Book Review: Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office by Zack O'Malley Greenburg
(Corrects spelling of Zack O'Malley Greenburg's name.)
Empire State of Mind:
How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office
By Zack O'Malley Greenburg
Portfolio; 240 pp; $25.95
Shawn Carter overcame a dirt-poor childhood in a Brooklyn housing project to transform himself into a world-famous rapper, marry Beyoncé, and build a sprawling business. In theory this rise should be inspiring. In practice it's quite disturbing. Jay-Z is, after all, a former drug dealer who shot his own brother after he caught him wearing his jewelry. He's also a music impresario who was accused of sticking a five-inch knife into the stomach of a rival record producer, and an executive who's so competitive that he stacked his playground basketball team with NBA stars.
Empire State of Mind, the new biography by Forbes writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, lavishes praise on the mogul who once famously rapped: "I'm not a businessman—I'm a business, man." It also depicts a businessman with Antarctica for a heart. "His loyalty is to his money," says Jaz-O, the man who taught Jay-Z to rhyme in the mid-1980s before being ditched by the younger entertainer. Greenburg's breathless account of Jay-Z's ascent makes it hard not to be impressed by his will to win. It's even harder, though, to develop any affection for him. Is being a thug really the best way to build a business?
Not according to many of his former associates. Jay-Z quit high school to deal drugs and regarded music as merely a sideline until an ambush by rival dealers scared him into a straighter line of work. His lucky break came when he met entrepreneur Damon Dash and the two launched Roc-A-Fella Records in 1996, the same year as the release of Jay-Z's debut album. As Dash explains to Greenburg, he imparted two principles to his partner: "We shouldn't let other people make money off us, and we shouldn't give free advertising with our lifestyle." In other words: Own the rights to your music, and make companies pay for the shout-outs to liquor and designer clothing companies. They were prescient strategies, and Jay-Z mastered both—before splitting from Dash in 2004.
The rapper hasn't grown any more generous with age. When Greenburg approaches Jay-Z's top lieutenant with the news he's planning to write a book about the star, the underling's response is rather myopic: "What's in it for us?" Without any financial incentive to dangle, Greenburg is denied access. Perhaps more tellingly, Jay-Z beats him to market with his own book, the 2010 best-seller Decoded. The rejection doesn't deter Greenburg, nor does it dim his opinion of his subject. "As much as Martha Stewart or Oprah, [Jay-Z] has turned himself into a lifestyle," Greenburg gushes. "You can wake up to the local radio station playing Jay-Z's latest hit, spritz yourself with his 9IX cologne, slip on a pair of his Rocawear jeans, lace up your Reebok S. Carter sneakers, catch a Nets basketball game in the afternoon and grab dinner at The Spotted Pig"—Jay-Z has a minority stake in both the team and the Manhattan restaurant—"before heading to an evening performance of the Jay-Z-backed Broadway musical Fela! and a nightcap at his 40/40 Club."
Much as this virtual life might appeal to some, Greenburg offers no detailed analysis of the House of Jay-Z. He also seems unbothered by the fact that many of his partners aren't exactly market leaders. The Nets? Reebok? Aren't they what you settle for when you can't land the New York Knicks and Nike (NKE)? Greenburg estimates the rapper's fortune at half a billion dollars, yet provides no foundation for that figure, which seems high considering that several of Jay-Z's endeavors appear to be little more than marketing deals. Take the New Jersey Nets: According to reports cited by Greenburg, Jay-Z invested $1 million in the NBA team and received a stake worth $4.5 million because of his ability to generate buzz. It's a good deal for a rapper, but it's not Warren Buffett territory.
Missing from Empire State of Mind is any insight into the industry that's grown up around hip-hop. Fifteen years after the killing of Tupac Shakur, rap has evolved from an authentic expression of street-level anger into a business that manufactures faux alienation for marketers who want to layer their products with a frisson of sex and danger. When fortysomething married multimillionaires still play gangsta, they risk playing their audience for fools. In 2006, Jay-Z abruptly dropped references to Cristal champagne from his raps and started littering his videos and lyrics with shout-outs to Armand de Brignac, an obscure champagne considered mediocre by wine snobs. While Greenburg discovers that Jay-Z quietly receives a generous retainer for promoting the brand, the entertainer does deserve his due. As one liquor expert tells Greenburg: "What an amazing job to take a piece of s--t wine and turn it into a $300 bottle of wine overnight."
So, yes, Jay-Z is a great pitchman. Though it's still not clear that he's capable of building an enduring success. There's no certainty that the fans who plunk down a few hundred dollars for a bottle of Armand de Brignac will be rushing back to buy more Jay-Z-approved merchandise. He could also use some management pointers—at least judging from a 1999 incident in which he was accused of stabbing a music executive for allegedly bootlegging his CDs. (Jay-Z pled guilty to a reduced charge and received three years' probation.) Many chief executives have, at least metaphorically, wanted to stick a knife in a rival. Most, though, know it's not smart to wield the weapon yourself. That's what VPs are for.
On the other hand, the knifing incident merely solidified his street cred—rap's version of what's often referred to in sports as "the intangibles." Since then, Jay-Z has continued to find lucrative paydays in shilling for, among others, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Budweiser (BUD). Still, his marketing range has its limits. When he tried to strike a deal with Chrysler to offer a special Jay-Z Jeep gussied up in a color known as Jay-Z Blue, the carmaker balked. Greenburg is surprised, but perhaps even Jay-Z is unable to boost the U.S. auto industry.