"I'll never forget when 'Reasonable Doubt' dropped.
At the time, I was working at Correct Records in LA, and we had just signed another now-legend named Kanye West. Kanye was trying to be a producer back then, and we gave Kanye his first shot at producing an album (fact check me, people!) when he was still living in his mom’s basement in Chicago. But this isn’t about me or ‘Ye – it’s about the guy shaping the world we lived in: Jay-Z.
Almost immediately, you could tell Jay-Z was going to be one of the greatest rappers in the history of the game. 'Brooklyn's Finest' is a collab of legends – Jay-Z & Biggie Smalls, literally two of the best rappers ever and both from our borough of Brooklyn. 'Dead Presidents' blew my wig back with its loopy piano riff and Jay's mellow flow. In the two decades since that tape, Jay-Z essentially transcended the rap game. However, like those who are destined to be one of the Greats, he started with a vision and a focus that is common among those who become Great.
- Ryan Babenzien
Sean Corey Carter was born in Brooklyn on December 4, 1969, the last of four children. The youngest Carter grew up one of New York’s most divisive eras. This was the New York of “Taxi Driver,” not “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: by the time he was 10, the crack trade had infiltrated the city, bringing violence and fear along with it. Carter’s home, the towering Marcy Projects in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, was hit nearly hardest of all.
In Marcy and other projects like it, crack stoked violence, strayed relationships, and tore apart families. At age 11, Carter’s father abandoned their home, leaving his mother to raise all four children. Only one year later, he’d be forced to shoot his brother in self-defense after the older Carter attacked him in a crack-fueled rage.
It didn’t even make the news.
The Marcy Housing Projects, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn
While Carter did briefly sell crack, his childhood was also filled with music. “My mom and pop had an extensive record collection,” Carter told NPR. “Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and all of those sounds and souls of Motown filled the house.” However, it was an early birthday gift of a boombox that set his love for music in motion. Boombox in hand, “Jazzy” Carter (as he was then known) would walk around Bed-Stuy, rapping to himself and for himself, stopping only to write down lyrics on whatever was handy. “Jazzy” famously bought bodega juices just for the brown paper bags they came in – a Brooklyn-style canvas for Brooklyn-born thoughts.
Around this time, Carter began to make his first serious steps into rap. In 1989, “Jazzy” began working with a small-time local rapper named Jonathan Burks, who went by the name “Jaz-O.” What Jaz-O lacked in name recognition, he made up in industry saavy. With his guidance, little “Jazzy” Carter from the projects appeared on Yo! MTV raps for the first time later that same year. The duo would only produce one hit song – 1990’s “The Originators” – but Jaz-O’s mentorship would go on to produce so much more. With newfound industry swagger (and a naming convention to model from), little “Jazzy” Carter began performing under the name Jay-Z.
A still from Jaz-O's "The Originators" music video. Jay-Z (left) lookin' like Tyler, the Creator in his oversized stripes
Fast forward to 1996. Jay-Z makes unprecedented rap business moves by founding his own music label, Roc-A-fella Records, in advance of his debut album. After being turned down by almost every major label, Roc-A-Fella’s founders (Jay, Damon Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke) take matters into their own hands. Roc-A-Fella’s first-ever record: the legendary Reasonable Doubt.
The next decade reads like a space launch. Reasonable Doubt rockets up the Billboard 200, landing at #23 with both strong sales and widespread critical acclaim. Reviewers can’t get enough of Jay-Z’s honest autobiographical lyrics about his childhood in Marcy, and even reluctant fans tune in to hear the incredible star-power of album guests like Mary J. Blige (“Can’t Knock the Hustle”) and Biggie Smalls (“Brooklyn’s Finest”), his former high school classmate.
A rare photo of Jay-Z and Biggie, high school classmates and "Brooklyn's Finest"
In 1997, Jay-Z releases In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 to stronger sales. In 1998, “Hard Knock Life” – a single from that year’s Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life – blows up airwaves coast-to-coast, making Jay-Z (and his hard-knock Brooklyn childhood) a household name. The album goes on to win the 1998 Grammy for Best Rap Album. Next year’s album, titled – wait for it – Vol. 3 is Jay-Z’s first to top the Billboard 200.
The rest is H-to-the-izztory.
The Blueprint (2001) debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200, eventually going double platinum and earning Complex’s title as “Best Album of the 2000’s.” That same year, Jay-Z and then-future wife Beyoncé appear together on the cover of Vanity Fair’s music issue, confirming their long-rumored relationship. The Black Album (2003), promising to be Jay-Z’s “retirement” from rap, features world-changing names like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams on production. Retired from rap but far from inactive, Jay-Z is named president of Def Jam Records in 2005, later becoming GQ’s “International Man of the Year.”
The cherry on top: as a “retired” businessman, he began an endorsement deal with Audemars Pigeut, a Swiss watchmaker known for its “Royal Oak” series of luxury timepieces. Washed up? Try watched up.
In less than a decade, little “Jazzy” Carter had gone from Marcy Projects to Madison Avenue, with a net worth rumored north of $300 million. But that was just part one.
Through a 2005 surprise concert titled “I Declare War,” Jay-Z announced his return to rap. The albums Kingdom Come (2006), American Gangster (2007), and The Blueprint 3 (2009) would quickly follow. During this time, little “Jazzy” Carter from Marcy also signed a $150 million deal with Live Nation and sold his stake in his label’s Rocawear clothing line for $204 million. At present, his estimated net worth is just north of $800 million. Empire State of Mind wasn’t just a song – it sounded more like a lifestyle.
That mysterious gap year between Gangster and 3? On April 4, 2008, Sean Carter and Beyoncé Knowles become man and wife. Music's power couple ties the knot in a small, private ceremony.
Uplifted from the projects through his own hustle (from 1996-2003, Jay-Z released at least one full-length album a year), Jay-Z had become fabulously wealthy yet refused to stop creating. The success of 2010’s “Watch the Throne” EP with Kanye West even leads to the claim that Jay-Z’s decades-long dominance is the influence of the Illuminati. How else could a kid from Marcy stay at the top?
Jay and 'Ye promoting their "Watch the Throne" EP with "Illuminati" hand signs
Craziest of all: Jay’s still going strong. After 100 million records sold, 21 Grammy awards, a music festival, and recently-born twins, his next album – “4:44” – releases June 30, 2017. It will be his thirteenth solo album in just 21 years.
On top of the world yet anchored by his home, Jay-Z represents everything Brooklyn was, is, and always will be: a dreamer with hustle, an artist with aplomb – a business, man. A kid who “shouldn’t make it” that used his skills and his smarts to become the man who did. By telling authentic Brooklyn stories, little “Jazzy” Carter put the ears of the world on our city and, in turn, inspired a generation.
Sean “Jay-Z” Carter: rap legend, “Brooklyn’s Finest,” and one of the Greats. There’ll only ever B1 like him, but his shoes can be filled by us all.