Blogs & Comment

Always win, and other lessons from the life of rapper Jay-Z

Secrets of the man who considers himself 'the black Warren Buffett.'

(Photo: Stephanie Noritz)

One lazy summer, I was driving my nephews (ages 12 and 10) along a dusty rural road when they asked me to put on some music. I turned on my iPod, and the last song I’d been listening to came on: “Run This Town” by hip-hop star Jay-Z, from his new album The Blueprint 3. After humming along quietly the intro, my nephews started rapping along, flashing awkward gang signs out the window as they sang “This is Roc Nation/Pledge your allegiance/Get y’all fatigues on/All black everything/Black cards, black cars, all black everything…”

Street-cred authenticity and mass-market success are natural antagonists in the corporate world, and very few hip-hop artists could survive wholesale embrace by white suburban adolescents and keep their image intact. But then again, very few hip-hop artists are Jay-Z.

As Zack O’Malley Greenburg argues in his book Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office (Penguin), the key to Jay-Z’s success is his “ability to build and leverage his personal brand.” There are other personal-brand success stories out there—Martha Stewart, William Shatner—but what is remarkable about Jay-Z is that he has managed to become extremely popular, and extremely wealthy, by ruthlessly leveraging his own personal credibility. And what underwrites that credibility is his reputation as a former drug dealer and street gangster who once plunged a knife into a rival’s belly while uttering Al Pacino’s famous line from The Godfather II, “You broke my heart.”

The rough outlines of Jay-Z’s rise to wealth and fame are fairly well-known. And “rough” is certainly the word. Born in 1969 in the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn’s notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood, Shawn Corey Carter was quickly exposed to music and drug-dealing in equal measures. After his dad left the family, Shawn, only 10, bounced from one father figure to another, showing a talent for both rhyming and street hustling, and eventually moved in with a friend’s family in New Jersey. There, he got involved in the cocaine trade while working on his rapping skills on the side.

Less familiar is the story of exactly how Shawn evolved from a hotheaded crack dealer (he once shot his brother in the shoulder) into one of the most successful multi-platform businessmen in the world. Today, Jay-Z (a shortened version of his childhood nickname, Jazzy) is a musician, media mogul, entrepreneur and all-around wheeler-dealer, worth at least half a billion dollars, who likes to describe himself as “the black Warren Buffett.” Yet, despite his obvious skills at the microphone, Jay-Z long resisted people who tried to push him into music full time. The decision was based on what Greenburg says was a very simple business philosophy: “Focus on whatever venture offers the most realistic opportunity to make the most money.”

That philosophy has guided Jay-Z for virtually his entire life, and it is made up of three main principles. The first, and in many ways most telling, is his tendency to ditch mentors, teachers and business partners once they are no longer useful to him. These include his early musical role model Jonathan (Jaz-O) Burks, his friend and partner in drug-dealing crime DeHaven Irby, and the Harlem businessman Damon Dash, with whom Jay-Z co-founded his first big business score, Roc-A-Fella Records. As Jaz-O tells Greenburg, “His loyalty is to his money,” and Jay-Z “doesn’t like to share the proceeds of projects he feels he can execute on his own.”

This leads to a second key business principle, which is that there must always be a fairly lucrative answer to the question, “Where can I make the most money?” Even as a novice drug dealer, Jay-Z quickly earned a reputation for being stingy. He had a strict policy of “no shorts,” meaning no one got a discount. This attitude also extended to Greenburg’s own request for co-operation from Jay-Z’s crew when it came to researching the book. When Greenburg sat down with Jay-Z’s consigliere, John Meneilly, he was immediately asked, “What’s in it for us?” (Obviously not liking Greenburg’s answer, Jay-Z quickly reheated an abandoned project and beat Greenburg to the bookstores with his own memoir, Decoded.)

But the most interesting manifestation of this attitude is in Jay-Z’s approach to endorsements. More than in any other musical form, hip-hop artists like to name-check their favourite luxury brands in their lyrics—booze, cars, restaurants, jewelry. For the most part, this is just a form of conspicuous display, but it took Jay-Z to recognize it as a form of free advertising. Eventually, Jay-Z figured that if his name and his music were going to sell champagne or nightclubs, he might as well be endorsing his own champagne, his own nightclubs. And so Jay-Z the music star evolved, completely organically, into Jay-Z the entrepreneur.

The third business principle that drives all of Jay-Z’s dealings is the overriding imperative to “always win.” As far as the boy from Marcy projects is concerned, there is no point in doing anything if you aren’t going to win at it. That doesn’t mean he has never suffered defeat, or never failed. In fact, Jay-Z has had lots of failures, from critically derided albums to a defunct vodka brand. But what Jay-Z understands is that the failures don’t matter as long as they are not allowed to affect the overall perception of the Jay-Z brand. As Greenburg puts it, just as no one cares that Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple, no one will ever remember that Jay-Z has a failed Vegas nightclub on his resumé. He just reinforces his successes and moves on.

More than almost any other mogul alive, Jay-Z knows that his success rests on maintaining a careful balance between his credibility and his marketability. If that has required a distinct ruthlessness, in both his personal life and his business dealings, so be it. As Jay-Z’s admirers like to say (in a line he probably fed them), Jay-Z isn’t a businessman. He’s a business, man.


Executive summaries

Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens (Palgrave Macmillan)
Nicholas Shaxson

“The offshore system is ultimately not about celebrity tax exiles and mobsters,” Shaxson writes. “It is about banks and financial services industries.” Anyone who wants to understand the workings of modern global finance, argues the former Financial Times and Economist Group journalist, must understand offshore banking. Despite harsh noises from western leaders about throttling tax havens, he believes they are proliferating as never before—with the complicity of those same leaders—and are causing immeasurable damage to developed and developing nations alike.

Shaxson combines robust reporting with a moralist’s outrage, tunnelling deep into the workings of the City of London—by which he means not just the U.K.’s capital city, but tax havens among Britain’s Crown Dependencies and overseas territories, and financial centres within the City’s sphere of influence as far away as Dublin and Singapore. He argues that so-called secrecy jurisdictions were among the causes of the financial crisis, and claims the offshore network has quietly been encouraged by U.S. elites. He’s got the research chops to mostly back it up, and he’s writer enough to make the inner workings of global finance interesting for a layperson. –Jordan Timm

Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly (Penguin)
John Kay

When Bill Allen was CEO of Boeing in the 1950s and ’60s, John Kay writes, the company’s purpose was to “eat, breathe, and sleep the world of aeronautics.” Its dominance of civil aviation made Boeing perhaps “the most powerful market leader in world business.” That dominance, claims Kay, who founded the Institute for Fiscal Studies, was almost incidental, a result of the company’s passionate devotion to airplanes. But a shift in corporate culture in the 1990s that led to a single-minded focus on profitability and shareholder return actually proved counterproductive for Boeing, as it quickly lost ground to Airbus.

Boeing is among the many case studies Kay cites in arguing that the best way to achieve any broad objective is to pursue it indirectly, through a process of “experiment and discovery.” That’s not an endorsement of unstructured, “intuitive” decision-making; rather, Kay cites those who found success by hewing to Charles Lindblom’s more structured “science of muddling through,” including Picasso, Sam Walton and Warren Buffett. Kay’s point is that direct strategies are most appropriate in stable environments, with transparent, one-dimensional objectives and goals whose accomplishment can be easily judged. Life rarely offers such situations. –JT

Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work (Harper Perennial)
Edited by Richard Ford

Ford’s father was a travelling salesman, the Pulitzer-winning American novelist tells us in the introduction to this collection of short fiction, and he kept that job through the Depression, the Second World War, and the entire 1950s, a time when your job was in some ways synonymous with your character. “What you ‘did’ might not have meant who you were,” Ford writes. “But what you did sure made who you were more plausible.”

A fundraiser for a children’s education non-profit in Michigan, this anthology is offered consciously at a moment when work is in shorter supply than Americans are accustomed to. Its 32 stories—among them offerings from Alice Munro, John Cheever, Junot Diaz and Joyce Carol Oates—delve into all aspects of what we do for our paycheques, with work defined broadly “as labour, as chores, as business, as duty, as habit,” inside the workplace and out. A Jim Shepard story winds around a pair of men in the “black world,” the off-book, top-secret part of the military-industrial complex where you can never tell your girlfriend how your day was. Richard Bausch’s “Unjust” spends a day with a sheriff who’s on furlough after being accused of sexual harassment. All the stories collected here strive to tell us something “about work and its stamp on us.” –J.T.