The brand that is Jay-Z

Styling himself the 'black Warren Buffett', Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z, prides himself on his business acumen. But his critics take a different view.

"Wild feats of profligacy are a crucial hip-hop pastime", says the FT. Jay-Z performs them with elan. The rapper and his wife, the singer Beyonc, reportedly lavished $200,000 on their daughter Blue Ivy's first birthday party. Yet appearances are deceptive. Accumulating money fascinates the self-described "black Warren Buffett" much more than spending it. He is "compulsively entrepreneurial".

That much is evident from his latest venture. After selling more than 40 million albums, and presiding over a business empire that includes clothing, fragrances, sports bars, hotels, concert promotion the list stretches on, Jay-Z is getting into sport. More specifically, his entertainment company Roc Nation is branching into sports management and has signed the New York Yankees baseball star, Robinson Cano, as its first client.

Jay-Z, who grew up playing Little League baseball in Brooklyn, is a huge Yankees fan. But his new venture "is based on profit not sentiment". The deal he hopes to emulate, when negotiating a whopping new contract for Cano at the end of the season, is the landmark $245m deal signed by a rival star, Albert Pujols, in 2011. Given his record of "hustling" (see below), it will surprise no one if he surpasses that in style.

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Born Shawn Carter in 1969, Jay-Z grew up without a father in a housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, says He never finished high-school, instead dealing drugs while simultaneously "trying to break into the rap game".

When no record firm was willing to offer him a contract, he formed Roc-A-Fella Records with two partners and, in 1996, released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, which established him as major figure on the hip-hop scene.

He left drug-dealing behind and began to build his empire, moving from "grams to Grammy's", as he puts it in one song. By 2007, when he sold his clothing range, Rocawear, for $204m, he had emerged as "the leading music impresario of his generation", says The Wall Street Journal.

"I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man," is one of Jay-Z's favourite aphorisms. Indeed, it's impossible to separate his business interests from the personal brand he has carefully nurtured "into one of the most potent in the world", says Men's Health. As he observes: "My brands are an extension of me. It's not like running GM, where there's no emotional attachment."

At six feet three, Jay-Z is "an imposing figure, even in relative repose. The look is studiously casual until you glance at his left wrist and notice a diamond watch so thick it could pass for a weightband". He is as happy hob-nobbing with Bill Gates or socialising at the White House as he is rapping on stage. "At this point," says the self-styled Jay-Hova, "it's pretty much accepted that I walk both worlds naturally."

An urban cowboy and savvy hustler

Is Jay-Z really the great businessman he's cracked up to be? Not according to his critics. "I would say there are people behind him who have invested in him heavily," remarked a rival rapper, Chuck D, last year, implying that Jay-Z was little more than a frontman. It's certainly true that when you look beyond "the feints and boasts", the "Midas touch flickers", says Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the FT.

His three-year spell as president of Def Jam Recordings in the mid-2000s was "mixed" (although he produced two undeniable superstars, Rihanna and Kanye West). And the Rocawear clothing label which, despite selling, he continues to be closely involved with hasn't been thriving of late. What's more, much-vaunted investments in the Brooklyn Nets basketball team and its arena turn out to be bankrolled by others. "The real money comes from Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov."

So what, says John Jurgensen in The Wall Street Journal. Partnership deals have always been part of Jay-Z's "classic playbook". He maintains "tight creative control of the project, but often connects with deep-pocketed corporate partners".

As well as an informal relationship with Microsoft dating back to 2006, he's struck long-term deals with HP and Reebok; and made $150m when he set up Roc Nation, with the concert promoter, Live Nation, in 2008. "Companies hope to borrow some of the rapper's glow, of course, but he has also used such deals to shape his own public image." On that score, his mutually reinforcing relationship with Barack Obama is instructive.

Central to Jay-Z's self-conception is the notion that he's "a hustler", says Hunter-Tilney: "the black urban equivalent of the cowboy, living by his wits in an OK Coral of NYPD squad cars, boom-bam beats and gun-slinging rivals". These days, he depicts himself as "the hustler supreme", who smooth-talked his way into Manhattan boardrooms. "There is a degree of truth in the self-portrait."