Jay Z: the urban Shakespeare who became hip-hop’s first billionaire

Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z, has always displayed a talent not just for rhyme, but for making money too – he was hip-hop’s first billionaire. He hasn’t lost his touch, says Jane Lewis

Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z
(Image credit: © Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)

“Put me anywhere on God’s green Earth, I’ll triple my worth.” Hip-hop’s first billionaire has such a talent for rhymes that he was once described as “America’s urban Shakespeare”. Jay-Z clearly hasn’t lost his touch for insouciant moneymaking either, as a busy month of disposals demonstrates. The musician and entrepreneur sold 50% of his $640m champagne brand, Armand de Brignac, to the world’s leading luxury group LVMH, which has undertaken to expand the brand globally. Oatly, the Swedish vegan-milk group in which he is invested, took its first step towards a $10bn initial public offering (IPO). And now, notes Forbes, Jay-Z has bagged $297m from a deal to sell his majority share in the music-streaming company Tidal to Jack Dorsey’s mobile-payment company Square.

The rhyming advocates of luxury

If Jay-Z is streamlining his investments, it may be part of a wider stock-taking. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the musician-entrepreneur’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, which was released on his own Roc-A-Fella Records label and marked the start of a business and rap career that have been entwined ever since. Jay-Z has “poured his talent and wealth into so many ventures that it is easy to lose track”, says the Financial Times. He was “ahead of his time in business in a way that is only now clear”. Every Instagram influencer “owes something to the performative consumption pioneered by hip-hop” artists, the original “rhyming advocates of luxury”. Jay-Z learnt early “that a celebrity could not only be paid to perform songs or endorse products but might also own the rights to both”.

“The rapper’s character is essentially a conceit, a first-person literary creation,” Jay-Z once observed. But in the beginning, his main driver was self-sufficiency. Born Shawn Carter in 1969, he grew up in 1980s Brooklyn, then “infested with crack cocaine”, says The Guardian. “We came out of a generation of black people who finally got the point: no one’s going to help us…Not even our fathers stuck around,” Jay-Z wrote in his autobiography, Decoded. “Success [meant] being a boss, not a dependent.” Nicknamed Jay-Z when he was a kid (it was a riff on Brooklyn’s J and Z subway lines), Shawn was a clever boy who adapted to survive. Beginning at the age of 12 – the year he shot his older brother in the shoulder for stealing a ring – he spent 14 years “hustling on the streets” to support his family during the crack epidemic. It was a time, he later said, when “children became parents and parents became children”.

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Rich material in a troubled past

Jay-Z began rapping on street corners in his teens. But his big break came in the mid-1990s when he met a pair of youthful impresarios – Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Damon Dash – who put up the cash to record his songs. Times were so tight that Dash pressed the discs himself, selling them from his car. But Reasonable Doubt went platinum, and since then Jay-Z has sold more than 50 million albums globally. During these formative years it was Dash who established the Roc-A-Fella empire, which eventually came to encompass clothes (Rocawear), beauty products, music publishing and entertainment (Roc Nation). But Jay-Z gradually bought him out. “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man” is a favourite aphorism. His long-standing marriage to Beyoncé Knowles, the most successful female artist of the 2000s, is a case in point. Music’s leading “power couple” have won critical acclaim – and sold millions of albums – charting the ups and downs of their relationship.

Asked to name his influences in 2010, the rapper joked that “the closest person you could compare me to is Joe Kennedy…He started as a bootlegger! Ahaha! They say behind every great fortune is a great crime… I believe it.” Jay-Z has always found rich material in his troubled past, but it was clear even then that he was “the boy from the hood who turned out good”, says The Guardian. A decade on, not much has changed.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.