What do you know about Jay-Z? Born Shawn Corey Carter in December 1969, the Brooklyn corner boy from the Marcy Housing Projects, who used to flip kilos of coke as fast as he flipped rhymes, turned his life of trial and tragedy into one of triumph and success, making a ton of money and marrying the girl of his dreams. These days, he rubs elbows with Warren Buffett and President Barack Obama and generally mobs around the world like a fucking boss. Jay-Z, Jigga, Young Hova, Hov -- the only thing longer than his list of nicknames is his influence on pop culture and African-American history.
When Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt was released in 1996, it did not receive the epic acclaim it receives today. The fast-rapping, young-voiced Brooklynite, who captured paranoia in his rhymes with blinding authenticity, made a splash with his releases mostly because of how he went about the business.
Banding together with comrades Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs, Jay-Z and company formed Roc-a-Fella Records after not being able to procure a record deal otherwise. After receiving a distribution deal with Priority, the dynasty flourished. Bringing along a slew of artists like Amil, Beanie Siegal, Freeway and others, Jay and Dash together made history.
In My Lifetime Vol 1 followed his debut and warmed audiences to a more confident and less aggravated Jay-Z, while Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life ripped open old wounds and allowed the MC to become more descriptive about his life. With The Blueprint, though, Jay hit the sweet spot and soared to fame. Releasing the album in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, The Blueprint was largely overshadowed by the tragedy.
It wasn't all about the music, though: There were several moments of legal upheaval, and in early 2001, Hov and Nas engaged in a rap battle that arguably elicited some of the hardest diss records in rap history (Jay-Z with "Super Ugly" and Nas with "Ether").
Unlike many rappers whose careers have been marred by beef with other MCs, Jay-Z seemed to flourish. He kept a quiet relationship with Beyonce, continued to build his empire (the 40/40 Club franchise, releasing The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse) and continued to break barriers in music.
Announcing his retirement with the release of The Black Album (supposedly his final project), Jay-Z outdid himself with rhymes, verses and production choice,even featuring a cameo from his mom on one track. "PSA" and the Timbaland-produced "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" were standout joints that kept the fans clamoring for more. By this time, Jay was easily selling out Madison Square Garden and topping damn near every "power" list Forbes magazine put out regarding moguls in hip-hop.
In 2004, Jay-Z was named president of Def Jam Records, a stint that scrunched up the faces of the hip-hop elite and didn't last very long, but one that Hov used to boost the careers of artists like Kanye West, Ne-Yo, Rihanna and others. He even buried the hatchet with longtime nemesis Nas in a concert dubbed "I Declare War," in which the two performed together.
Proving himself a formidable opponent in the business and the rap sense, Jay continued to make music; American Gangster was brilliant, and even the questionable Kingdom Come deserves a mention. The Blueprint 3 was released in 2009 to wild anticipation, showing once again that Hov remains on top of his game.
Watch the Throne, the recent collaboration with Kanye West, is the culmination of Kanye and Jay's rich motherfucker behavior and an overall celebration of actually making it through the struggle to sit atop the mountain of riches they worked so hard for.
Last night was the final performance of Hov's two-night stint at Carnegie Hall, where he performed with an orchestra to raise money for the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund. A long way from the Marcy Projects' hallways in Brooklyn, Jay-Z is living black history and an unstoppable ball of creative stamina.
February has traditionally been the month when the contributions from, traditions of and historical facts about African-Americans are celebrated. In honor of Black History Month, Backbeat will be celebrating iconic figures in the world of black music.
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