Smooth Operator

Photo: Globe Photos

Meeting Jay-Z, president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings since January 3 and the best-selling “retired” rapper in America, except for Eminem, is not a casual affair. The audience begins at the 40/40 Club, his Lotus-influenced sports bar near the Flatiron Building, in a back room with Michael Jordan jerseys on the wall and the feel of The Sopranos’ Bada Bing club. There is activity all around—garbage bags of toys packed to give to charity, upcoming clothing-line styles discussed as videos on BET blare from a flat-screen—but Jay-Z, 34, remains semi-reclined on a leather couch, leaden-lidded eyes fixed on a magazine article he means to finish.

Someone brings in an elaborately wrapped bottle of tequila to see if he wants a taste. “I’m-a take that on vacation,” he says, waving it away. Where to?

“Starting the interview already?” he says, shaking his head. “Why don’t you catch a vibe?”

In Jay-Z’s world, visitors pay respect, and he sets the agenda. Six-three and seeming every inch, Jay-Z, who was born Shawn Carter, is said to be one of the most honorable men in the music business, but the front is all James Dean–cool, the kid the other kids in Brooklyn’s notorious Marcy projects nicknamed “Jazzy”—the smooth dude. He had a kind of elegant resolve: “When I left the block, everyone was saying I was crazy,” he has said of his early success. “I was doing well for myself on the streets, and cats around me were like, ‘These rappers are hos. They just record, tour, and get separated from their families, while some white person takes all their money.’ I was determined to do it differently.”

This is not an original plan—the blueprint for success was laid by Russell Simmons, whom Jay-Z refers to as the “Godfather,” and many have gone on to copy it—but no other well-regarded rapper has gone as far to meet its specifications (the “well-regarded” part should explain why P. Diddy’s not in the running). Having followed the rapper’s standard diversification plan of record label and clothing line for almost a decade—adding in a Reebok sneaker—Jay-Z has amassed a net worth estimated at $286 million by Fortune magazine. He’s become such a success, in fact, that he no longer wants to rap at all. Calling himself Jigga or J-Hova, God of the Microphone, Jay-Z made music with broad appeal, mixing ghetto anthems and club smashes extolling the high life. But since his first album, he’s talked about early retirement; to Jay-Z, it’s a sign of greatness, much as Seinfeld left comedy because he’d climbed its highest peak and found himself alone.

With his ascent to the leadership of Def Jam, Jay-Z is hoping to compete in the boardroom. He’s even bought the obligatory power-player apartment, Peter Arnell’s $6.85 million Tribeca penthouse. (He currently lives in a high-rise penthouse in a quite different city: Fort Lee, New Jersey.) Jay-Z’s leadership of Def Jam provides him not only with symbolic ties to Simmons but also access to one of urban music’s biggest purses. For now, he’s circumspect about his plans, saying only that he plans to sign up his longtime compatriot Foxy Brown (which he did in early January), wants to “make everyone sound like Snoop in ’92,” and will figure out the rest along the way.

After our audience at the club, Jay-Z, his business manager, and an assistant climb into an SUV to ride to a New Jersey Nets game—Jay-Z has bought a stake in the Nets, which he likens to buying a “piece of art.” As he enters the arena to walk to his courtside seat, teenage girls shriek from the rafters. Bruce Ratner dashes over to shake his hand. A messenger drops off a new Jacob the Jeweler watch. It has so many diamonds you can hardly look at it.

Cleveland’s LeBron James saunters by after a foul, with a few minutes left on the clock.

“You tired?” asks Jay-Z.

“Nah,” says James. “I ain’t no sprinter. I run marathons.”

“You tired,” says Jay-Z.

Invigorated by the game, Jay-Z’s natural sociability begins to come out—his manner big-brotherly, as he laughs at his own easy jokes, a mincing hee-hee-hee at odds with the booming bass he uses to rap. The youngest of four kids brought up by a single mom, Jay-Z grew up with rap greats like Notorious B.I.G., but had no deal of his own. Instead, he sold crack, moving from city to city. He liked being a leader. “I used to wear a rubber band on my wrist, like a ghetto money clip,” he has said. “The little dudes who were working with me had to earn their rubber bands … 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.”

On trips home, he’d lay down a rhyme or two at a club, sometimes attracting A&R guys who said they could make him a star. In the early nineties, he moved back to New York with that dream, but still no deal was forthcoming. Damon Dash, a fledgling artist manager, became his advocate, and together they shopped his demo. Finally, they released the album on their own, calling their label Roc-A-Fella Records. (When Jay-Z left Roc-A-Fella for Def Jam this year, rumors abounded about a rift between the men; Jay-Z will only say, “I’m godfather to his child, but he growed up, wants to do different things. That’s beautiful. I encourage that.”) Island Def Jam bought half the company in 1997 and paid $22 million in 2002 to extend their partnership through this year. “From the beginning, we were entrepreneurs, roc-a-fellas,” says Jay-Z. “It was a bet that paid off.”

Now that the music has ended, betting and winning is really what turns Jay-Z on, ridiculous risks, high stakes—the Def Jam gig, a little flashiness with his investment in the hot Village pub the Spotted Pig, maybe a casino in Vegas, even directing a feature film. “Real estate, too; Bruce [Ratner] is big in that, so I might get into it,” he says. He calls hip-hop “corny,” seeing few rappers he considers his caliber, especially in New York. When Biggie died, he spoke of having a “selfish” response, comparing it to Michael Jordan’s upon hearing that Magic had AIDS: “ ‘You’re leaving now? Yo, I need you. You’re going to define my greatness.’ ”

The Nets win, with a last-minute comeback, so Jay-Z is in a particularly good mood as we whiz back to New York in his Mercedes Maybach, curtains drawn; he’s off to play Guts with his friends, a three-card slap-’em-down with high stakes, take no prisoners. “This is a big card game amongst the fellas,” he says. “You not invited.”

“I don’t know how to play anyway,” I say.

“Wait a minute,” he says, and laughs, seeing the potential here. “On second thought.”

Smooth Operator