Self-professed greatest rapper alive Jay-Z has had a busy year thus far, having witnessed the birth of his first child, co-headlining a sellout tour with Kanye, and building up hype for the New Jersey Nets as they made the move to Brooklyn. In between all this, he has managed to expand his business empire while being a consummate father and husband; if ever there was a blueprint for the modern day success story it’s Hova. Having been in the spotlight for over 20 years, he’s been witness to a host of changes, not only in the rap game, but in society at large. Here he sits down with Zadie Smith to talk about life, hip-hop, and the current state of America. Below is an excerpt of the article which can be found in its entirety here.
It’s difficult to know what to ask a rapper. It’s not unlike the difficulty (I imagine) of being a rapper. Whatever you say must be considered from at least three angles, and it’s an awkward triangulation. In one corner you have your hard-core hip-hop heads; the type for whom the true Jay-Z will forever be that gifted 25-year-old with rapid-fire flow, trading verses with the visionary teenager Big L — “I’m so ahead of my time, my parents haven’t met yet!” — on a “rare” (easily dug up on YouTube) seven-minute freestyle from 1995. Meanwhile, over here stands the pop-rap fan. She loves the Jiggaman with his passion for the Empire State Building and bold claims to “Run This Town.” Finally, in the crowded third corner, stand the many people who feel rap is not music at all but rather a form of social problem. They have only one question to ask a rapper, and it concerns his choice of vocabulary. (Years pass. The question never changes.) How to speak to these audiences simultaneously? Anyway: I’m at a little table in a homey Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street waiting for Mr. Shawn Carter, who has perfected the art of triangulation. It’s where he likes to eat his chicken parms.
He’s not late. He’s dressed like a kid, in cap and jeans, if he said he was 30 you wouldn’t doubt him. (He’s 42.) He’s overwhelmingly familiar, which is of course a function of his fame — rap superstar, husband of Beyoncé, minority owner of the Nets, whose new home, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, will open this month — but also of the fact he’s been speaking into our ears for so long. No one stares. The self-proclaimed “greatest rapper alive” is treated like a piece of the furniture. Ah, but there’s always one: a preppy white guy discreetly operating his iPhone’s reverse-camera function. It’s an old hustle; it makes Jay chuckle: “They think they’re the first one who’s ever come up with that concept.”
He likes to order for people. Apparently I look like the fish-sandwich type. Asked if he thinks this is a good time for hip-hop, he enthuses about how inclusive hip-hop is: “It provided a gateway to conversations that normally would not be had.” And now that rap’s reached this unprecedented level of cultural acceptance, maybe we’re finally free to celebrate the form without needing to continually defend it. Say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels/Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it? He’s not so sure: “It’s funny how you can say things like that in plain English and then people still do it.” He is mildly disappointed that after publishing “Decoded,” his 2010 memoir, people still ask the same old questions. The flippancy annoys him, the ease with which some still dismiss rap as “something that’s just this bad language, or guys who degrade women, and they don’t realize the poetry and the art.” This is perhaps one downside to having the “flow of the century.”