Raps. It was at this point that Shawn Carter embraced the nickname Jay-Z, which was simultaneously an homage to Jaz-O, a play on Carter’s childhood nickname of “Jazzy,” and a reference to the J/Z subway station near his Brooklyn home. But even though he now had a stage name, Jay-Z remained relatively anonymous until he and two friends, Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, founded their own record label, Roc-A-Fella Records, in 1996. In June of that year, Jay-Z released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. Although the record only reached No. 23 on the Billboard charts, it is now considered a classic hip-hop album, featuring songs such as “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” featuring Mary J. Blige, and “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a collaboration with Notorious B.I.G. Reasonable Doubt established Jay-Z as an emerging star in hip-hop.
Two years later, Jay-Z achieved even broader success with the 1998 album Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life. The title track, which famously sampled its chorus from the Broadway musical Annie, became Jay-Z’s most popular single to date and won him his first Grammy nomination. “Hard Knock Life” marked the beginning of a fruitful period in which Jay-Z would become the biggest name in hip-hop. Over the span of those years, the rapper released a slew of No. 1 albums and hit singles. His most popular songs from this period include “Can I Get A …”, “Big Pimpin'”, “I Just Wanna Love U”, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “03 Bonnie & Clyde”, a duet with future bride Beyoncé Knowles. Jay-Z’s most acclaimed album of this period was The Blueprint (2001), which would later be named on many music critics’ lists of the best albums of the decade.
In 2003, Jay-Z shocked the hip-hop world by releasing The Black Album and announcing that it would be his last solo record before retirement. Asked to explain his sudden exit from rap, Jay-Z said that he once derived inspiration from trying to outshine other great MCs, but had simply gotten bored due to a lack of competition. “The game ain’t hot,” he said. “I love when someone makes a hot album and then you’ve got to make a hot album. I love that. But it ain’t hot.”
During his hiatus from rapping, Jay-Z turned his attention to the business side of music, becoming president of Def Jam Recordings. As president of Def Jam, Jay-Z signed such popular acts as Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Young Jeezy and helped effect Kanye West’s transition from producer to bestselling recording artist. But his reign at the venerable hip-hop label wasn’t all smooth sailing; Jay-Z resigned as Def Jam’s president in 2007, complaining about the company’s resistance to change from ineffectual business models. “You have record executives who’ve been sitting in their office for 20 years because of one act,” he lamented.
Jay-Z’s other, ongoing business ventures include the popular urban clothing line Rocawear and Roc-A-Fella films. He also owns the 40/40 Club, an upscale sports bar with locations in New York and Atlantic City, and is a part owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball franchise. As Jay-Z once rapped about his business empire, “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man.”
In 2006, Jay-Z ended his retirement from making music, releasing the new album Kingdom Come. He has since released two more albums: American Gangster and Blueprint 3. This trio of later albums marked a significant departure from Jay-Z’s earlier sound, incorporating stronger rock and soul influences in their production and offering lyrics tackling such mature subjects as the response to Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama’s 2008 election, and the perils of fame and fortune. Jay-Z says he’s trying to adapt his music to befit his own middle age. “There’s not a lot of people who have come of age in rap because it’s only 30 years old,” he says. “As more people come of age, hopefully the topics get broader and then the audience will stay around longer.”
Jay-Z married his longtime girlfriend, the popular singer Beyoncé Knowles, on April 4, 2008. They live together in an 8,000 square-foot penthouse apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. Jay-Z and Beyoncé say they eventually want to start a family. “I absolutely want kids,” Jay-Z says. “That’s the only thing I really don’t have.”
In a 2010 cover story, Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed Jay-Z “The King of America.” While that may sound like hyperbole, Jay-Z’s ever-growing list of accomplishments places him in largely uncharted territory. Jay-Z has won 10 Grammy Awards and has released 11 No. 1 albums, more than any other solo recording artist in history. He campaigned for Barack Obama and has visited the president in the White House. He is married to arguably the biggest name in pop music, and he recently signed a $150 million contract with the concert promotion company Live Nation. Despite all that, Jay-Z remains hungry for new achievements. “There’s something else to shoot for,” he says. “There’s always an extra level you don’t know about.”