Q&A With Jay-Z, Michael Jackson Biographer Zack O’Malley Greenburg

Empire State of Mind author talks Jay-Z's thoughts on his book, what, 'I will not lose - ever,' means and a forthcoming biz-centered bio on MJ

That’s interesting, and I think about that review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant in the Times. Isn’t the worst thing that could have happened to that place is a lukewarm review in the New York Times? It says something that the institution — the writer — felt so strongly about it.

Well, I totally agree. Jay-Z’s typical reaction to things out of his control is to completely ignore them. The fact that he kind of broke character and made kind of an off-handed remark that was not particularly well thought out or incisive suggests to me that it got to him in some way. I wasn’t writing it as a take down piece, if anything it’s a pretty positive book. But there were a few chapters in there where I revealed things that hadn’t been revealed about deals that he didn’t want publicized. He’s been able to maintain this pretty invincible aura and it’s been one of the things that’s been central to his whole persona. And in order to do so he’s done a pretty magnificent job at sweeping things under the rug that don’t fit with that image. Remember the Farmville game on Facebook? Remember Armadale Vodka? I think the deals that don’t work certainly give you valuable insight, especially in the case of the Jay-Z Jeep, how he was able to extract something positive from a deal that had gone sour. That’s the part that’s being excerpted on Rap Genius on Dec. 4.

There are these business deals that you write about that go awry, right, and that’s well done and well documented. But what about his music? His albums are a different proposition that’s subject to scrutiny, and so I’m curious about what you found in your character analysis that gives us an idea about music that’s not well received?

I think the only album he said that he’d do over is Volume 1. I would agree with him on that. That was a function of it being early in his career and he was coming off Reasonable Doubt, which even at the time was being hailed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. He was deciding to chase the larger pop prize. He slowed down his rhymes … it was just not good. But it still sold better than Reasonable Doubt! And I think it wasn’t until Hard Knock Life that he really perfected the perfect balance. But he argues that Blueprint 2 and Kingdom Come were ahead of their time. Kingdom Come’s theme was, like, “I’m so wealthy, the things I like you haven’t even heard of.” And he got a lot of flack for that, but that’s also a central theme to Watch the Throne, which was enormously well received.

Where did it turn for Jay-Z? When did he become who he is today, this huge, other-worldly mogul who can seemingly do no wrong?

I think he was hoping that moment would come when Kingdom Come was released. I don’t think everyone was quite ready for this notion of Jay-Z, the tastemaking mogul. But 2008 was a big year for him. He made American Gangster, signed the Live Nation deal, married Beyonce, and suddenly you see this guy who’s secretly getting married to the biggest pop star in the world on the top floor of his TriBeca rooftop and that’s when I think it started to be universally understood that he was this trendsetter and mogul. Looking back, it feels like everyone’s always thought of him this way, but I would link it back to 2008.

What did you learn about his business acumen from his lyrics?

As I was researching the book, people would tell me stuff, and I’d think back to lyrics and a name or reference would slap into place. He says, “I gave Doug a grip I lost a flip for five stacks, yeah I’m talking five comma, six zeroes, dot zero, here Doug.” That was when he flipped a coin with Universal CEO Doug Morris to get out of his deal and start the Roc Nation label. He lost the flip for $5 million. That was the negotiation and he lost. So he really tends to leave these little Easter eggs all over the place and you have to unpack them.

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