Jay-Z’s billionaire status adds up to a lot more than what’s in his bank account Like Madam C.J. Walker and John H. Johnson before him, Jay-Z’s rise to business mogul is testament to the power of the black dollar

Jay-Z gathered his thoughts as he sat behind a desk at Roc-A-Fella Records’ headquarters in New York. In a rarely seen 1997 interview, the Brooklyn MC gave a striking answer to a question about what percentage of rappers he believed would still be viable artists a decade later.

“A rapper’s life is like three albums … unless you gon’ endure during the times,” Jay-Z said. “That’s a special case. It’s like 3 to 5% of artists who have a successful career. Crazy, right?”

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it.

Jay-Z, at the time, was only a few years removed from drug-dealing as a self-described “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.” A product of post-civil rights movement America (I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died, he’d later rhyme) who came of age during the war on drugs, Jay-Z by 1997 was an independent businessman with a critically acclaimed rap debut in 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. But it’s likely that not even the notoriously confident Jay-Z saw this coming: Two decades after that interview, Jay-Z is hip-hop’s first billionaire.

On Monday, Forbes released a review of the Brooklyn MC’s financial portfolio that concluded Jay-Z’s empire had surpassed the 10-figure plateau. His fortune is spread across a variety of endeavors, including real estate, liquor, music, the streaming platform TIDAL, entertainment company Roc Nation, his art collection and more. The confirmation is both unsurprising — along with Diddy and Dr. Dre, he has long been near the apex of hip-hop’s top earners — and awe-inspiring.

“Here we had this hip-hop industry that everybody sort of wanted to dismiss and thought that it would go away,” said Angel Rich, author of History of the Black Dollar. “It has now turned into the fabric of American society. It’s weaved into every portion of business. We have [another] symbol of that success and what it means in Jay-Z becoming a billionaire.”

At the start of the 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune through black hair. In the middle of the century, John H. Johnson became a mogul with lifestyle publications such as Ebony and Jet. And at the end of the century came the start of Jay-Z’s financial success rooted in black music. All cultivated in America. All tapped into the core of America’s spine, black culture, which has alternately been ignored, chastised and co-opted. All understood the power of the black dollar. These foremothers and forefathers of black wealth in white America were prophytes in The Blueprint MC’s real-life blueprint.

John H. Johnson was the successful head of Johnson Publications Inc., a multimillion-dollar corporation, with publications that included Ebony and Jet.

Bettmann / Contributor

Jay-Z’s original (legal) revenue stream puts the moment in perspective. In a career notable for lyrics as literature and congressional honors, one of Jay-Z’s most recognizable lines is his declaration on Kanye West’s “Diamonds (Remix)”: I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man. The potency is rivaled only by its accuracy. The accumulation of wealth has been a constant narrative in his career. “You know n—as die for equal pay right? You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?he rhymed in 2015. “You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving/ You know this ain’t back in the days right?”

On 2017’s stellar 4:44, he referenced the history of black wealth and abandonment in “The Story of O.J.” and concluded with the poignant “Legacy.” With daughter Blue Ivy’s innocent inquiry, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Shawn Carter, the patriarch, launches into his explanation while sampling Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Take those monies and spread ‘cross families/ My sisters, Hattie and Lou, the nephews, cousins and TT/ Eric, the rest to B for whatever she wants to do/ She might start an institute, she might put poor kids through school.

Jay-Z then turned to his oldest daughter’s future: My stake in Roc Nation should go to you/ Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too.

Success has led to both praise and criticism as well as detailed examinations of his practice of both capitalism and philanthropy. Jay-Z’s financial rise occurred as the income gap between the robustly rich and all other classes has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The word “billionaire” is increasingly viewed as a piece of derogatory lexicon in some circles — even by actual billionaires. But Jay-Z’s black path to entrepreneur and billionaire status distinguishes it from most of his fellow moguls and emphasizes his kinship with his predecessors Walker and Johnson.

Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) was the first female self-made millionaire in the world. She is shown here posing for a portrait, circa 1914.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For the better part of the decade, Jay-Z, now 49, has taken on the most socially conscious role of his career. And his monetary boasts have evolved. He’ll never apologize for how he amassed his fortune — he never entered the business to stay a starving artist. I ain’t got a billion streams, got a billion dollars, he said on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free. The 10-figure threshold is a topic of discussion in the Carter household too. We gon’ reach a billi first, he hypothesized on “Family Feud,” also found on 4:44. Generational wealth is a decades-long theme in Jay-Z’s arsenal, dating to 1996’s “Feelin’ It”: If every n—a in your clique is rich, you clique is rugged/ Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

This largesse has been displayed on a variety of fronts: Paying a considerable chunk of Meek Mill’s legal fees and Lil Wayne’s back taxes. Securing legal representation for 21 Savage’s deportation proceedings. Getting Jabari Talbot’s case dropped; the 11-year-old had refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was subsequently arrested. Covering the cost of college tuition, with Beyoncé, for 11 high school seniors through $100,000 scholarships during the domestic leg of their On The Run II Tour.

A man who doesn’t take care of his family can’t be rich, Jay-Z lamented on “Feud,” paraphrasing The Godfather. That notion gets reinforced in “Legacy.” Generational wealth, that’s the key, he noted. My parents ain’t have s—, so that shift started with me. Given where he started, reaching a billion dollars is an objectively resounding accomplishment and testament to his business acumen. But “Legacy” hits differently given who is touched by Jay-Z’s message and the fruits of his labor. TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSE, I’d like to see/ A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we/ We gon’ start a society within a society/ That’s major, just like the Negro League.

Jay-Z (left) and Nipsey Hussle (right) are shown here at the PUMA x Nipsey Hussle 2019 Grammy Nomination Party at the Peppermint Club in Los Angeles on Jan. 16.

Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for PUMA

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it. His story is also the story of the black dollar in America. How it was used to build this country, and how it was manipulated — and worse, destroyed — because of the power and independence it carries.

Looking at Jay-Z today, it’s hard not to think about the young MC who sat in Roc-A-Fella’s offices discussing his plans in an industry often described as cutthroat and soul-draining. A billion dollars isn’t immune to lost friendships along the way — or evidence that he made the right decision every time.

“The genius thing that we did was we didn’t give up,” Jay-Z said years ago.

Some of hip-hop’s most promising thought leaders were murdered on the cusp of their fiscal, creative and business primes. The deaths of B.I.G., Tupac Shakur (his frequent yet spiritual partners in rap’s mythical “greatest of all time” debate) and just recently Nipsey Hussle, with whom Jay-Z shared a particularly close brotherhood that expanded far beyond music, is hauntingly painful.

He is the destiny their fate denied them. That’s why the moment matters far more than the actual figure in Jay-Z’s checking account. A billion-dollar industry that began in the boroughs of New York has been monetized, criticized and immortalized the world over. And now that industry has a billionaire of its own.

The legendary ‘XXL’ Jay-Z, LeBron James, Kanye West and Foxy Brown cover It helped launch then-Def Jam honcho Shawn Carter as a ‘business, man’

By 2005, in the post-The Black Album era, Jay-Z was almost two years into a retirement from releasing solo albums. Kanye West was soon to erase any doubts about a sophomore slump with his second studio album, Late Registration. LeBron James had delivered on the prep hype: He finished his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists. The best was yet to come for all three, as they stood together on the August 2005 cover of XXL, alongside Foxy Brown, who was signed to Def Jam Records at the time and preparing an album titled Black Roses.

Shot by Clay Patrick McBride (whose website opens with a look from the shoot), it was a gatefold cover, and the fold featured Freeway, Memphis Bleek, Young Gunz, Teairra Marie, Peedi Peedi and DJ Clue. Incoming Island/Def Jam CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid, in one of his first moves, had hired Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter as president of the historic Def Jam Records, and under that umbrella came the relaunch of Jay-Z’s R0c-A-Fella Records — without co-founder Damon Dash. The 2004 split between Jay-Z and Dash was the No. 1 topic in hip-hop. And as for James, he was not signed to any label, but he appeared on the magazine as a symbol of his close relationship with Carter and of Carter’s reach to the world of professional athletes with Roc Nation Sports.

The cover idea was President Carter’s cabinet, and the XXL cover captured a moment in time before Jay-Z, West and James, all household names in 2005, were catapulted into another stratosphere of social impact, cultural influence and financial success. More than a decade later, Jay-Z is one of the most successful creative entrepreneurs, West is arguably the most influential cultural figure on this globe, and James, in his 15th NBA season, is still the best basketball player in the world.


In 1996, music journalist Andrea Duncan-Mao was throwing a party. Among the invitees were Jay-Z, Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. At the tiny New York City Bar, they told anyone within earshot about a record label they co-founded called Roc-A-Fella Records and about Reasonable Doubt, an album from Jay-Z. Drinks flowed late into the evening. “It was fun,” said Duncan-Mao, who profiled Young Gunz for the XXL cover story. “Dame was a visionary … really good at his job. But I think he started to really enjoy the fame, power and the lifestyle.”

By 2005, XXL was the pre-eminent hip-hop publication, and the monthly competition with The Source and other magazines meant battles for landing the most influential images and stories was intense. “The covers were everything,” said Elliott Wilson, who was editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2008. “I was being judged by how many units these magazines sold. I used to stress over the numbers. I [always] had [handy] printouts of what every XXL, The Source and VIBE sold.”

With Jay-Z transitioning into an executive role, and his recent break-up with Dash, Wilson knew who he could turn to for a splash. “Whenever there was a drought,” Wilson said, “Jay was always relevant.” The cover would serve two purposes: to bump up sales numbers on the newsstands and to have the No. 1 name in hip-hop tell his side of the Roc-A-Fella breakup.

Dash had already had his opportunity. In June 2005, Wilson and his team had put Dash and the rapper Cam’ron on XXL’s cover with the tagline Jay-Z Can’t Knock These Harlem Boys’ hustle, a callback to a classic Jay-Z song. Dash had started his own Damon Dash Music Group. Among the statements Dash made to XXL: “I don’t understand what’s going on with Jay.” So it was time to reach out to Jay-Z for the other side of the story. “You knew things weren’t good,” said Wilson. “but you couldn’t actually see it coming. … They were such a symbol of brotherhood.”

For Wilson, who joined XXL after working as music editor at The Source, and at College Music Journal, the hip-hop magazine wars were a real thing. Wilson joined XXL with a goal of outselling The Source at the newsstands within a year. It took him until 2003, and by 2005, Wilson was aiming to cement XXL’s reputation as the go-to music publication.

Jay-Z agreed to appear on the cover of the August 2005 issue and even suggested to Wilson his vision of a cover concept. Jay-Z wanted to do a presidential cover to reflect his new role at Def Jam. The photo shoot took place at New York City’s Chelsea Piers inside a mock Oval Office, and while all this was going on, team XXL included a teaser for the Jay-Z cover in the July 2005 issue: The last page in the magazine featured a Roc-A-Fella chain displayed prominently. The tagline was The Chain Remains — Wilson drew inspiration from Naughty By Nature’s 1995 “Chain Remains,” from Poverty’s Paradise.

When Wilson listened to Jay-Z’s guest verse on West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone Remix” there’s the line: The chain remains, the gang’s intact … but the XXL presidential cover actually reflected a more popular line from “Diamonds”: I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man. Jay-Z, West and James were in very businesslike black suits, and Foxy Brown was in a sleek black dress. Because of Jay-Z’s ownership stake with the Brooklyn Nets, an early version of the cover included Vince Carter and Jason Kidd — instead of James. “I was thankful Vince and Jason didn’t make the [final] cut,” said Wilson. “I knew LeBron … would be a big deal.” It would be a few more years until Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, but Jay-Z was making himself an unofficial black president on the cover of a magazine.

In the one-on-one interview with XXL features editor David Bry, Jay-Z addressed his split with Dash, saying, “I’m not in the business to talk about guys I did business with — I want you to print all this — been real tight with, for over 10 years. But since there’s so much out there, so much has been said, I will say this one thing: I’ma just ask people in the world to put themselves in my shoes. However the situation happened, whether we outgrew the situation or what have you, it was time for me to seek a new deal in the situation.” Shawn Carter was speaking to Bry. The beloved Bry, an author and hip-hop scholar, recently died of brain cancer.

Jay-Z stepped away from his role as president and CEO of Def Jam in 2007. During his tenure, artists such as Young Jeezy and Rick Ross had huge successes. West, Rihanna and Ne-Yo became global stars. At the same time, projects involving Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek and the Young Gunz sputtered. Artists such as LL Cool J spoke out in frustration. Jay-Z also came out of “retirement” and released Kingdom Come in 2006, to mixed reviews. Questions were raised about whether Carter was focused as a music executive, and whether there were creative conflicts of interest.

Music journalist Amy Linden profiled Memphis Bleek for that presidential issue. “Sometimes I wonder whether having an artist as the head of the label is a good thing or bad thing,” said Linden. “On one hand … artists recognize art in other people. On the other, you can wonder [whether] an artist is going to worry about someone competing with him.”

Wilson has fond memories of the presidential cover, in particular an inside shot: Jay-Z and West re-created an iconic Robert Kennedy-John F. Kennedy shot. “I did a lot of great covers,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, this cover doesn’t always get mentioned. It definitely deserves its rightful place. … It marked the beginning of Jay-Z moving on to the next stage of his life.”

More than a decade later, the impact of the split between Jay-Z and Dash still resonates. Then-senior editor Anslem Samuel Rocque, now managing director at Complex, who profiled Freeway in the issue, believes the breakup was inevitable. “I don’t think Jay would be where he is now if he continued to be a big fish in a small pond,” Rocque said. “He couldn’t keep rolling with [the] same folks. I don’t want to diminish anyone … but they were holding him back. In retrospect, it was what he had to do.”

As for Wilson, who went on to become co-founder of the popular hip-hop site and podcast Rap Radar and now works as an editorial director of culture and content for Tidal, there is one regret about the presidential cover. “No disrespect to Foxy, but as good as a career as she’s had, she’s not the cultural icon that Jay-Z, Kanye and LeBron are,” Wilson said. “When I look back … I’m like, holy s—, I had Jay-Z, Kanye and LeBron. If I had Rihanna, it would have been one of the greatest magazine covers of all time.”

Ten years after Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ — and mine Yeezy and a whole generation meet real life and wonder ‘what it all really mean?‘

A cloud of marijuana smoke hovered in the apartment. It was early September 2007. Some of us lay on the floor. Some on the couch. Some at the kitchen table that had been used to roll the seven or eight jays. None of us said much. Per the rules of that summer’s “listening sessions,” no one spoke over the music. In this case, Kanye West’s new LP, Graduation, was the reason for the cypher.

Over that summer, these sessions had become a fixture. Thanks primarily to Lil Wayne’s run of mixtapes (it felt like they dropped every week), there was always a reason. But this session was different. On a day leading up to the start of our senior year at Hampton University, West spoke into existence our own existence.

Up to that moment, his music had always held collegiate and coming-of-age allusions, starting with 2004’s The College Dropout and Late Registration the following year. Often forgotten in the grand scheme of his catalog, West’s May 2007 Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape featured “Us Placers” featuring Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco (aka the short-lived supergroup Child Rebel Soldiers), “C.O.L.O.U.R.S.” featuring Fonzworth Bentley, Wayne and UGK, and my introduction to a rapper named Big Sean on “Getcha Some.” Graduation arrived when we were all about 21 years old — adults by age, but kids with so much life and the hurdles that came with it in front of us.

Kanye West spoke into existence our own existence.

At that time, it seemed West spoke for our entire generation. On Sept. 2, 2005, with New Orleans crippled by Hurricane Katrina, close to 2,000 people dead and even more displaced, West stood next to comedian Michael Myers and famously declared that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” He spoke for us and to us. Several students who evacuated from New Orleans-based historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Xavier and Dillard transferred to Hampton. We read the reports. We watched CNN in horror, like the rest of the country. The anger we felt about seeing (mostly) black people referred to as “refugees” in their own city while their entire lives were submerged underwater left us enraged. Even when it’s a natural disaster, it’s somehow still our fault. West’s angst reflected our own.

Kanye West performs on stage at the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium on July 1, 2007 in London, England.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

He was confident — or arrogant, depending on the crowd — but inquisitive about himself and a world moving at warp speed. West seemed poised to carry rap into the next decade and beyond. And his music spoke louder than even he did. These were the pre-Tidal, pre-Apple Music, pre-Spotify US days. New albums leaked online roughly 10 to 14 days early, and it felt like blank CDs were single-handedly keeping places like Circuit City open. The summer-long wait for Graduation was an event itself, and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” were the summer’s anthems.

With senior year washing ashore, and us thinking the world lay at our fingertips, hearing West’s defiant proclamations — Man, it’s so hard not to act reckless — were more a way of life than a hot single. Plus, we all knew Yeezy was good for a cohesive, intricate and beautifully sequenced album.

So when the word traveled, via text, Facebook and word-of-mouth, that the album had leaked, we all knew what to do.

Each person bring a pre-rolled jay — something to drink, too, and a stash for one more if the vibe called for it. (Spoiler: The vibe always called for one more.) None of the seven of us, roughly an even mixture of guys and girls who just loved chiefing and good music, believed we were doing anything illegal. We were college kids getting high and listening to great music — an American tradition if there ever was one.


You ever wonder what it all really mean?/ You wonder if you’ll ever find your dreams? — “I Wonder

In retrospect? We probably looked like the HBCU version of the cutaway scenes on That 70’s Show. Via nonverbal communication, we vibed out. I can’t forget what it felt like hearing “Good Life” for the first time. The Michael Jackson “P.Y.T.” sample is classic Kanye. But T-Pain’s outro — Is this good life better than the life I lived? / When I thought that I was gonna go crazy / And now my grandmamma/ Ain’t the only girl callin’ me baby — now that was a moment.

Rapper Kanye West performs onstage during the Hot 97 Summer Jam presented by Boost Mobile at Giants Stadium June 3, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Roger Kisby/Getty Images

“Flashing Lights” felt more like a movie than a song, and the hook from “Everything I Am” (Everything I’m not made me everything I am) became away messages on AOL Instant Messenger — they seemed like the world’s first tweets (Twitter technically existed then). And, in the moment, we didn’t know what to think about West’s ode to Jay-Z, “Big Brother.” We couldn’t see the joy of “Otis” yet. We couldn’t see how friendships sometimes go.

We ran West’s third effort back two or three times that night. The number of jays in rotation is lost to history, but the discussions following were incredible: Where does this place Kanye in terms of the game’s current greats? What is Kanye’s ceiling? And, of course, is anyone trying to order food? The Graduation listening session, at an off-campus apartment with smoke billowing from the screen door balcony, ranks as one of the most innocent moments of my entire college experience. We understood the magnitude of the senior year ahead of us, but what a time to be alive — just being there, in the moment.

That kind of innocence also applied to West. None of us, including West, knew it then, but life would forever change after that album. Most of us in that room graduated the following May and entered the “real world” just as the economy was diving into the worst pit since the Great Depression. Two months after Graduation’s release, West lost his combination best friend/mother, Donda West, who died as a result of complications from cosmetic surgery.

Donda West and Kanye West

Johnny Nunez/WireImage

By April 2008, Kanye West and then-fiancée Alexis Phifer called off their engagement. West secluded himself as he prepared for his celebrated Glow In The Dark Tour (with Lupe Fiasco opening, and N.E.R.D. and Rihanna on the bill as well). Within months, West lost the first woman he ever loved and had broken up with the one who was by his side when it happened.

The summer-long wait for Graduation was an event itself, and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” were the summer’s anthems.

By 2009 he was running up on stage interrupting Taylor Swift and then escaping to Hawaii. So now what? It’s a question we both had to face. A question that would haunt us both. Where West fled to the islands to create new music, I fled to Georgetown University. Not necessarily because I wanted to go back to school, but it provided an escape and a way for me to think I wasn’t just wasting my time working dead-end jobs in the restaurant and retail industries. In college, it’s customary to think “graduation, job.” That’s embedded in your head since high school, if not earlier. But by ’09, the economy had completely tanked. Some of us had jobs, more of us didn’t. A lot of us were living at our parents’ homes, humbled by bedrooms we grew up in. Applying for jobs was no more than uploading resumes into a digital Bermuda Triangle: CVs were never heard from again. About the only positive from that year was the Obama family in the White House.

By 2012, the Obamas had returned for an encore. West held his first ready-to-wear show, married Kim Kardashian in Florence, Italy (as featured on special episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians), and captured Grammys with Jay-Z for 2011’s “N—as in Paris,” which sold 5 million copies alone. The recession apparently ended in late 2009. Some of us moved to new cities to chase original dreams. Some did OK. More were left wondering when and how the sleepless nights, rejection letters and no callbacks would be worth the heartbreaks.

Kanye West attends the Louise Goldin fashion show during MADE Fashion Week Spring 2014 at Milk Studios on September 7, 2013 in New York City.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

And West’s celebrity increased. As he continued to search for peace in his, we searched for our own. At what point is sacrifice for a dream worth the pain? And at what costs do dreams become real? Life after Graduation, figuratively and literally, came with no road map.


Kanye West in 2017 is of course different from the one who created his own Graduation 10 years ago Monday. We all lose our innocence — it’s what happens if you’re blessed to live long enough.

West has a son and a daughter now (and another baby girl on the way carried by a surrogate) and is married to a mob. With Yeezy, he doubled down his dream of being a fashion innovator and changed for the better the fortunes of Adidas. West and Jay-Z aren’t on speaking terms in part because of West’s unpredictability. West’s life has become progressively more discombobulated: Paparazzi rants. Calling out Jay-Z at his shows. Blasting Wiz Khalifa in Twitter rants. Shaming ex-girlfriend Amber Rose. Supporting Trump. The hospitalization. But the three albums that follow Graduation — 808s & Heartbreaks, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne — still get burn.

The few from that original Graduation-day cypher who I keep in touch with have gone on to find some sort of peace in life, even in these times. We remain connected to Graduation because it helped define us with its unabashed confidence and unfiltered vulnerability. That’s what West represented perhaps more than any artist at that time. Volatile, charming and impulsive, he was rap’s most astute mama’s boy — and its most massively sensitive Gemini since Tupac Shakur. West’s waves not only topped charts and made headlines but also stirred emotions on a deeply personal level.

I know people wouldn’t usually rap this/ But I got the facts to back this / Just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets / Man, killing’s some wack s—/ Oh, I forgot, ’cept when n—as is rappin’ / Do you know what it feel like when people is passin’?

We laugh about the cypher during Hampton homecoming weekends. But we also talk about how it doesn’t seem like West has found any peace. I don’t know. But I do know his mother was an integral part of the making of his first three albums — of the “old Kanye” he rapped about on last year’s entertaining, uneven The Life of Pablo. According to bereavement expert Phyllis R. Silverman, we lose not only the person who has died but also a relationship and the sense of self that existed in that relationship. It could be that West is searching for a sound that no longer exists because a large part of the inspiration for that sound no longer exists.

We remain connected to Graduation because it helped define us with its unabashed confidence and unfiltered vulnerability.

A couple of months ago, around the time West was seen chopping it up with Donald Trump, I had a conversation with a homey from that Graduation cypher. “I can’t believe this n—- is rocking blond hair now. … I wasted good weed on this dude,” he told me. “But I really believe this all boils down to his mom’s passing. He never took the time to cry, it seems.”

I mostly remember Graduation as the last album Donda West heard. The closest West’s come to addressing the effects of his mother’s death, and his burden living with it, came on 2015’s “Only One” — the meaning of his birth name. I can’t help but hear Graduation songs in “Only One.” If for no other reason than the 2007 Kanye could have never believed he’d have to make that song.

Positioned as an open letter to Kanye and Kim’s daughter, North, from her grandmother Donda, the record is a very specific emotional canvas of the pain Kanye carries. I talked to God about you/ He said he sent you an angel / And look at all that he gave you, Kanye sings. You asked for one and you got two / You know I never left you / ’Cause every road that leads to heaven’s right inside you. Playing the record back, with North sitting on his lap, Kanye couldn’t recall singing the words. He came to the conclusion that the words didn’t come from him, but through him. “My mom was singing to me,” he said, “and through me, to my daughter.”

It’s this burden, and this pursuit of peace, that Kanye Omari West has been living with since Graduation. In 2015, he said his biggest sacrifice was his mom. “If I had never moved to L.A., she’d be alive,” he told the U.K. music magazine Q. “I don’t want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears.”

That’s what Graduation means. It’s not just the album itself and some of the greatest songs he’s ever recorded that live on there, and how we were higher than telephone wires that late summer night. It’s not just how Graduation accurately reflected a period when so many of us believed we had life under control — and then we didn’t. Life happens. We found out the hard way, after graduation. Kanye, too, found out after Graduation.

Jay Z — an artist truly made in America — makes his case for an authentic rest of his life From Bun B to Styles P to T.I. — the grown men of rap are having a moment

In May, Jay-Z inked a new $200 million deal with Live Nation. Before this weekend, his last major tour was in 2014 with his wife Beyoncé for their ($100 million-grossing) On The Run excursion. Jay-Z’s return to Made In America, a music festival he founded with Budweiser in 2012, was to be the culmination of a chain of events that started with speculation, leading up to June 30 release of 4:44, about just how much Jay-Z did or didn’t have left in the creative tank.

Rap, historically, has been a young man’s game. Could Jay-Z, at 47, still shift the culture as he’s done countless times before? Could he successfully coexist in a world of Futures and Cardi Bs and Lil Yatchys and Migos — all of whom were either gracing the Made In America stage this year or in years past? Would Jay’s first major solo performance in three years be his next Michael Jordan moment?


Music fans in ponchos attend the 2017 Budweiser Made in America festival, day one on Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 2 in Philadelphia.

Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

Sunday morning. On Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street. Jay Z’s new “Meet The Parents” blasts from a black Toyota Avalon. People on the sidewalk rap along — the car’s speakers are an impromptu appetizer for what’s to come later. He can’t explain what he saw / Before his picture went blank / The old man didn’t think / He just followed his instincts,” Jay-Z rhymes at the stoplight. Six shots into his kin / Out of the gun / N—a be a father / You’re killing your sons.”

On that day — before the Labor Day holiday and Night 2 of the sixth annual Budweiser Made In America Festival — a group of friends walking down 20th Street playing cuts from 2009’s Blueprint 3 on their mobile phones. Thousands of iterations of Shawn Corey Carter stared back from T-shirts worn by the crowd that swarmed Ben Franklin Parkway.

Then, it happened. An explosion lit up an adjacent stage. Just Blaze on the turntables.

And then there was the young man working at UBIQ, a chic sneakers store on chic Walnut Street. Looking like a student from Penn, he said he planned on taking in Jay-Z’s headlining Sunday set. At least for one day at the end of summer, the City of Brotherly Love bled blue, Jigga’s favorite hue. “It’s a skate park like right across the street,” Penn Guy said as cuts from Jay-Z’s lauded 4:44 play from the store’s speakers. “I’ve never seen him live. I’m excited.”

Jay-Z’s return to rap — there’s been no new solo album since 2013’s middle of the pack Magna Carta Holy Grail — has been a summer-long process. First came the rumors of a new album watermarked by mysterious “4:44” signage that covered everything from city buses to websites all across the country. Then, at the last of June came the album itself, which was met with immediate and widespread love. A slew of “footnotes” — videos, conversations between people such as Chris Rock, Tiffany Haddish, Will Smith, Jerrod Carmichael, Chris Paul and more — followed, which detailed the album’s creation and inspirations.

From there, in mid-August, the most-talked-about music interview of the year showcased Jay-Z alongside Tidal and Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson and Epic Records and Rap Radar’s Brian “B.Dot” Miller. The podcast left no stone unturned. In a two-part, 120-minute conversation, they peeled back layers of Jay-Z’s thought processes about music, life, love, motivation, depression and, even LaVar Ball.

On the heels of that talk, and through a Saturday of unseasonal chilly downpours, Jay-Z and Beyoncé watched a new generation of stars command muddy crowds. Family from both sides of the Carter-Knowles union cheered Solange on through her Saturday set. Was may well have been a kind of moment Jay-Z envisioned throughout the recording of 4:44. At 47, he had to wonder about his creative mortality, and if he could shift the culture as he’d done so many times before.


Bun B performs onstage at The Fader Fort presented by Converse during SXSW on March 16, 2013, in Austin, Texas.

Roger Kisby/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers’ rookie point guard Lonzo Ball said it: “Y’all outdated, man. Don’t nobody listen to Nas anymore […] Real hip-hop is Migos, Future.”

On one hand, it’s difficult to fault a 19-year-old for backing the music of his youth. Younger generations of artists and fans alike have always bucked back at generations who view their contributions as destructive. Tupac Shakur openly dissed De La Soul on 1996’s seething battle record “Against All Odds:” All you old n– tryna advance/ It’s all over now take it like a man/ N– lookin’ like Larry Holmes, flabby and sick/ Tryna playa hate on my s–, eat a fat d–. And only weeks before he was murdered, The Notorious B.I.G. vowed to never rap past 30. On the other hand though? Right now is a particularly good time for a handful of statesmen who dominated hip-hop before Big Baller Brand was just a twinkle in Lavar Ball’s eye.

How generations before talked about Marvin Gaye, Prince, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, he’s hip-hop’s them.

Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike and El-P (and their soundman, Trackstar the DJ) have consistently been one of the decade’s most impactful groups. They tour the world — and, in particular, amassed a melting pot crowd of various races and ages moshing at the Sunday Made In America set. Nas’ 2012 Life Is Good is, in many ways, rap’s interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, and one of the great late-career albums from any MC. OutKast’s 2014 tour was weird, but Big Boi of OutKast has quietly been responsible for several stellar albums — 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors and 2017’s Boomiverse — in this decade alone.

Jay-Z wasn’t the only artist in the pre-Lonzo Ball era displaying moments of clarity over the last few years either. A handful of hip-hop’s mature and notable names have been creating art and expressing — via conversation and on social media — everything from encounters with their own mortality to the pain and occasional beauty of survivor’s remorse.

Rice University instructor Bernard “Bun B” Freeman (currently working with Beyoncé and Scooter Braun on a telethon to benefit the victims of Hurricane Harvey), one half of the legendary Port Arthur, Texas, rap group UGK, sat down with Queens, New York’s own N.O.R.E. for an installment of the MC’s popular Drink Champs podcast. Per tradition, both parties swap hip-hop war stories and imbibe for the better part of two hours. The most emotional segment centered around memories of Freeman’s partner in rhyme, Pimp C, who died in 2007.

“The illest s— Pimp [C] ever said was ‘I don’t need bodyguards. I just need mighty God.’ Ever since he said that, and I never told him, I move like that,” Freeman said. A single tear streamed down the right side of his face. “If you wasn’t moving with me within God, I’ll just move by myself. That’s the way life should be.” He continued, “If you are who you say you are, and you’re honoring that in a real way, you can move anywhere in this world. Pimp and I are proof of that.”

When it comes to honoring a fallen comrade, T.I. (who was not feeling Lonzo’s comments) understands all too well. In May 2006, T.I’s best friend Philant Johnson was murdered in Cincinnati following a drive-by shooting. Phil, is inspiration behind T.I.’s massive Justin Timberlake-assisted single “Dead & Gone.” Phil had been by T.I.’s side that same evening — holding his mobile while the rapper performed. Hours later, his lifelong friend lay bleeding to death in his arms. “I told him I had him, and it was going to be all right,” T.I. told MTV in 2006. “That was what I said. And he said, ‘All right.’”

The death could be viewed as the trigger that disrupted T.I.’s massive mid-2000s success. His 2007 weapons arrest and subsequent incarceration was seen by many as a response to Johnson’s murder. T.I. contemplated quitting rap. But T.I.’s moved forward. While not at just this minute the Billboard and box office star he split time as a decade ago, the film producer, actor, and two-time Grammy winner born Clifford Harris is still a recognizable figure in rap. Particularly on his very active Instagram account.

Instagram Photo

Last month, Tip (a father to six who is who has experienced his own share of public marital ups and downs with singer-songwriter Tameka “Tiny” Harris) posted the video of him presenting Phil’s daughter with a new car. She’s now a high school senior. In a heartfelt caption, Tip used the moment as a social media therapy session. “Making straight A’s and maintaining a 3.8 GPA, all the way through school, staying away from all the things we were eyeball deep in when we was her age, & doing any & everything that’s EVER been asked since you left,” he wrote. “How can we not make sure she rides cool & in comfort her senior year? We miss you more than we can express…but we fill in for you everyday until it’s all said and done.”

He promised to send her to college. And that she’d never suffer for anything. It was more than an Instagram caption. It was remaining true to a promise to a man who died in his arms 11 years ago. “Our loyalty lives forever!”

Lastly, it’s Styles P — one-third of ’90s Bad Boy trailblazers The LOX. He and his wife, Adjua Styles, visited Power 105’s The Breakfast Club in August. Among other things, the couple discussed the benefits of healthy eating, and Charlottesville, Virginia. They also talked about their daughter’s suicide.

It’s what performances like these are masked for—regular season games for a championship run.

In June 2015, Styles P’s stepdaughter, Tai Hing, took her own life. She was 20. Styles P addressed the tragedy a month later via Instagram, detailing the difficulty he and his family faced, and would face. Hing’s death, her mother believes, could have been the boiling point of depression, issues with her biological father, and perhaps her sexuality.

Fighting back tears, Styles P was emotional about never having been able to take the place of Hing’s biological father. The dynamic bothered him deeply, but was beginning to understand as he, himself, was a product of a similar situation. “If we knew she was depressed she would’ve been home with us,” he said. “ We all deal with depression on some sort of level … You expect your child to bury you, not to bury your child.”

Honesty has always been a prerequisite for hip-hop in its most soul-piercing form. Beyond the flash, the lights and the flossing, at its core, rap was necessary to explain the fears, dreams, joys and pains of a people so often still struggling. And dealing with police brutality, poverty, misogyny, and more. So Styles P’s pain, T.I.’s memories, Bun B’s instructions from Pimp C, and Jay-Z’s vulnerability aren’t new grounds for rap. But their grief, and willingness to shred the cloak of invincibility rap often mirages is living proof of the power behind the quote a wise man said nearly a decade ago. Ain’t no shame in holding onto grief. As long as you make room for other things, too.


Music fans attend the 2017 Budweiser Made in America festival – Day 2 at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 3, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

The weather Sunday proved to be Mr. Hyde to the Saturday’s Dr. Jekyll. The only visible fingerprint from Saturday was the mud that essentially became a graveyard for shoes. Jerseys were popular with the crowd. UNC Michael Jordan and Vince Carter. Cavaliers, Heat and St. Vincent-St. Mary LeBron. Sonics and Warriors Durant. Nuggets Jalen Rose, Sixers Ben Simmons. Lakers Kobe, and Hornets Glen Rice. UCLA Russell Westbrook, and Lonzo Ball. Arizona State James Harden, University of California Marshawn Lynch, Niners Colin Kaepernick, LSU Odell Beckham and Georgetown Allen Iverson. Obscure jerseys such as Aaliyah’s MTV Rock n’ Jock and Ray Finkle’s Dolphins jersey (from the 1994 Jim Carrey-led comedy classic Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) were sprinkled among the sea of thousands.

Afternoon sluggishly careened into evening. 21 Savage, Run The Jewels and The Chainsmokers all commanded large crowds. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from The Wire dapped up fans. Hometown young guns Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers walked through the crowd. Festivalgoers camped near the main stage for hours in hopes of landing an ideal viewing spot for Jay-Z’s performance. To pass time, cyphers were had. Weed smoke reclined in the air. Guts from dutches and cigarillos were dumped. All to pass the time.

Months ago, many, especially on Twitter, wanted to act like Jay-Z wasn’t a headliner. No one even saw an album coming. Now here they were minutes from history. That’s what Jay-Z is in 2017. How generations before talked about Marvin Gaye, Prince, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson — Jay-Z is hip-hop’s them. He’s a throwback to the genre’s yesterday lyricism while embracing the newer generation he still attempts to impart game on and learn from.

The oversized Balloon Dog by famed sculptor Jeff Koons took the stage: It was time. “I’ve been waiting for this all summer,” one concertgoer said as he wrapped his arms around his girlfriend. “I know one thing, Jay better do the songs I wanna hear!” demanded another young woman.

So he did. Jay-Z’s set lasted nearly an hour and a half. He blended 4:44 cuts with classics from his catalog — the radio-friendly and the graphic street narratives. Jay-Z commanded of the crowd, but critiques did exist.

In his Rap Radar interview, Jay-Z mentioned that he was still toying around with the set list for his upcoming tour (slated to start in October). While it’s not a question to 4:44’s quality, Jay-Z weaving in old classics such as “Where I’m From,” “H to the Izzo,” “N—as In Paris,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Run This Town,” “Empire State of Mind” and “Heart of City” captivated the crowd, cuts from his most recent album seemed to dissipate from the energy those helped muster. 4:44, after all, does not have a big radio single.

4:44 is Jay-Z’s most personal album to date. His thirteenth solo effort revolves around the complexities of his marriage, his mother’s sexuality and societal issues that continue to create systematic disadvantages for people of color. Its intimacy can get lost in an outdoor crowd of tens of thousands. For an album of that nature, it’s tough to ask even Jay-Z to plan for such.

Breath control was expected to be off-center in his first major performance in three years — though coaxing the crowd to sing Beyoncé happy birthday was a great diversion. Are these flaws that will doom his upcoming tour? No. He still has three more festivals on deck before setting sail on his own on Oct. 27. It’s what performances like these are made for — regular-season games for a championship run.

“It’s Jay, so he did all the songs I wanted,” a concertgoer told me. “But I’m greedy. I wanted more.”

Jay-Z performs at Budweiser Made in America festival on Sept. 3 in Philadelphia.

Arik McArthur/FilmMagic

Jay-Z’s catalog: a litany of hits he can employ at any time to wrap a crowd around his fingers. People filmed Instagram and Snapchat videos of themselves rapping along. People yelled to him from the back of crowd as if it were a Sunday service. And cyphers between friends sprouted everywhere. Another element Jay-Z kills with is the element of surprise. He concluded the show with a tribute to Coldplay’s Chester Bennington, who committed suicide in July: an inspired performance of his Black Album single “Encore.”

As he left the stage, crowds swarmed to the exit. Some concertgoers voiced their displeasure. Jay-Z did his thing in the 90 minutes he gave Philly. But there was still something missing. “That’s it? He didn’t even do half of the songs I wanted,” said a girl as she walked toward the exit. “It was aight, I guess. It’s Jay, so he did all the songs I wanted,” another concertgoer told me. “But I’m greedy. I wanted more.” Made In America was over.

Then, it happened. An explosion lit up an adjacent stage. Just Blaze on the turntables. Some slipped in the mud trying to get there, ruining their clothes, but those concerns were faint. Hundreds were already on the street heading back to their apartments, AirBnB’s or Ubers when Jay-Z informed Philly that the party wasn’t over yet. This set was only for his “Day Ones.”

Jay pulled his “Pump It Up Freestyle” out his back pocket. This bled into “Best of Me,” “I Know,” “Hola Hovito,” “Money Ain’t A Thing” and more. Hometown kid Meek Mill’s guest appearance gave an already frenetic crowd an HGH-sized boost of adrenaline as the rapper ran through his catalog’s zenith and most intense track, 2012’s “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro).”

As Jay-Z closed the second set with [his favorite track], “Allure,” the mood was ceremoniously serene. Michael Jordan finished with 19 points on 7-of-28 shooting in his first game back in versus Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in 1995. The 21 misses are footnotes in history. It’s a moment everyone remembers for two simple words: “I’m back.” Grown as hell, Jay-Z is too.