From street hustler to rapper to label head to media mogul, Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z, is the late-20th century embodiment of a Horacio Alger story. Born in Brooklyn in 1969 and raised in the dangerous Marcy housing projects, Carter came of the age during the crack epidemic of the 1980s. He started rapping as a young kid, later taking the name Jay-Z as a tribute to his early mentor Jaz-O and as a reference to New York’s J/Z subway line, which stopped right outside the Marcy projects.
After struggling for record-label attention during the early 1990s, Jay-Z finally released his debut, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996. With production from DJ Premier, Ski, and Irv Gotti, the album coated itself in the deluxe mafioso lifestyle as Jay-Z boasted about crime, loot, women, and cars, all with a versatile, dexterous flow. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, executive produced by Puff Daddy, followed the next year, and though the album was more pop-oriented than its classic predecessor, it outsold Reasonable Doubt and established Jay-Z as a serious rap commodity.
Over the course of the next six years, Jay-Z went on a commercial roll that will probably never be matched in hip hop. In each of the years between 1998 and 2003, Jay-Z released a platinum-selling album. In order they were: Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, The Dynasty: Roc la Familia, The Blueprint, The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse, and The Black Album. By the time the last of these, his so-called farewell album, was released, Jay-Z was the undisputed heavyweight champion of hip-hop.
Like all artists with universal appeal, Jay-Z was able to be all things to all people -- whether collaborating with Houston underground kings Bun B and Pimp C (“Big Pimpin”), rapping over an “Annie” sample (“Hard Knock Life”), or sharing the stage with his then-girlfriend Beyonce (“03 Bonnie and Clyde”). A key ingredient in this run of success was Jay-Z’s pristine choices in producers, plucking guys like Just Blaze and Kanye West from obscurity and turning them into super-producers and eliciting the absolute best from the likes of the Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Jermaine Dupree, and Timbaland. He also gloried in the role of corporate behemoth. He started a clothing line, opened a nightclub, and bought an interest in a major sports franchise, not to mention ascended to the presidency of the storied hip-hop label Def Jam.
In 2003 Jay-Z went into retirement to focus on his job as head of Def Jam. He didn’t last long on the sidelines, though, returning with the middling Kingdom Come in 2006, which included a collaboration with Chris Martin of Coldplay and a not-so-thrilling song about getting older, “30 Something.” The next year Jay-Z recorded an album of songs inspired by American Gangster. It was somewhat of a return to form, where Jay-Z allowed himself to rap in character as a cigar-chomping kingpin. In 2009 Jay-Z released the heavily anticipated Blueprint 3, an album not nearly as paradigm-shifting as its namesake but nonetheless a bigtime rap event in an era when bigtime rap events were becoming more and more uncommon. ~Wilson McBee

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