Jay-Z will be one of GQ’s “Men of the Year” for 2011, along with Jimmy Fallon, Justin Timberlake, Michael Fassbender, and Mila Kunis…if that makes any sense. In the upcoming GQ issue they crown Jay-Z the king of 2011 and talk about everything from working with Kanye West to art and fitting in a Maybach.
They’re waiting for him at the gallery. They’re lined up in the foyer, as if for inspection. Ealan Wingate, who runs the place, nutty-professorial in a bow tie and blazer, stands with some gallery staffers, young women in heels and complicated blouses, their demeanor poised and professional, their eyes flashing OMG, OMG as the gallery doors open to let in the hard fall wind off the Hudson and also Shawn Corey Carter, better known from the Marcy Houses to Marrakech as Jay-Z. He’s wearing Timberlands, just-this-side-of-baggy jeans, a plain dark blue hoodie, and a look of regal amusement. Like, For me? He shakes everybody’s hand, introduces himself as “Jay.”
Jay is among the first rappers to name-drop his contemporary-art holdings in the same you-ain’t-up-on-this tone that other MCs employ when discussing their watches. He shouts out art-world superdealer Larry Gagosian in his verse on “That’s My Bitch,” from Watch the Throne, the collaborative album he and Kanye West released a few months ago. So we’re at one of Larry’s places, the warehouse-sized Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street.
Wingate leads us into the main room, which currently houses Junction/Cycle, two mammoth sculptures by he-man minimalist Richard Serra (who happens to live around the corner from Jay in Tribeca). Curving walls of rust-brown steel cut the gallery into canyons. Wingate says we’re supposed to walk through them and think about memory, so we do; it’s kind of like an existential corn maze. Jay is clearly impressed by the sheer scale Serra’s working on, but he doesn’t linger. It’s not until Wingate takes us into a side room and shows us a big Cy Twombly triptych that I see him actually stopped short by what he’s looking at.
The Twombly is all scrawl and half-erasure, violent like a bus window keyed by an army of scratch-taggers, if scratch-taggers bombed public transit with the names of Greek heroes like AGAMEMNON and AJAX and ODYSSEUS and JASON. Also—and once Wingate points this out to us, it’s hard to see anything else—there are a lot of exuberantly crude drawings of vaginas and balloon-animalish dicks.
Jay digs this one. It reminds him more than a little of the Basquiats he collects, the ones he’s referring to on the Throne track “Illest Motherfucker Alive” when he rhymes House like a museum with see ’em when I’m peein’ with Usually, you have this much taste, you European. (Classic Jay: culturedness as swag, class snobbery brushed off like so much shoulder dirt, and a relatability-enhancing reference to taking a piss just like a regular dude, all in the space of three lines.)
He stands ten feet back from the Twombly, and for a long minute nobody says anything and the wind rattles the gallery’s windows and he briefly ceases to be the focus of everybody’s attention.
“You hear that silence right there?” he finally says, laughing. “That’s art workin’.”
Good art doesn’t always breed contemplative silence. Take Watch the Throne, on which two grandiose motherfuckers explore the theme of grandiose-motherfuckerdom from vastly different perspectives, stacking dubstep on top of opera on top of Otis Redding, triumphalism on top of sorrow on top of more triumphalism, striving for a sound as vast and strange as the world they’ve come to inhabit. It’s glorious and obnoxious and pointedly self-aware, and it was more fun to argue about than any hip-hop record since, I don’t know, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak or Jay-Z’s widely jeered Kingdom Come.
The gist of a lot of those arguments: In an economic moment as bleak as this, is it not sort of a dick move to drop an album—even a great one—about what it feels like to be richer than a fifteenth-century pope? On what turned out to be the day of a stock market crash? Even the Watch the Throne T-shirts were limited-edition Givenchy and sold for $300.
There was some backlash; when Kanye showed up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in mid-October, he seemed almost chastened, to the extent that a millionaire wearing a gold grill and an I’d-rather-be-having-a-threesome expression standing mute while Russell Simmons spoke on his behalf could seem chastened. Whether he really had anything to atone for is debatable.
Watch the Throne is an honest record about trying to find your moral compass when insane wealth and success have knocked down every boundary that once gave shape to your world. Write what you know, y’know?
Jay says it’s his best post-unretirement record and that underneath all the Oprah-money trappings, it deals with universal questions: “What I’m doing now, where I want to go? What are we going to do next in our lives? We all have that. Everyone has that on their mind.”
The record is about having a good time in fancy hotels, because they made it while having a good time in fancy hotels, at the Mercer and the Tribeca Grand in New York, the five-star Le Meurice in Paris. They laughed a lot, Jay says, drank a lot of wine. If they argued, it was over music. “Only about what’s best for the song,” Jay says, “which is great.” When they first started working together, a decade or so ago, Kanye would just slip Jay beats without asking to be consulted on how they got used; during the Throne sessions, he was a perfectionist, obsessing over microdetails. “I think he just can’t help himself,” Jay says. “He puts so much into everything, and he’s like, ‘You have to treat it like I treat it.’ It drives you crazy sometimes—like when you’ve put seventy-five versions of a snare on one song and he’s like, ‘No!’ and you’re like, ‘Come on, man.’ ”
Jay says that even songs like “Niggas in Paris”—the one with the Blades of Glory samples and the crazy-consumptive What’s Gucci, my nigga? What’s Louis, my killa? hook—or “Otis,” where Kanye actually refers to what they’re doing as “luxury rap,” effectively handing detractors a stick to beat the record with, come from a humble place. “It’s not, like, ‘We’re here! We’re balling harder than everybody,’ ” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m shocked that we’re here.’ Still being amazed, still not being jaded. Having so much fun and then stopping and saying, ‘What are we doing here? How did we get here?’ ”
The key line, Jay says, is the one that goes If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.
“I’ve known so many people that didn’t make it,” he says. “Most people can look at a picture of the kids they grew up with and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah—Adam went away to Harvard.’ This is a whole different conversation.”
Nearly every rapper tells a version of that story. But nobody tells it better or to a wider cross section of the population—children, rap nerds, corporate America—than Jay-Z. No hip-hop artist who owes his credibility to the street has moved farther beyond it and into the rarefied air of twenty-first-century high society than Jay has. But at 42, he remains, precedent-defyingly, a rapper people still care about, because he’s managed to frame all his achievements—his front-office stint at Def Jam, his ownership stake in the NBA franchise soon to be known as the Brooklyn Nets, the $150 million deal with LiveNation that’s said to rival Madonna’s, even the pop star he put a ring on—as we-shouldn’t-be-here victories for a kid from public housing, and for hip-hop, too.
There’s a table waiting for us at Torrisi Italian Specialties, down by Little Italy. Jay says it’s his favorite place to eat right now. But tonight is the first night of the Feast of San Gennaro, this big tourist-trap street festival, so Mulberry Street is closed to cars and clogged with ambling tourists, and we have to ditch the Maybach a few blocks away and walk. Jay doesn’t actually wade into the mess; he sticks to the sidewalk, putting the carts and stalls from which vendors hawk sunglasses and food-shaped magnets and deep-fried Oreos between him and the crowd. And his cruise-missile-shaped bodyguard, Peter, stays close in case anyone freaks out. But no one does. People smile and say, ‘Sup, Jay? when they see him. Jay, not Jay-Z, Jay points out later—that first-name-basis treatment. He’s famous, but also New York famous, like Derek Jeter or Woody Allen or Lou Reed. Everyone who lives here gets to feel like they know him a little, grants him some neighborly personal-space respect in return. Jay’s tourist-bureau anthem, “Empire State of Mind,” comes on somebody’s radio, and for a block or so it’s like we’ve strolled into a montage.
The decor inside Torrisi is high-concept pork store. Grocery-style counter up front, shelves full of the kind of Italian stuff you find in an American supermarket—Progresso “Italian Style” breadcrumbs, canned tomatoes, Stella D’oro cookies. We sit under a portrait of the young, angry Billy Joel, and truly luxury-rappish amounts of fine food are laid before us. Striped bass with pickled tomatoes. Roasted baby beets. Fresh mozzarella as soft and pale as an angel’s boob. When Jay-Z tastes something really good, it’s like he almost gets mad at it for a second; the first time he says, “Are you serious right now?” after consuming a Blue Point oyster, I’m briefly convinced I’ve said something to offend him.
We talk about business and we talk about hip-hop, and by the time we get around to real life, Jay is ordering mint tea and leaving a dessert sampler untouched. There’s a song on Watch the Throne called “New Day,” where Jay and Kanye address their unborn sons over a beat by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and an Auto-Tune-warped Nina Simone loop. Kanye riffs on his own rep—he promises not to let Lord Yeezy the Second become a telethon-interrupting ego-monster looking for love in all the wrong strip clubs and says he might make his son be a Republican, so everybody know he love white people. Jay’s verse cuts deeper. It starts with an apology (Sorry, Junior, I already ruined ya / ‘Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya) and ends with a promise—Promise to never leave him, even if his mama tweakin’ / ‘Cause my dad left me and I promise to never repeat him / Never repeat him / Never repeat him.
It was speculative when he wrote it, Jay says, but now he’s actually about to be somebody’s father. In an uncharacteristically public gesture for a couple who’ve never said much on the record about their relationship, they broke the news on this year’s Video Music Awards—Jay’s wife, Beyoncé Knowles, confirmed her pregnancy to photographers on the red carpet, then all but circled her baby bump with a Telestrator onstage. One of the gossip shows had the story, Jay says, claiming he doesn’t know which one, although he probably does. “It was actually Bey who wanted to [announce] it,” Jay says. “You want to be in control of your life.”
So now Jay’s going to be a father, and he’s thinking about his own father. He’s thinking about his roots in a nonmythological way, what he’s carried with him from Marcy to here, what he’s escaped. What’s relevant about Adnis Reeves, Jay’s dad, is not so much that he left when Jay was 11 but that he was present up until that time, long enough that when he left, it was worse than not having a father at all.
“If your dad died before you were born, yeah, it hurts—but it’s not like you had a connection with something that was real,” Jay says. “Not to say it’s any better—but to have that connection and then have it ripped away was, like, the worst. My dad was such a good dad that when he left, he left a huge scar. He was my superhero.”
Reeves loved all the things Jay-Z loves today—sports, food, and especially music. He had the best record collection in the neighborhood; the classic-soul-derived beats on Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint are in part a tribute to the music that filled their house when Jay was young. But when his brother was murdered, Reeves imploded. Slipped into alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse. “He was gone,” Jay says. “He was not himself.” Jay’s mother, Gloria Carter, tried to push him to see his son; there were meetings scheduled that Reeves didn’t show up for. They didn’t see each other again until 2003.
“[I talked about] what it did to me, what it meant, asked him why. There was no real answer. There was nothing he could say, because there’s no excuse for that. There really isn’t. So there was nothing he could say to satisfy me, except to hear me out. And it was up to me to forgive and let it go.”
By then the doctors had told Reeves to quit drinking, and Reeves had kept on drinking, and a month after he and Jay had that conversation—which Jay wrote about on The Black Album’s “Moment of Clarity”—he died.
All that was part of why Jay wanted to wait to have kids. That promise, in “New Day,” that fear of repeating his father’s mistakes—it’s real. He knows, intellectually, that he’s not just going to spaz out and leave. “But I bet he didn’t believe he’d spaz out and leave either,” Jay shrugs.
He was rich enough to provide, years ago. But he wanted to be rich enough to be present—to leave rap alone for a while, if necessary, and not in a trumped-up pseudoretirement kind of way.
“Providing—that’s not love,” he says. “Being there—that’s more important. I mean, we see that. We see that with all these rich socialites. They’re crying out for attention; they’re hurting for love. I’m not being judgmental—I’m just making an observation. They’re crying out for the love that maybe they didn’t get at home, and they got everything. All the material things that they need and want. So we know that’s not the key.”
The Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets”—the epochal quiet-storm jam that Sean Combs built Biggie’s equally epochal “Big Poppa” around—comes on the restaurant’s speakers. Jay tunes out for a minute. “I grew up listening to this,” he says with a smile. That’s art workin’. I ask if little Bey-Z will grow up listening to his catalog, and Jay says of course—when the time comes, he’ll start with Reasonable Doubt, go from there. “There will be a lot of that,” he says. “And a lot of other records, all pivotal, important records. There’ll be Ready to Die, there’ll be Illmatic.”
So will the God MC be changing diapers?
“Of course, of course. One hundred percent.”
And will we see you putting the car seat in the Maybach?
“Yeah,” Jay smiles. “Wouldn’t that be great? That would be a great picture.”