June 25 marks the 20th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt, Jay Z’s first album. To commemorate, we’re celebrating with Jay Z Day.
The last time I saw Jay Z he was smiling. It was almost exactly five years ago. Rocking back and forth in an Eames lounge chair, as he paused and unpaused "Otis," running back Otis Redding’s trill again and again: "It makes it easier, eeeeeasier to bear." Pause, rewind, play. Smile. Pause, rewind, play. Bigger smile. This was 2011 and no one had heard "Otis" before. We were among the first 50 civilians. In Soho’s Mercer Hotel on a sweat-through-your-seersucker July evening, he had gathered 10 or so journalists to hear a new album. We huddled in a semicircle, a captive audience nibbling on bait. Strangers stood and hooted and clutched each other during "Otis." Jay felt safe, listening to himself, drinking in the thirst trap he’d set. Throughout the session, he’d adjust his Yankees snapback, then loose that little donkey chuckle at one of his own lines. "Proof, I guess I got my swagger back, truth."
Jay Z was 41 years old when he released Watch the Throne, his collaborative album with Kanye West. It was his last indisputably relevant musical moment, simultaneously a cocksure flaunt, a savvy brand extension, and a reclamation. He knew what he had on his hands that night at the Mercer — a suitable comeback, something that could stand proudly in his body of work with some distance from the twin failings of 2006’s disastrous Kingdom Come and 2009’s shruggable The Blueprint 3. In other words, he had a hit. He’d released four albums since his false retirement in 2003, though this felt in many ways like the first correct one. So that night at the Mercer, this was Hov in repose, content and uncomplicated. Beaming and unbound. As ever, he was smiling like he knew something we didn’t.
Turns out he did. At the time, Beyoncé, his wife of three years, was pregnant with their daughter Blue Ivy. (The pregnancy was announced seven weeks later.) With fatherhood imminent, a discrete passing of the baton from Jay to his protégé West, the purchase of a stake in the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets, and the recent publication of his seriocomic memoir/song guide Decoded, Jay Z was marking signposts like so many wealthy, middle-aged American men. Hell, he’d helped elect a president. His investments — not just a professional sports team, but alcohol, nightclubs, clothing brands, a website — and his family had become interwoven. His pirouette across the tightrope of American success was near-complete. "If you escaped what I’ve escaped," he raps on the album, "you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too." He could have disappeared forever that night with a life well lived.
Jay Z was born on December 4 — his birthday is just over a week apart from his idol Frank Sinatra. In 1955, Ol’ Blue Eyes approached 40 in the throes of a revival — after a chilly postwar period, he was flowering into a serious actor, with an Oscar for From Here to Eternity in hand and another nomination on the way for that year’s The Man With the Golden Arm. He’d also signed to a new label, trading Columbia, the home of his youthful exuberance, for Capitol, where he embraced the world-weary, ring-a-ding-ding persona that is so closely identified with Rat Pack–era Frank. On In the Wee Small Hours, his masterpiece, Sinatra sang songs like "Glad to Be Unhappy" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well" — months after Ava Gardner, his Beyoncé, filed for divorce. Sinatra was adopting a new archetype: the self-pitying, middle-aged night owl. He was vulnerable, but not without arrogance. Accomplished, but not implacable.
Jay Z had a brief period of morosity, too. "Love, I don’t get enough of it," he rapped, pathetically, on Kanye’s "Monster" in 2010. That first listen of "Monster" is the first time I can recall thinking Jay Z got old. He was 40 then. Middle-aged woe is not compatible with his persona: the coldblooded winner, Lucky Lefty, a business … man. Watch the Throne — which featured "No Church in the Wild" and "Murder to Excellence," two of the best Jay Z songs of the millennium — recaptured some vivacity. After Blue Ivy’s birth in early 2012, he released "Glory," which opens with the sound of her heartbeat and closes with her cooing in the distance. It’s a saccharine song, but who could hold it against him? Maybe he was entering a new phase, one without precedent — family man and entrepreneur; doting husband and global icon. He appeared on just two more songs in 2012, a verse on Rick Ross’s minor "3 Kings" and a stray contribution to "Clique," a leftover from the Throne sessions. He organized a festival in Philadelphia called Made in America, but it was less Jay Z Concert than Jay Z Gifting Suite. ("Here, try some Dirty Projectors. Have you sampled our Passion Pit? Taste this Meek Mill.") All told, it was a year off. This was a time for rest, a moment to bask. Sinatra released his signature song "My Way" in 1969, the year of Shawn Carter’s birth. It’s a favorite of Jay’s. And so, it seemed, he faced the final curtain.
In 2013, Jay Z talked to Vanity Fair for a cover story. "I know about budgets. I was a drug dealer," he told the magazine’s Lisa Robinson. "To be in a drug deal, you need to know what you can spend, what you need to re-up."
That interview is one of the last sitdowns Jay Z has conducted this decade. In a year that unraveled the quiet Dad-cool he accumulated in 2012, this interview can be seen as both a starter kit for the Jay Z mythology and also a closing of the loop. He made a series of decisions in 2013 that set him on a path from which he may not be able to escape. Early that year, he teamed with Justin Timberlake on a song called "Suit & Tie," the first single for Timberlake’s comeback album The 20/20 Experience. It sold 3 million copies, but left virtually no cultural footprint. "I be on my suit and tie shit," is more of a show, don’t tell proposition.
In June, during Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Jay announced Magna Carta Holy Grail, his 12th studio album. The album would be distributed by Universal and Samsung — owners of phones made by the electronics company were gifted free copies via the Jay Z Magna Carta app, which was a real thing. Thanks to this corporate partnership, Jay Z officially "shipped" 1 million copies of the album before anyone had heard it — instantaneous platinum certification. It’s meaningless but powerful corporate phraseology for an artist who has historically been conscious of the perception of his own success. This is, after all, the man who made Nas’s "I’m out for dead presidents to represent me" a mantra on his very first album. Money isn’t just an ethos to Jay Z; it’s definitional.
Magna Carta, however, is broke. And fallow. In Jay Z’s worst moments — his collaborations with R. Kelly, the Blueprint sequels, Kingdom Come — there’s always a lingering Why?. The side effects of a career predicated on the come-up once made a weaker album seem like an unnecessary victory lap; but Magna Carta was like watching a billionaire piss off of his yacht and onto a fisherman’s head. "Picasso Baby," Tom Ford," "Oceans" (feat. Frank Ocean, ugh), "Crown," "Heaven." These are Plinko titles in Jay’s game of The Price Is Right — they read like false names for an album that doesn’t exist. But it does. By contrast, just three weeks earlier, Kanye West released Yeezus, a caustic, corroded jackhammer of a record that angrily plumbed the depths of hate and pain. The best song on Magna Carta is called "Beach Is Better." It lasts just 56 seconds.
To emphasize the intellectualism of Magna Carta, Jay Z assigned a six-hour shoot for the "Picasso Baby" music video, filmed at the Pace Gallery by Mark Romanek.
That’s Marina Abramovic, present, tangoing with Jay as he rhymes things like "I’m the new Jean-Michel." It’s all very unfortunate, status objects mistaken for meaning. This Vine is a fitting avatar for the whole affair.
Later in 2013, Jay Z offloaded his small ownership stake in the Nets — one-fifteenth of 1 percent — to Jason Kidd and partnered with CAA to launch Roc Nation Sports, a full-service agency. This expanded the empire, and cinched his relationship with the athletes he so often raps about. Roc Nation Sports has been a success, signing up dominant stars like Kevin Durant, Robinson Canó, Dez Bryant, and Skylar Diggins. The agency business is hard-nosed, no matter the pedigree. But it is, of course, pure business — synergy for the already synergized. It represents a natural expansion of Jay Z’s corporate pursuit.
In 2002, Jay appeared on 60 Minutes, in part to explain the concept of "flow" to Bob Simon. Flow, like money, is the metronome of his career — money in, money out. Flow fast, flow slow, but always steadily rising. He has created so many compelling flows — rhyme schemes, the interiority of wordplay, the elongation and concision of so many words and ideas — that his artistry is easily conflated with his business. But as his musical work has become less essential, Jay Z finds himself suffering a similar occupational fate as many people in their 40s. Sure, he’s a conspicuously successful multimillionaire with a historic past, a beautiful family, and no reason to take another risk in his life. Then again, he sought the peak with purpose. Being the best, no. 1, is not something anyone willingly cedes. So Jay keeps getting drawn back in, again and again, to a fault.
On Magna Carta, something is lost. (Sample lyric: "I’m on the ocean, I’m in heaven / Yachting, Ocean’s 11.") He is one more overpaid 43-year-old guy who’s getting worse at his job, blocking a hungrier generation, and unwilling to accept the merciless procession of time marching on. If you’re looking for an on-the-nose metaphor, Jay also executive produced the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. (Notable from Fitzgerald: "There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.") In addition to Magna Carta, he kicked in eight more guest appearances that year, including Mr. Me Too moments on songs by the ascendant Drake and Kendrick Lamar. By 2013, Shawn Carter had become, in a word, Kobe. No matter the supporting cast, the aging star was taking lots of shots, and his field goal percentage was plummeting.
Ask any person approaching middle age: Things get worse. Atrophy is real. The time after the Magna Carta misfire has been even more catastrophic than anyone could have expected. Following the Met Gala in May of 2014, a security camera captured video of Solange Knowles flailing and kicking her brother-in-law in an elevator. Accusations ran wild, but the relevant parties remained mum. This, just five months after the release of "Drunk In Love," Beyoncé’s unabashedly sensuous, committed single with Jay. Trouble in paradise? There is no paradise, only bilateral artistic decisions. One month later, the two set off on the On the Run Tour, a nearly three-month, 21-show jaunt that netted more than $100 million. Love is love, flow is flow.
Early the following year, Jay Z acquired a Swedish streaming music company called Aspiro, which was later renamed Tidal. As sanctimonious branding exercises go, the artist-centric campaign #TidalForAll falls somewhere between the 2007 Writers Guild strike and Occupy Wall Street. "It’s about putting art back into the forefront." "This collaboration feels so egoless." "This thing was the thing everyone wanted, and everyone feared." These are the airy proclamations that can be heard from Jay Z, Madonna, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Chris Martin, and others during their Justice League of Streamerica council meeting. It is like if Sean Parker had become ensorceled by Sam Hinkie’s manifesto.
Through 18 months, Tidal has been a modest success, with several exclusives and 3 million subscribers, while still seeming like an utter fiasco. Bad tech, leaked releases of albums like Rihanna’s long-anticipated Anti, shifting strategies for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, tetchy user interface, and an irregular collection have made it the Ron Weasley of streaming services — two’s company, three’s a crowd. This is the least of Jay Z’s problems.
On April 23, Beyoncé squeezed Jay’s lemons. Out came a brew of defiance, tenacity, anger, and deep humiliation for her husband. Also, a great album. "I ain’t sorry," Beyoncé sings over and again. Lemonade is one of the most pulverizing breakup records ever, only there’s no breakup on the other end. The film that accompanied the album (on HBO, which is an initial investor in The Ringer) shows us Jay Z, a prop in Beyoncé’s war story — he survives, somehow. And their marriage, we are to believe, is in repair. To imagine Jay as an accessory responsible only for pain is odd to be sure. His lothario reputation had been mostly scotched since they were married. And even as his star dimmed ever so slightly in the past decade, he and Beyoncé participated in an uncommonly democratic celebrity marital arrangement. They teamed up often and appeared to know exactly why they were good for each other. (Look at the playful butt tap at 4:50 here, from 2012.) They looked sort of … fun. Lemonade is uncommonly and straightforwardly aggrieved — which makes for a thrilling record, and a curious public document. For Beyoncé, it sounds like an exorcism she will play out across her Formation World Tour all year long. For Jay Z, it means an awkward conversation for anyone with the guts to utter the word "lemonade" to his face.
So where does that leave the man, 46 years old and unhinged from his perch? Cries of "Illuminati!" were once Jay’s biggest public concern. When he walked away after The Black Album, it was on his terms; a self-burial. But now he is alive and, allegedly, a philanderer. He’s neither a premier hitmaker, nor a reliable album artist — not the most successful person in his marriage, or even a trustworthy brand. His family is still together, wealthy and well. But he looks like so many embarrassed husbands, feeling their age, riding around in an expensive car, retracing the steps of lost nights. Since the release of Lemonade, and a string of new guest appearances, there has been speculation that Jay Z is prepping an album of his own, lucky no. 13 — maybe a response, maybe a self-recrimination. The latter seems unlikely, given his persona. But things do change. Crises end.
I think back to the Mercer and remember a person with the world in the palm of his hand. I see him cue up a song that was never released — it was called "Living So Italian," and featured a triumphant sample of "Con Te Partiro." Jay closed his eyes, leaning back in his chair as Andrea Bocelli’s voice rose up. This is a translation of the song’s opening lyrics: