Jay-Z - Biography

By Paul Glanting


       Nobody can tell the archetypal rags-to-riches story as truthfully as Brooklyn-born Jay-Z. No rapper can for honestly claim to have dwelled on the two poles, one representing “rags” the other representing “riches like Jay-Z. Easily the most prolific rapper of all time, Jay-Z has laid out the blueprint for Hip Hop success, having conquered music, fashion and business with flabbergasting efficiency. And, while the commercial success of his music has seemed to come to him by second nature, somehow Jay-Z has never had to sacrifice his integrity, always giving a nod of respect to the rough Brooklyn streets from which he was wrought. 


          With a government-name that is known almost as widely as his rap moniker, Shawn Carter was abandoned by his father at an early age. Determined to fill the void, Carter resorted to selling drugs in order to financially support his family. Despite a fairly successful stint peddling narcotics, his true passion was catalyzed by the thumping beats which roared through a boombox his mother gave him for his birthday. Carter began freestyling and writing rhymes at a pace that showed a tireless hustle. Under the guidance of then-established rapper Jaz-O, Jay-Z begin to develop his raw street-centric rhymes. Carter appeared on the track “Hawaiian Sophie” from Jaz-O’s debut album Word To The Jaz (EMI-1990).  Known around his Brooklyn neighborhood as “Jazzy”, Carter’s nickname would eventually be shortened to Jay-Z, both a tribute to his mentor Jaz-O and perhaps a description of the young rapper’s ability to extemporaneously, yet vividly, paint a lyrical picture of his Brooklyn, locale. Jay-Z would continue to develop his lyrical fire, spewing rhymes alongside rappers like Big Daddy Kane and Big L. Compared to later Jay-Z releases, early songs featuring Jay-Z hear a  delivery, which was far more rapid fire, probably a reflection on his battle-rap roots.


         Jaz-O’s teachings went beyond music and also taught the young Jay-Z a good deal about music industry politics. Hence, deciding to cut out the middleman, Jay-Z along with his friend Dame Dash, formed their own label, which they called Roc-A-Fella Records. Through his new label, Jay-Z released his debut Reasonable Doubt  (Roc-A-Fella-1996). Over the course of the record, Jay-Z ferociously bit into the soulful beats with crispy and meticulous rhymes. While songs like “Dead Presidents II” and Aint No N***a” were indicative of what would turn out to be Hip Hop royalty, perhaps the Notorious B.I.G.-assisted “Brooklyn’s Finest” may reveal the most significant microcosm of the album; sporting a battle-rap delivery similar to Jay-Z, B.I.G. had already established himself as one of the most lyrically gifted rappers of all time, and the song showcases Jay-Z’s eagerness to prove his lyrical prowess as well. While Reasonable Doubt  wouldn’t go Platinum until six years after its release, it’s often hailed as Jay-Z’s opus and one of Hip Hop’s watershed albums.


         The follow up to the legendary Reasonable Doubt , In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (Roc-A-Fella-1997) would plunge Jay-Z into duality with his inception of a good amount of pop-appeal on collaborations with mainstream producers like Puff Daddy (“I Know What Girls Like”) and Teddy Riley (“The City is Mine”). However, despite the album’s delve into pop music, Jay-Z’s sophomore effort still heard the quickly rising MC’s mafioso-inspired tales of the street such as “Real N***Z” and “Streets is Watching.”


         With possibly the perfect equilibrium of raw street sensibility and pop music, as well as an all-star lineup of A-list producers and guests in tow, Jay-Z’s third album Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life (Roc-A-Fella-1998) established the Brooklyn-ite as the premiere New York Hip Hop artist, now that Notorious B.I.G. was dead. Jay-Z’s delicate balance between pop and street can be heard on the battle-of-the-sexes anthem “Can I Get A...” and “Hard Knock Life”, which cleverly subverted a sample from the musical Annie. The constant mentioning of money had been an immensely common motif throughout Hip Hop but Jay-Z’s bold financial boasts on songs like “Money Aint A Thang” and “Money, Cash, Hoes” set him apart from even the most braggadocio-heavy rappers of the time. Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life snagged the Grammy for best Rap album but more importantly, made Jay-Z a household name.


         Despite Jay-Z’s substantial commercial success, his credibility from his street-based audience, never dwindled. Arguably a tribute to these roots, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella-1999) was noted for it’s return to a street aesthetic as can be heard on “(Some Like It Hot)”, which features Jay-Z insulting Queens rapper 50 Cent, who had recorded a song titled “How To Rob”, where 50 Cent humorously explains how he’d mug famous rappers, including Jay-Z . Despite it’s grimier sound, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter yielded what could be argued is Jay-Z’s greatest single “Big Pimpin”. The video for thefast-paced “Big Pimpin” was a hedonistic romp into excess, featuring expensive spirits, yachts, scantilly-clad women and a seemingly endless supply of cash.


         Meanwhile, Jay-Z had been developing other artists under his Roc-A-Fella label, including rappers Memphis Bleek, Amil, Freeway and Beanie Sigel. Jay-Z, whose guest appearances had often featured essentially a who’s who in Hip Hop, kept big name guest spots to a minimum for his fifth album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (Roc-A-Fella-2000) in order to give his blooming artists room to develop. However, one of the few songs that did include a guest “I Just Wanna Love U” featured a notably soulful chorus, sung by producer, Pharrell WIlliams.


          Jay-Z soon became embroiled in one of Hip Hop’s greatest feuds. The dominant rapper had essentially established himself as the icon of Hip Hop magnificence for the post-Notorious B.I.G. era. The only other lyrical presence whose rhymes could compare to Jay-Z’s, was Queens-born rapper Nas. A war of words soon broke out over the crown of Hip Hop’s greatest lyricist. This dispute would erupt on Jay-Z’s highly acclaimed sixth album The Blueprint  (Roc-A-Fella-2001). Nas’ debut album, the legendary Illmatic (Columbia-1994) is one of Hip Hop’s most lionized albums. With Illmatic, Nas was projected to rise to Hip Hop’s elite. However, each subsequent album was met with disappointment and on the song “The Takeover” from The Blueprint, Jay-Z tore into Nas by mocking the mediocrity that his post-Illmatic  records were met with. Nas responded to Jay-Z with the scathing cut “Ether” from his album Stillmatic (Columbia-2002). While the dispute has since dissipated, the competition is said to have brought out the best of each of the two New York rappers and both “Ether” and “The Takeover” are considered classic records. His spat with Nas aside,The Blueprint became Jay-Z’s second masterpiece, snagging The Source magazine’s covted Five-Mic rating, an accolade reserved solely for Hip Hop’s truly elite albums. Songs like “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Izzo (Hova)” smoothly balanced soul and Hip Hop. The album also helped establish producers, Kanye West and Just Blaze, who collectively produced a large portion of The Blueprint . Both producers have both gone on to be two of Hip Hop’s most celebrated architects. That same year Jay-Z performed an acoustic setr for MTV’s unplugged. With celebrated Hip Hop group The Roots as his backup band, Jay-Z layed out acoustic versions of favorites like “Big Pimpin” and “Jigga What, Jigga Who” for the album Jay-Z: Unplugged (Roc-A-Fella-2001).   


         Jay-Z continued his dominance with the double-disc albumThe Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (Roc-A-Fella-2002). This would be Jay-Z’s seventh studio ablum in seven consecutive years, an almost unheard-of consistency in Hip Hop.


         Having stockpiled Grammys, top-ranked albums and even fashion with his urban clothing line Rocawear, Jay-Z shocked the Hip Hop world by announcing his planned retirement, which would come after the release of his eighth album,The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella-2003). Highly regarded both commercially and critically, The Black Album was meant to send Jay-Z out of the Hip Hop world with a bang. Enlisting a wide array of prominent Hip Hop producers such as Kanye West, Rick Rubin, The Neptunes, Timbaland, among others, The Black Album was a tribute to the long career of one of Hip Hop’s greats. An acapella version of The Black Album was also released as an acapella and was used by innovative producer Danger Mouse, who fused Jay-Z’s lyrics with clips from The Beatles’ classic The White Album (EMI-1968). Danger Mouse dubbed his hybrid The Grey Album (never officially released-2004), which was widely spread across the internet and raiused many questions about musical copywrite laws. In late November of 2003, Jay-Z held a retirement concert for charity. Alongside the living legendary rapper were heavyweight artists like Mary J. Blige, Ghostface and Jay-Z’s future wife, Beyonce Knowles.


         Jay-Z’s hiatus proved to be short-lived and in 2006, Jay-Z released Kingdom Come (Roc-A-Fella-2006). Commercially, Jay-Z’s comeback made it looked as if the Brooklyn-born rapper had never left. Singles like “Show Me What You Got” and “Lost One” as well as collaborations with popular artists like Ne-Yo, Usher and Chris Martin from Coldplay, proved that Jay-Z hadn’t lost his commercial viability at all.       


         Returning to his perrencial output, the next year Jay-Z released American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella-2007), which would be Jay-Z’s first concept album. The album was inspired by the film of the same name. He stated that the visuals from the movie were so familar that each song from American Gangster was inspired by a scene. He also felt that the album’s songs had so much cohesion together that the songs shouldn’t be sold individually and pulled the album from the online Itunes store.


            Jay-Z has perhaps the strongest case for being Hip Hop’s greatest of all time. Despite his conquering of a plethora of business ventures, the boy from the Marcy public houses miraculously never lost his lyrical chops and has one of the most impressive bodies of work in the genre.

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