Jay-Z turns 50: Music, money and the legacy of Marcy Houses
As the rapper and businessman celebrates a big birthday, an examination of his life’s work thus far
Hip-hop luminaries Ice Cube and Sean “Diddy” Combs also hit the half-century mark earlier this year, but Jay-Z’s birthday is the one that prompts discussions far beyond hip-hop. As the greatest rapper of all time celebrates a milestone birthday, it’s time to examine what his music, his philanthropy and his business acumen represent. With the world seemingly at his fingertips, it’s a master class in pop cultural calculus.
Long before the NFL partnership. Long before the $88 million Bel-Air, California, compound (a purchase admittedly spurred in part by his own transgressions). Long before the titles billionaire, GOAT, mentor and philanthropist ever attached themselves to his name. The root of Jay-Z’s story traces back to one place: Brooklyn, where the image of the man in Timberland boots, a white tee and a fitted Yankees cap began to take shape.
The Marcy Houses in New York City’s most populous borough was the first home of Shawn Carter, the son of Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves. The surrounding neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant came to know him as one of the best local rappers — and an occasional participant in the drug trade — in the late ’80s and early ’90s. By the time the Barclays Center opened in 2012, he was the face of the NBA’s relocation to the borough.
The 27 six-story buildings that make up the bulk of Marcy Houses opened in 1949. They’re named after William Marcy, a former U.S. senator, New York governor and secretary of war and state under Presidents James Polk and Franklin Pierce, respectively. During his time at the State Department, Marcy was responsible for overseeing the 1854 Ostend Manifesto, which made the case for why the United States should acquire Cuba, allegedly for national security reasons. But the manifesto was retracted after critics saw it as a Southern attempt to extend slavery.
As author Brandon Harris noted in his book Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, the project bearing Marcy’s name serves as a “fitting tribute to his sentiments.” Slavery has been abolished. But by the 1980s, its crippling descendants — housing discrimination, poverty and a rigged system of criminal justice enforcement in the war on drugs — had turned Marcy Houses, like countless other inner-city neighborhoods across America, into a ground zero of urban despair. Families were torn apart, warping countless young men and women in the process.
“F— waiting for the city to pass out summer jobs. I wasn’t even a teenager yet and suddenly everyone I knew had pocket money,” Jay-Z reflected in his 2010 memoir Decoded. “Guys my age, fed up with watching their moms struggle on a single income, were paying utility bills from hustling.”
On his sophomore effort, 1997’s underrated In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, lives the number “Where I’m From.” Part of the catalog that got Jay-Z inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the first rapper to receive that honor, the record is, at its core, an ode to the housing projects that raised him and the drug game that he continued to keep one foot in until shortly before the release of Reasonable Doubt, his 1996 debut.
“I’m up the block, around the corner and down the street/ From where the pimps, prostitutes and the drug lords meet,” he boasted. “We make a million off of beats, ‘cause our stories is deep/ And f— tomorrow, as long as the night before was sweet.”
Marcy Houses in 2019, unlike its most famous former tenant, look roughly the same. Its courtyards, peppered with red benches, are still there — once gathering spots for both MC battles and youths who “wore automatic weapons like they were sneakers.” On a sunny, yet chilly day a week before Thanksgiving, property workers clean sidewalks and offer a warming “hello.” Kids crack jokes about the school day’s events while dreading their homework assignments. There’s still unrest in and around Marcy Houses, but there is also a sense of community. It’s experienced a lot, just like Jay-Z.
“I’m 33 now with a kid and this n—-’s 50,” said Imani Patterson, a Brooklyn native who grew up in Fort Greene, not far from where Jay-Z lived and hustled. “He basically influenced the last 20 years of my life. The reason that I probably walk how I walk and do some of the things I do is because of that n—-.”
His friend, Kyle Leonard, agrees. “Hov was that calm, smooth dude. Y’all don’t have to be the loudest n—- in the room to be the loudest n—- in the room. He ain’t have to yell. He ain’t have to dance, but when I walk in the room, you gon’ know.”
Except for Marcy Houses, no other Jay-Z landmark looms larger in Brooklyn than the Barclays Center. It’s a model of world-class entertainment, and an example of the gentrification that has disrupted the culture of the borough. It’s startling, but not coincidental, how close the arena, in all of its nighttime neon-blue glory, is to the safe haven directly responsible for the rise of Jay-Z the hustler.
“Follow my hand,” Patterson said looking out the window of a high-rise apartment in Prospect Heights. “That’s Barclays right there. See where the building with the white top with nothing on the roof? That’s 560 State St.”
The address etched itself into pop culture lore via Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ 2009 hit “Empire State of Mind.” A stash spot for drugs and money during his hustling days, the building now has units that have sold in recent years for more than a million dollars, part of a citywide transformation.
“Yeah, s— has changed a ton around here,” said Patterson. “Old Brooklyn been gone.”
Jay-Z’s legacy as seen through Brooklyn is anything but monolithic. He’s a problem and a solution. Troubled, yet revered. Cutthroat, yet clear-sighted. There is no single correct way to characterize him in the same way there is no incorrect one, either.
His music reigns as a case study of a rags to obscene riches story. From project hallways to private jets. Combining witty lyricism and a storytelling cadence that links him to fellow Brooklynite and fallen friend The Notorious B.I.G., the street corner-to-boardroom lessons found in Jay-Z’s music have become gospel for a legion of fans.
“There’s never been a n—- this good for this long,” Jay-Z declared on “What More Can I Say.” And that was in 2003. With 14 No. 1 albums — only The Beatles (collectively and individually) have more — 22 Grammys, four No. 1 Billboard hits, one of only four rappers to have 100 charting singles (Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj are the other three), and a king’s ransom of classic feature verses, that statement is self-evident.
“By the time I got to a place where I’m thinking I’m a man, it’s all based off rules that he taught me [in his music],” said Patterson. “I literally modeled what I wanna be off of him. I got an extra little bit of confidence because he gave it to me. When I tell you I’m from Brooklyn, I say that s— a little bit prouder because of him.”
In an industry that celebrates talent almost as quickly as it disposes of it, Jay-Z’s hand has never been just about music. In a 1997 interview, Jay-Z spoke of the importance of rappers understanding the business they’d sought so desperately to be a part of. So much money, he noted then, is more loan than payment. “That’s what happens to a lot of rappers in their money situation,” he said. “And that was [the music industry] being fair. Some of us witnessed it ain’t all fair. The record business is shady at times.”
Two years after that conversation, he could have lost it all after being charged in the stabbing of industry executive Lance “Un” Rivera. Jay-Z faced 15 years in prison if convicted, a sentence that would have profoundly reshaped pop culture as we know it. Instead, in 2001, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and prosecutors agreed to ask for probation.
Succeeding in the music industry and the street hustle — two worlds that rarely value the longevity of their workers — meant understanding why multiple streams of revenue was a necessity. A necessity, by any means necessary. Jay-Z always understood where the next bag would arise. He’s rap’s ultimate hustler in a genre that has historically prided itself on the concept of such.
“The music and culture we create, you know we’ve been giving it away for so long,” Jay-Z told CBS News anchor Gayle King earlier this year. “Which is understandable, you’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to clean the floors up before you own the building, but we don’t shine shoes anymore.”
From music to ventures in and around the sports industry, alcohol, cannabis, fashion, and streaming services, success is a drug no hustler kicks, and rap’s first billionaire is one of its biggest addicts. He never hid his intentions, oftentimes placing them in plain sight in his music. “There ain’t no reason why I be buying expensive chains/ Hope you don’t think users are the only abusers,” he admitted on 2003’s “Public Service Announcement.” “N—-s getting high within the game/ If you do then how would you explain?/ I’m 10 years removed, still the vibe is in my veins.”
Fifteen years later, the sentiment remained. “My accountant so good, I’m practically living tax-free,” he boasted on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free,” in what is widely viewed as one of the best verses of 2018.
“Jay’s remained so relevant for this long because he’s a capitalist in a capitalist system,” said Bed-Stuy resident Nathifa Perez, who like many of her neighbors, has watched his ascension. “Artists in general tend to have shorter shelf lives than other profiteers in America. If you don’t have the hustler nature, then chances are you won’t remain relevant in an industry that is about profiting.”
Since its start in Brooklyn, rap has obsessed over the pursuit of wealth. It’s why so many project success and riches long before it arrives in tangible forms.In hip-hop, perception has long been employed as a means of effective communication. To be a boss, and Jay-Z undoubtedly is one, it’s about first convincing your audience you are one. He, Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke did that when the music industry refused to take them seriously in the ’90s. They proceeded to bankroll Roc-A-Fella Records into one of the most celebrated record labels of the last half-century before disbanding in the early 2000s.
“We — the hustlers at the street level — definitely didn’t invent the poverty and hopelessness that drove a generation of desperate kids to selling drugs. But then there’s a point when I’m not so innocent anymore. It’s when I ‘do it twice.’ The second time is not out of desperation to survive or to resist the status quo, but out of greed for the spoils of the game,” Jay-Z noted in Decoded. “You start getting addicted to the thrill of it … You taste a strange kind of fame. It’s addictive as the s— you’re selling, and just as deadly.”
But current events have altered how society views income inequality and how that ashy to classy story is received. Especially when one attains extreme wealth and residency in a tax bracket many people will never experience.
This isn’t Jay-Z’s fault, nor should he be made the face of a problem that has existed long before he came to power, said Damon Jones, associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. However, Jay-Z is part of a larger cultural conversation.
“When you’re not a billionaire and you’re bragging about becoming a billionaire, it’s received differently than if you actually become a billionaire and you continue to brag about being richer than everyone,” said Jones. “The picture that has been built about being very wealthy and successful and trying to be richer and richer — that was a long-term strategy that was decided upon by Jay-Z and it’s now running into issues given the current social discourse.”
On 2003’s “Moment of Clarity,” Jay-Z declared his inspiration for obtaining wealth. “Since I know what I’m up against/ We as rappers must decide what’s most important,” he flexed. “And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them/ So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win.”
The line is a glimpse into his mindset for both economic and philanthropic advancement. With causes such as AIDS/HIV awareness, poverty, clean water, civil rights, education, cancer, human rights, criminal justice reform, LGBT support and more, Jay-Z’s humanitarian efforts date back years, many of which have purposely gone unreported. This year alone he was honored with both the NAACP’s President’s Award and GLAAD Media’s Vanguard Award.
Yet, critics are asking pointed questions about our current model of philanthropy and if the efforts of the world’s elite to “change the world” help safeguard the status quo.
“[Jay-Z’s] one person, so he doesn’t represent an entire system, so people who are looking to change that system will do that with or without him,” said Jones. “If that’s the reason why anyone should be a billionaire, to donate money to poor people, what if we solved poverty? Then what are you left with in terms of your justification for amassing all that wealth? Are you back to just saying what I really wanna do is have a lot of control, power and wealth?”
The injustices America has thrived on existed long before a dope boy from Brooklyn was congratulated on his body of work by the first black president of the United States. But watching how Jay-Z has shifted from one aisle of the conversation to the other is riveting.
The juxtaposition of the two sides of Jay’s story and the story of Brooklyn are taking physical shape back at Marcy Houses. Near the southeastern corner of the property, construction is underway on the seven-building Cascade condominium, which will put luxury houses less than 200 feet away from a housing project. It’s just one more example of how gentrification in Brooklyn has become an example for good or ill across the country.
“Newark,” said that city’s Mayor Ras Baraka in December 2018 after launching a commission to address gentrification and equitable growth, “must not become another Brooklyn.”
The most gaudy example is the Barclays Center and the surrounding Atlantic Yards Project (since rebranded Pacific Park). The arrival of the Nets from New Jersey in 2012 brought Brooklyn its first professional sports team since the Dodgers left in 1957. This summer, the franchise hit the jackpot by landing superstars and NBA champions Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, who, once they finally see the floor together, could rewrite Brooklyn’s sports history. The project has led to a host of events, businesses, restaurants and, most importantly, new residents.
But all that activity is changing the soul of Brooklyn — or depending who’s asked — what’s left of it. Many longtime residents feared rising rents. And four years after Barclays opened, its promise of new jobs has proven only partially true.
“That is the legacy and hallmark of Atlantic Yards,” said Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s legal director Candace Carponter, “a total failure of democracy.”
“Old Brooklyn, not this new s—,” Jay-Z rhymed on 2017’s “Marcy Me.” Jay-Z, who referred to himself earlier in the same verse as “the Gotham City heartbeat,” is as tied to the city’s cultural history as Frank Sinatra, Malcolm X or Biggie Smalls. Which is why the image of him shoveling dirt during the Barclays groundbreaking ceremony in March 2010 hasn’t faded.
“The Atlantic Yards Project and the effects that it has had on the poorer native population of Brooklyn will serve as a reminder of Jay-Z’s legacy in Brooklyn,” said Perez.
Jay-Z was more the face of the project than the math and muscle behind the operation. But it’s not the first time his financial dealings lead to public criticism. In 2013, for instance, he was caught up in the controversy over Barneys alleged “shop-and-frisk” policy because he had a partnership with the luxury retail chain.
This year, a rising backlash has stalked Jay-Z over Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL. The complaints revolve around Colin Kaepernick and Jay-Z’s perceived about-face in his support of the exiled quarterback.
Jay-Z has been one of Kaepernick’s biggest celebrity supporters in the quarterback’s three years away from football. He wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance. And Jay-Z openly mocked the NFL on his and wife Beyoncé’s 2018 single “Apes—,” gloating, “I said no to the Super Bowl/ You need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the end zone, tell the NFL we in stadiums, too.” As Jay-Z says these lyrics in the song’s video, a group of black men kneel outside of the Louvre, symbolically saluting Kaepernick’s protest to bring awareness to police brutality.
Following the debacle that was Kaepernick’s scheduled workout last month in Atlanta, the conversation naturally drifted to Jay-Z. Reportedly, the Roc Nation frontman and sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards and Jay-Z were in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s ear about getting Kaepernick a workout. Until Jay-Z speaks publicly again — and at some point he will, whether through music, a sitdown interview or both — how he truly feels about this public relations nightmare is a mystery.
In New York, reaction to Jay-Z’s newest move varies widely.
There’s anger and disappointment:
“All black people around the globe are checking [Jay-Z] out,” said Columbia University psychology professor Carl Hart, a lifelong fan of Jay-Z’s music. “You don’t sell out your people, otherwise the progress won’t happen. … The question for me is, ‘Do you wanna be remembered that way as a brother?’ ”
“I think it seems like a lot of fuss,” said Brooklyn resident Vanessa Cantave, “but ultimately it won’t really move the needle too much in either direction.”
And there’s also support.
“It’s like The Spook Who Sat By the Door. Allow yourself to get in and see where you can make changes from within, because clearly that’s the only thing that could maybe make a difference,” said Leonard. “There’s no way this one action could negate everything he’s done. There’s no way he’s gonna sell out. For what? It’s not about money. See what he’s gonna do first. We don’t know.”
As we age, we grow — and don’t grow — in many ways. Values change. What was once important doesn’t seem as life-or-death as it was when we were younger.
For Jay-Z, what still motivates him from a commercial standpoint feels discernable. It’s about the next move. The next bag. The next power play. Hustlers, as he once said, don’t sleep — they rest one eye up. This New York giant has lived long enough to see himself become a villain to some. Or he’s a beacon of artistic freedom and longterm economic buoyancy. Part of human nature is the complexity it carries. Very few people who have ever walked the face of the planet are universally seen as monolithic.
What got him to this point remains. Music is probably the one place he can still etch his name in history on his own terms. Perhaps that’s where we’ll learn what could still drive a 50-year-old billionaire long seen as the greatest his profession has ever known.
When Michael Jordan turned 50, he openly longed for the game of basketball. “Man, I wish I was playing right now,” Jordan said. “I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”
The gift that Jay-Z possesses that Jordan does not is the ability to still showcase his artistic talents. Points to prove, narratives to shift, topics to address and amends to make will always exist.
“The good thing for Jay-Z … 50 doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to mean 30 years ago,” said Damon Jones. “People are living longer now. People are working longer now, for better or for worse. So he still has a lot of time to think about whatever his ‘legacy’ is gonna be. There’s a lot of time left to do things.
“Especially if you’re rich.”