Jay-Z is patiently waiting in a London studio to play us some tracks from his much anticipated The Blueprint 3, the final album in a trilogy which began in 2001 and set a precedent that most other rappers and hip hop artists have yet to achieve.
At almost 40, the man also known as Beyoncé’s hubby is still on top of his game. A keen businessman – he has his own clothing line Rocawear, and was at the helm of Def Jam, before parting ways and setting up his own label, Roc Nation – and a discoverer of talents including Rihanna, Jay-Z is a focused man.
Tonight, his iPod is his main focal point, which contains much of the tracks of The Blueprint 3 where guests abound. Besides Rihanna and the ubiquitous Kanye West, his album also features some other prominent guests. “I worked with a bunch of people: MGMT, Drake, Kid Cudi, Mr Hudson… I’m missing some other people… And some other people!” he laughs. He presses play.
The following morning at his hotel, Jay-Z appears fresh despite a night spent clubbing – and ready to discuss, with no false modesty, this third blueprint he has drawn up for rap music’s future generation. “I call it the new classic because it takes the traditional approach of making music, but it’s a blueprint for the next generation because the first generation was based on the soul samples and the music that I heard growing up,” he says with all the confidence of Leonidas attacking the Persians.
“The second Blueprint was all over the place ’cause it was all my musical influences and I was pulling from Lenny Kravitz in rock to Sean Paul in R&B. This one is like we’re becoming those icons that we all looked up to, so we have to set a blueprint for the next generation.” More than just making music, Jay-Z seems to want to install a sense of perception. The night before, we were told not to take any notes because “Jay-Z wants you to feel his vision.” One that he wants to set him apart from the rest.
And the rest, in many cases, find a niche, bask in its safety and stagnate. Jay-Z agrees. “Yes and understandably so, because of the way the Internet has affected the music business. The sales are down so now everyone has less margin for error. So they can’t just make music that they love. They have to make music to fit on the radio because they need the most impressions to sell the most records,” he explains.
“But when you do that, it’s not always good because now everything just sounds alike because everyone’s trying to fit into this radio format. So it’s just me taking ownership in that and trying to make great music for the sake of making great music and hopefully people will follow that blueprint.”
The man’s got a point. A lot of rap nowadays sounds like the same old song. “It’s like a Catch-22 situation. Before, a person could make an album and not have a record on the radio and still go gold. It’s not happening in today’s climate so there’s a lot of pressure on artists as well. But we still have great music. We’ll figure all the other parts out later.” Yet when it comes to his own music, he’s unfettered. “I love it, you know. I love to make music,” he says.
“Rappers can be around for as long as they’re making great music. I don’t think there’s an age limit on rap.” – Jay-Z, pushing 40
“I think you really have to love or have passion for something. I still try to make albums. This is not even a day and age of albums. I concentrate on making full, complete albums. If you look at my career and the records that I’ve made, I’ve got it right more than I’ve got it wrong ’cause I concentrate on making an album. I don’t want to make two records a day and then have a shitty album. I want a great album.” Without auto-tune.
Jay-Z has widely criticised the overuse of auto-tune. The track D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune) is pretty much self-explanatory. And he even considered scrapping the track he had recorded with his pal Kanye West because of the use of the “enhancer” in the recording. “I have it, it’s on my iPod,” he says. “I actually liked it, but if you’re going to take a stance against something you have to follow through with it. I don’t hate Auto-Tune. I just hate that everyone’s following each other. It’s more about everyone following each other than the device. People are going to turn away from it.”
He elaborates: “It’s like what happened with rock music. Rock music was stuck on hair metal bands. That was a big blow to rock that I don’t think they recovered fully to this day. And it kind of opened up the door for hip hop. And if we do that, we’ll open up the door for something else.” Gangsta rap and bling bling have also died down. “It’s like a trend, like Auto-Tune! But I like diversity in music and I like growth in music as well, and I don’t think rap should be afraid to grow. Rappers can be around for as long as they’re making great music. I don’t think there’s an age limit on rap or anything like that. It should just be as wide and as big as it can be.”
So is rap the new rock? “Yeah, I think the rebelliousness in it was replaced by hip hop for the most part.” Jay-Z is also a fan of rock. After working with Linkin Park and Coldplay‘s Chris Martin, he wants to tick the next person on his wish list. “Bono would be a great person to work with. I think he’s cool.” The U2 front man would make a great rapper. Jay-Z laughs: “Yeah, that’s true! He’s good!” Or Jack White. “I saw The Dead Weather play. I think he’s brilliant. I think he’s a genius.”
Jay-Z’s close friend Bono is an iconic figure the rapper looks up to. “He does so many things. He’s had longevity, he’s made classic albums, he’s still relevant right now and he does so much for the world. He’s a complete human being,” he says. And the U2 singer loves to give his younger peer advice all the time. “He likes to talk!”
While Jay-Z creates a bit of music history himself, say, practically at each of his appearances, there are past moments he would have liked to witness. Like “when Michael Jackson did the moonwalk. Or I would have loved to be in the studio when Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson made Thriller.” As for the late and great Michael Jackson, Jay-Z calls him “a phenomenal entertainer, the greatest of all time,” with a rich heritage.
“What I’m most proud of is that his legacy is left intact. When someone does something like the way he did it, with passion, dedication and the love for it, their legacy should be left intact. So I’m happy that people celebrated him around the world the way they did. I only wish he would have got to see it.”
Rap and hip hop have certainly contributed to the globalisation of American pop culture and improving interracial relations. “One-hundred and fifty percent!” he agrees. “I think that rap has done more for racial relations than most people – like 80%. Of course there are special people – Martin Luther King, people who put in incredible work – but after that, rap music. Racism is taught in the household, so it’s very difficult to teach racism when your child idolises Kanye West!”
“Racism is taught in the household, so it’s very difficult to teach racism when your child idolizes Kanye West.” – Jay-Z
As for hip hop more generally, he sees it as a unifier. “Hip hop has brought people together. It used to be black clubs and white clubs. That’s no longer the thing. Everyone parties together now. That’s a beautiful thing.”
One of the greatest contributors was, of course, his close friend Biggie Smalls. Jay-Z even calls him the ultimate rap artist. “He was so complete. He could make the darkest record and then he could make the coolest dance record. He was the most complete as a rapper to me. Here’s this big guy and he’s sexy. That’s very difficult to do!”
His own self-confidence stems from, well, personal fulfillment. And, no, it’s not just about being married to Beyoncé, one of the hottest women on the planet. “A lot of the time when you know who you are, you don’t have to pretend to be someone else, you’re happy with who are, I think you have longevity in this business. The worst thing to do is be successful as someone else because that comes to light soon.”
His lyrics are often introspective, which he says can be therapeutic. “In person, I’m not really as talkative. My whole family’s like that. We keep a lot of things in. So for me, music is like therapy. It allows me to just say what I want to say.”
“I’ll always be involved in music in some kind of way. If I’m not making albums, I’ll be making albums for other people, discovering young talent.” – Jay-Z
And he says a lot. “Yeah, I do,” he laughs. One track hints at the rift he had with The Game, although he makes it clear that it isn’t a vengeful response. “What I was saying was in this song was, ‘I ain’t talking about Game.’ Everyone’s like, ‘Yo! You have to make a diss record!’ So what I’m saying on the record is I’m ready to talk about some real things. I’m not talking about that stuff.” That would be so 2001. He laughs: “Yeah, you’re right! That’s so first Blueprint!”
But this highly-publicised public dispute certainly has entertainment value. “A lot of the music press is like making a record: You’ve got to find the hook. When you find the hook, you take that hook and you go into it and then everyone picks it up. So it’s like a hit record, right?” But he does hit back at Lil Wayne, who suggested that, at almost 40, Jay-Z is too old for hip hop.
“The people choose who they want in that place. Even if I didn’t make another record, it wouldn’t mean that this particular person would be more famous. I don’t think you stop people from being famous. If people like Lil Wayne, they’re going to buy Lil Wayne. If people like Jay-Z, they’re going to buy Jay-Z. And that’s pretty much the end of it. I think it’s more like sour grapes on their part. I tell them to just work harder. You should be able to outwork an old guy!”
A few years ago, when he was “younger”, the rap star had announced his retirement, something that didn’t quite work out at age thirtysomething. “I sucked at that!” he laughs and admits he’ll never be able to fully retire. “I’ll always be involved in music in some kind of way. If I’m not making albums, I’ll be making albums for other people, discovering young talent.” Or continuing his many business ventures.
“It was a great experience for me, but I’m more of an entrepreneur than a 9-to-5 kind of guy. I need the freedom to move.” – Jay-Z on stepping away from the helm of Def Jam
He has since become the Donald Trump of hip hop, The comparison leaves him visibly ecstatic as he nearly jumps up and down in his chair. “You just made up a new phrase! I’ve never heard that one!” He doesn’t hold a fancy MBA; he gets his business acumen from the streets. “There was an honour and loyalty tied to business in the street that I took with me that really pays off for me ’cause that’s really just how you do business. If you can’t do something, you don’t promise it. My approach to doing business is to just be straight up about it, not complicate the business. It works pretty well, you know?”
After being at the helm of Def Jam, Jay-Z parted ways with business partner Damon Dash, but he won’t be drawn into any of the rumoured gritty details of his departure. “It was a great experience for me, but I’m more of an entrepreneur than a 9-to-5 kind of guy. I need the freedom to move.”
His next venture is to move the NBA team The Nets, which he co-owns, to his hometown of Brooklyn. “For me, it’s a childhood dream. We don’t have a sports team in Brooklyn since the Dodgers left in the early ’50s. To bring a sports franchise back to my hometown is like a dream come true.”
But the only business he hasn’t dabbled in thus far is film. “The reason why I haven’t really approached it or took it on is because I want to be in the position where I can do the work. If you’re going to take on something or you’re going to be in a movie or produce a movie, you should really know what you’re doing. You should really have enough time to dedicate to it to put out quality work.”
“Hip hop saved my life.” – Jay-Z
While many rap stars, such as Ludacris, Mos Def and 50 Cent have carved out an acting career, Jay-Z doesn’t want to be cast in the next Hollywood box-office smash despite the “hundreds” of offers he’s received over the years. “I’ve been tempted (to accept) but, it’s not really my thing. For me, it would be more producing, more giving the vision than being the actor. I think I’ll get in my way. To be an actor, you can’t get in your own way. You have to have the freedom to have the character come to life. I’ll probably get in my own way! There are some things I wouldn’t do, like karate fight! And fake wrestling!” And if there were a Jay-Z biopic in production, would Denzel Washington fit the role? He laughs: “Denzel? He’s too good! I don’t know… Obama!”
Once named GQ International Man of the Year, who would he vote for? “Kanye won last year, didn’t he? Let’s not vote for him. Let’s vote for someone else… Jack White, who wears a lot of black. I’m into black right now,” while his Woman of the Year would be his protégée Rihanna. When asked about Chris Brown, however, Jay-Z remains tactful.
“They’re young kids. No one’s condoning that – it was a tragic mistake – but young kids make mistakes and hopefully get past it. I think he’s feeling the repercussions of his actions. Sometimes when you make a mistake, you gotta deal with it. There’ll be a day when this is behind him, but for now he has to deal with it.”
Despite having a difficult childhood, Jay-Z remains loyal to his native New York, a city to which he pays homage on the album. “It’s a melting pot of all different types of people, co-mingling and hanging out at the same places; the speed in which it moves, 24 hours a day; you can catch a cab to anywhere. Just the excitement and the feeling of the city is the centre of the world. It really is. So many different types of creative people… it’s an incredible city.”
Jay-Z still resides in New York and Brooklyn is still strongly anchored in him, despite a difficult childhood. “I’d probably be locked up or something, to be honest with you. I was successful when I was in the street as well. I don’t think I would have stopped had I not found something that I loved more or something that could occupy my time and pay well. I would still be doing what I was doing because I was having a good run in it, and that doesn’t last, right? Something would have happened. I would either go to jail or got killed. Hip hop saved my life, like that Lupesong (starts signing): ‘Hip hop, you saved my life.'”
Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 is out through Roc Nation on 14 September 2009.