The jigga's up

On his new album, The Blueprint, a less flamboyant Jay-Z rocks the mike. But can hip-hop's most successful hustler really leave big pimpin' behind?

Photograph by Christian Lantry

A palpable buzz starts circulating through the Financial District lunch crowd one recent Friday—word is out that a music-world celebrity will be posing for photographs at the famous statues of Wall Street's bull and bear. Still, no one is prepared for the scene that unfolds when the rapper Jay-Z emerges from a nearby trailer: Instantaneously, with the unfathomable precision of a school of fish turning en masse, throngs of screaming fans materialize, pressing against the roped-off staging area. "Baby, Jay-Z is standing outside my building right now!" one woman frantically shouts into her cell phone. Snap-happy foreign tourists aim their point-and-shoots. Secretaries and teenage well-wishers smooth out crumpled dollar bills, begging their hero to autograph them.

Unruffled, America's reigning king of hip-hop smiles and waves to the gawkers. It's a scene Jay-Z knows all too well. Back in his trailer for a break before heading to the next location, the rapper admits it's times like this that frustrate him the most about fame. "It's the same as when I'm driving my car and people are like, 'Yo, pull over and sign this for me!' " he says. "If I did that for every person that stopped me, I would never get to where I'm going." Wary of coming across like yet another jaded superstar, he adds, "It's powerful shit to be connected to so many people simply because they relate to my thoughts."

At 31, the man born Shawn Corey Carter is struggling to reconcile the contradictory impulses that dominate his life. There's Jay-Z the recording artist, one of the richest and most successful rappers in history. He's released five platinum-selling albums in as many years. His latest, The Blueprint, which just hit stores, is almost guaranteed to follow suit. Then there's Jay-Z the entrepreneur, who, along with business partners Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, has built his Roc-A-Fella Records imprint into a thriving hip-hop empire that now includes a film division, the Rocawear clothing line and the Team Roc sports-management company.

"My plan was to make one classic album and never make another," Jay says. "But I couldn't do that because I own the record company. It's a conflict—the artist fighting the businessman—all the time with me."

Jay-Z's dual nature also shows in his appearance. His casual attire—white Rocawear T-shirt, jeans and Nikes—reflects his modest upbringing in Bed-Stuy's Marcy projects. However, the internationally known celebrity—who now resides in a Fort Lee, New Jersey, penthouse duplex with a view of the Manhattan skyline—proudly flaunts his wealth: diamond studs in both ears, a diamond-speckled Roc-A-Fella medallion dangling from a platinum chain around his neck, and a diamond-encrusted Rolex on his wrist.

Then there's the marked contrast between Jay-Z's past and his present. The youngest of four children, Jay was raised by a single mother, Gloria, after his estranged father abandoned the family when Jay was 11. "I grew up in a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere," he says. "There were no heroes in Marcy projects, so I looked up to hustlers—they were the super guys." Not surprisingly, Jay fell into a life of crime. Shawn Carter is vague about the details of his drug-dealing days, but Jay-Z's lyrics are filled with references to what he calls his "lost years." In "Can I Live II," he explains, "Yeah, I sold drugs for a living/That's a given/Why is it?/ Why don't y'all try to visit the neighborhoods I lived in."

Unlike most rappers, who deflect criticism of their lyrics by hiding behind the shield of their fictitious alter egos, Jay admits there's little, if any, difference between his person and persona. "No one really calls me Shawn, not even my mom," he says. "I rap about shit that happens in my life. That's why I've titled my albums In My Lifetime and Hard Knock Life."

Although he's come a long way from the projects, trouble still follows the rapper, who dodged death in 1995 when an assailant fired a gun at him from six feet away (the shot missed its mark). This month, he'll stand trial for the December 1999 stabbing of Lance "Un" Rivera, a record executive and former friend who Jay accused of bootlegging his then-unreleased fourth CD, 1999's Vol. 3 Life and Times of S. Carter. He faces charges of first- and second-degree assault and, if convicted, could be sentenced to 15 years in prison. In October, he's scheduled to appear at a hearing stemming from his arrest in April, when police pulled over his SUV outside Manhattan's Club Exit after allegedly seeing his bodyguard retrieve a gun from the front seat of the vehicle. The cops claim to have found an unlicensed semiautomatic in his bodyguard's waistband, and as New York law allows, all occupants of the SUV, including Jay, have been charged with gun possession.

Although Shawn Carter has been advised not to discuss his legal situation, Jay-Z refers to it in the title of "Guilty Until Proven Innocent," from last year's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia; and in the chorus of his current single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," he repeatedly chants, "Not guilty/Y'all got to feel me."

With his past haunting him and his future at stake, Jay-Z has decided to take an introspective approach on his new CD, a polished yet gritty collection of gangsta soul that contains several looped samples of old soul singers. "I titled this album The Blueprint because it takes you back through my whole life," he explains. "It's the blueprint of why I am the way I am." In the title track, Jay raps about the dynamics of his broken family, while in "Renegades," costarring Eminem, who produced the track, Jay lashes out at lawmakers, claiming he was "influenced by the ghetto you ruined." On "Song Cry," he rhymes from the perspective of a self-hating hustler who turned a good girl bad and is struggling to "live with the fact I did you wrong, forever."

The Blueprint's biggest surprise, however, is the paucity of "bling-bling" lyrics. Gone (for the most part) are the shameless boasts about money, clothes, ho's, jewelry and cars that typified previous albums—Jay-Z even got rid of the platinum Bentley he purchased shortly after the release of his most successful album to date, 1998's Vol. 2. . .Hard Knock Life. Does this mean that Jay-Z, the man who spearheaded bling-bling rap, is now leading the charge to bring it down? Well, yes and no. It's not like he's now tooling around in a Ford Escort—he replaced the Bentley with a fully customized black Suburban SUV, equipped with a remote control-operated stereo, DVD player, VCR and Sony PlayStation. Still, maturity seems to have brought Jay back to earth.

"Buying the Bentley was the dumbest thing I ever did with my money," he says. "The idea of buying it was way better than owning it. I would drive around and people would be like, 'Oh, that's hot!' and I'm like, That's all? Where's the fireworks? That car was pretty and fast, but that was it.

"Even when I was rapping about Cristal, platinum and things like that, I wasn't consciously starting a trend or a new form of music," he continues. "I just did it to be different. Now, someone else has to be brave enough to say, 'Fuck all that, nigga—I got the rubber chain!' "

Don't expect Jay-Z to trade his ice for rubber anytime soon, however. Why, he's even given new meaning to bling-bling by rapping on none other than Michael Jackson's remix of "You Rock My World," the first single from Jackson's upcoming album, Invincible; Jackson returned the favor by performing on the remix of the rapper's "Girls, Girls, Girls," which will be released as a single at Christmastime.

Cruising back to Roc-A-Fella's midtown headquarters in the chauffeur-driven Suburban, Jay's brown eyes bulge with boyish excitement when he recalls his first telephone conversation with Wacko Jacko: "He told me how much he liked [Jay's 1998 hit single] 'Hard Knock Life.' He was singing it and saying shit like, 'You was so in the pocket!' Meanwhile, I'm holding the phone like [Screws up his face in disbelief], This is fucking Michael Jackson! This is crazy!"

Just as he finishes telling this story, as if on cue, Jay receives a message on his two-way pager: "Yo, Jamie [Sigler] from The Sopranos really wants you on her album. You interested?" "Isn't this the funniest shit?" Jay asks, incredulously. When you're multiplatinum, everyone wants a piece of you—King of Pop and Meadow Soprano included.

For now, though, the only plan Jay will commit to is the holiday he intends to take following his current tour. "I've only taken one vacation since I've been making records," he says. "I owe it to myself to take some time off." Jay may be a little worn and stressed out, but he's yawning all the way to the bank. "I got both hands in my pockets and the car is moving," he says with a tired smile and a nod at his driver. "I can't complain; who would listen?"

The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) is out now. Jay-Z plays the Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center September 22.