Jay-Z's 'Decoded': From Hip-Hop to Barack and Beyond


He left the game and came back and worked just as hard as he did when he started. He came into the game as Rookie of the Year, and he finished off the last playoff game of his career with a shot that won the Bulls their sixth championship. That's the kind of consistency that you can get only by adding dead-serious discipline to whatever talent you have.

On rapper Eminem's paranoia: It was 2003 and he was on top of the music world -- three major multiplatinum albums, twenty million sold, a number one film with "8 Mile," and on and on. He was probably the biggest star in the world. When we met at the studio, I reached over to give him a pound, and when we bumped, I could feel that he had on a bulletproof vest.

Here was Eminem, someone who was doing the thing he loved and succeeding at it probably beyond his wildest dreams, and he had to wear a bullet-proof vest. To the studio. He should've been on a boat somewhere enjoying himself without a care in the world, not worrying about getting shot up on his way to work.

On his not going to the 1998 Grammys because they wouldn't televise the rap awards: I was nominated three times that year, but when they told us they weren't televising our awards I decided to stay home. It wasn't a big-deal, formal boycott. God knows there were bigger issues in the world. And eventually I started coming to the show and even performing. But not until they started showing rap the respect it deserves. The larger point was, I wasn't going to be a partner to my own invisibility.

Selling Out, Starving Artists and Success

On his getting U2 frontman Bono to reevaluate an upcoming U2 album: One night I ran into him [at the Spotted Pig, a NYC restaurant Jay-Z and Bono helped fund] and he told me he'd read an interview I'd done somewhere. The writer had asked me about the U2 record that was about to be released and I said something about the kind of pressure a group like that must be under just to meet their own standard. Bono told me that my quote had really gotten to him. In fact, he said it got him a little anxious. He decided to go back to the studio even though the album was already done and keep reworking it till he thought it was as good as it could possibly be.

On "selling out:" It's a recurring story in hip-hop, the tension between art and commerce. Hip-hop is too important as a tool of expression to just be reduced to a commercial product. But what some people call "commercializing" really means is that lots of people buy and listen to your records. That was always the point, to me. After my first record got on the radio and on BET, it was wild being at home, feeding my fish, and suddenly seeing myself on TV.

But it was satisfying. Hearing it on the radio was even better. There may be some artists who don't believe in radio, especially now, because the radio business is such a shady racket, but radio love puts you in the hood for real. I care if regular people -- sisters on their way to work, dudes rolling around in their cars -- hear my s**t.

On the notion of the starving artist: There's this sick fascination with the dead artist, the broke artist, the drugged-out artist, the artist who blows all his money on drugs and big chains and ends up on a VH1 special. Or artists so conflicted about making money from their art -- which so often means making money from their pain and confusion and dreams -- that they do stupid s**t with it, set it on fire or something.

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