Growing up in central Brooklyn (“I’m from Marcy Houses, where the boys die by the thousand”), Shawn Carter wrote rhymes everywhere: standing at a streetlight, on the backs of brown-paper bags, banging out beats on his windowsill to find the rhythm. His childhood was violent: He started selling crack in his early teens and later quipped that getting a gun in Bed-Stuy was easier than getting public assistance. By the time he released 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, he said he was the oldest 26-year-old you’d ever want to meet.
Jay-Z (born in 1969) didn’t romanticize the streets (“Recruited lieutenants with ludicrous dreams of gettin’ cream/‘Let’s do this,’ it gets tedious”), but he never claimed remorse for them either. Even as he ascended to the executive suite—a move that not only re-christened rappers as the vertically integrated businessmen they already were, but also opened up new paths for black artists navigating corporate America—he remained stoic, a little ruthless, playful about a past that most might not have come back from.
Add to it a dexterity on the mic—not to mention a deep, intuitive love for language—that helped bring rap out of the yes-yes-y’all era and into another in which MCs functioned as American griots, chroniclers of the black American experience whose chains flashed bright but whose words flashed even brighter. And forgive the pun, but there’s still no real blueprint for him: Past 50, a billionaire, married with children—not only capable of artistic growth (as he proved so eloquently on 2017’s 4:44), but also willing to embrace it.
HOMETOWNNew York, NY [Brooklyn]
BORNDecember 4, 1969