According to his mother Gloria Carter, a young Jay-Z used to wake his siblings up at night banging out drum patterns on the kitchen table. Eventually, she bought him a boom box for his birthday and thus sparked his interest in music. He began freestyling, writing rhymes, and followed the music of many artists popular at the time.
In his neighborhood, Carter was known as "Jazzy", a nickname that eventually developed into his stage name, "Jay-Z". The moniker is also an homage to his musical mentor, Jaz-O, as well as to the J/Z subway lines that have a stop at Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn.
Jay-Z can be heard on several of Jaz-O's early recordings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including "The Originators" and "Hawaiian Sophie". His career had a jump start when he battled a rapper by the name of Zai. The battle caught the eye of many record labels, as Jay-Z was able to hold his own against Zai. He first became known to a wide audience by being featured on the posse cut "Show and Prove" on the 1994 Big Daddy Kane album Daddy's Home He made an appearance on a popular song by Big L, "Da Graveyard", and on Mic Geronimo's "Time to Build", which also featured early appearances by DMX, and Ja Rule in 1995. His first official rap single was called "I Can't Get With That", for which he released a music video.
Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
From the beginning of his professional recording career, when no major label gave him a record deal, Jay-Z, Dame Dash, and Kareem Biggs created Roc-A-Fella Records as their own independent label. After striking a deal with Priority to distribute his material, Jay-Z released his 1996 debut album Reasonable Doubt with beats from acclaimed producers such as DJ Premier and Super DJ Clark Kent and a notable appearance by The Notorious B.I.G.. Despite reaching only number 23 on the Billboard 200, the album was well-received by critics. This album would later be included in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" as #248 and would later reach plantium status.
After reaching a new distribution deal with Def Jam in 1997, Jay-Z released his follow-up In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Executively produced by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, it sold better than his previous effort. Jay-Z later explained that the album was made during one of the worst periods of his life. He was reeling from the death of his close friend The Notorious B.I.G. The album was a personal revelation for Jay-Z as he spun the tale of his hard knock upbringing. The album's glossy production stood as a contrast to his first release, and some dedicated fans felt he had "sold out". However, the album did feature some beats from producers who had worked with him on Reasonable Doubt, namely DJ Premier and Ski. Like its predecessor, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 earned Platinum status in the United States.
Vol. 2... and mainstream success
In 1998, Jay-Z would release Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life which would contain a rougher sound then it's predecessor and would spawned the biggest hit of his career at the time, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)". He relied more on flow and wordplay, and he continued his penchant for mining beats from the popular producers of the day such as Swizz Beatz, an upstart in-house producer for Ruff Ryders, and Timbaland. Other producers include: DJ Premier, Erick Sermon, The 45 King, and Kid Capri. Charting hits from this album included "Can I Get A...", featuring Ja Rule and Amil, and "Nigga What, Nigga Who", which featured Amil too. Vol. 2 would eventually become Jay-Z's most commercially successful album; it was certified 5x Plantium in the United States and has to date sold over 5 million copies. The album went on to win a Grammy Award, although Jay-Z boycotted the ceremony protesting DMX's failure to garner a Grammy nomination.
In 1999, Jay-Z released Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter which would see Jay-Z returning for the most part, to a street-oriented sound. The album proved to be successful sold over 3 million records. Vol. 3 most successful single was "Big Pimpin'", featuring UGK. Around 2000, Jay-Z decided to begin developing other artists and he released The Dynasty: Roc La Familia which was originally intended to become a compilation album for Roc-A-Fella artists but somehow turned into another Jay-Z album. The album helped to introudce newcomer producers The Neptunes, Just Blaze, Kanye West and Bink!, which have all gone on to achieve notable success. This is also the first album where Jay-Z utilizes a more soulful sound than his previous albums. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia sold over 2 million units in the U.S. alone.
The Blueprint and The Blueprint²
In 2001, Jay-Z released The Blueprint which was later considered by many to be one of hip hop's "classic" albums, receiving the coveted 5 mic review from The Source magazine. Released during the wake of September 11 attacks, the album managed to debut at number one on the Billboard 200, selling more than 427,000 units; the album's success was overshadowed by the tragic event. The Blueprint has been certified 3x Platinum in the United States. The Blueprint was applauded for its production and the balance of "mainstream" and "hardcore" rap, receiving recognition from both audiences. The Blueprint was written in only two days. Eminem was the only guest rapper on the album, producing and rapping on the song "Renegade". Four of the thirteen tracks on the album were produced by Kanye West and represents one of West's first major breaks in the industry.The Blueprint includes the popular songs "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)", "Girls, Girls, Girls, Jigga That Nigga, Song Cry, and the infamous diss "Takeover", a song that takes on rivals Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Nas.
Jay-Z's next solo album was 2002's 3 million (U.S. only) selling The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse, a double-album. The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at number one, selling over 545,000 units and surpassing The Blueprint. It was later reissued in a single-disc version, The Blueprint 2.1, which retained half of the tracks from the original. The album spawned two massive hit singles, "Excuse Me Miss" and "Bonnie & Clyde" featuring Jay-Z's girlfriend of four years Beyoncé Knowles. "Guns & Roses", a track featuring rock musician Lenny Kravitz, and "Hovi Baby" were two successful radio singles as well. The album features the tracks "A Dream", featuring Faith Evans and a recording of the late The Notorious B.I.G.; and "The Bounce", featuring Kanye West. The Blueprint 2.1 features tracks that do not appear on The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse, such as "Stop", "La La La (Excuse Me Again)", "What They Gonna Do, Part II" and "Beware" produced by and featuring Panjabi MC.
The Black Album, retirement and Collision Course
Jay-Z toured with 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and Sean Paul while finishing work on what was announced as his final album, The Black Album. He worked with several producers including Just Blaze, The Neptunes, Kanye West, Timbaland, Eminem, DJ Quik, 9th Wonder and Rick Rubin. Notable songs on the album included "What More Can I Say", "Dirt Off Your Shoulder", "Change Clothes", and "99 Problems". A few of the songs done on this album portray a more personal side of Jay-Z; for example, "Moment of Clarity" sheds light on his feelings towards his estranged father and coping with his death. It deals with accusations that he sold out to reach a wider audience. "What More Can I Say" addresses the "biting" accusations leveled against him by Nas in "Ether" and other detractors, as Jay-Z raps, "I'm not a biter I'm a writer for myself and others/I say a Big verse I'm only biggin' up my brother." The Black Album has sold 3 million copies in the US.
On November 25, 2003, Jay-Z held a concert at Madison Square Garden, which would later be the focus of his film Fade to Black. This concert was his "retirement party". All proceeds went to charity. Other performers included collaborators like The Roots (in the form of his backing band), Missy Elliott, Memphis Bleek, Beanie Siegel, Freeway, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Twista, Ghostface Killah, Foxy Brown, Pharrell and R. Kelly with special appearances by Voletta Wallace and Afeni Shakur, the mothers of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur respectively.
While Jay-Z had attested to a retirement from making new studio albums, various side projects and appearances soon followed. Included in these were a greatest hits record, mash-up projects and concert appearances with R. Kelly and Linkin Park.
In 2004 Jay-Z collaborated with rock group Linkin Park. The project was named Collision Course, and contained a six track EP, as well as a making of DVD. Some of the mash ups tracks were entitled "Dirt Off Your Shoulder/Lying From You", "Jigga What/Faint", and "Numb/Encore". "Numb/Encore" went on to win a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and was performed with Linkin Park live at the Grammys, with a special appearance by Paul McCartney, who added verses from his song Yesterday. The EP sold over 1 million copies in the US alone. Jay-Z was the executive producer of Fort Minor's debut album The Rising Tied. Mike Shinoda got together with Jay-Z and Linkin Park bandmate Brad Delson to discuss what tracks should make the album.
Also in 2004, there was a runaway hit remix project by Danger Mouse called The Grey Album in which Jay-Z's Black Album vocals were blended with instrumentals sampled exclusively from The Beatles' White Album (which subsequently embroiled the DJ in a lawsuit that was later dropped with EMI, the owners of the Beatles' work). This was made possible by an a cappella version of the "Black Album" that Jay-Z released with the specific intent for others to mix.
"I Declare War", Kingdom Come and American Gangster
Having been such a visible artist in the late 1990s through the early 2000s, Jay-Z has been the subject of more rap-related controversy than most artists in mainstream hip hop. Some of these have been resolved, some are ongoing, and some have simply dissipated.
On October 27, 2005, Jay-Z headlined New York's Power 105.1 annual concert, Powerhouse. The concert was entitled the "I Declare War" concert leading to intense speculation in the weeks preceding the event on whom exactly Jay-Z would declare war. As he had previously "declared war" on other artists taking lyrical shots at him at other events, many believed that the Powerhouse show would represent an all-out assault by Jay-Z upon his rivals. The theme of the concert was Jay-Z's position as President and CEO of Def Jam, complete with an on-stage mock-up of the Oval Office. Many artists made appearances such as the old roster of Roc-A-Fella records artists, as well as Ne-Yo, Teairra Mari, T.I., Young Jeezy, Akon, Kanye West, Paul Wall, The LOX, and Diddy.
At the conclusion of the concert, Jay-Z put many arguments to rest to the surprise of hip hop fans. Instead of declaring war, he declared that he was the "United Nations of this rap shit". The most significant development in this show was closure to the infamous hip hop rivalry between Jay-Z and Nas. The two former rivals shook hands and shared the stage together to perform Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents" blended with Nas's song "The World is Yours" from which "Dead Presidents" had sampled the vocals on the chorus.
Disagreements between other artists were also brought to a close (or put on hold) at the Powerhouse show. The event brought together for the first time in years, Diddy and The LOX, both having had a long-standing animosity due to a contract agreement and the latter's departure from Bad Boy Entertainment. Shortly after the concert, the altercation was fully rectified. The event also saw the return of Beanie Sigel from incarceration. There had been some speculation that Beanie Sigel was going to depart from Roc-A-Fella Records, but this concert proved otherwise. Beanie and The LOX's Jadakiss also officially ended their own argument when they, Jay-Z, the rest of the LOX and Sauce Money (who had been thought to have some animosity towards Jay-Z, but this was also untrue) all performed the song "Reservoir Dogs".
Jay-Z returned with his comeback album on November 21, 2006 titled Kingdom Come. Jay-Z's comeback single, "Show Me What You Got", was leaked on the Internet in early October 2006, scheduled to be released later on that month, received heavy air-play after its leak, causing the FBI to step in and investigate. Jay-Z worked with video director Hype Williams, and the single's video was directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job). The album features producers such as Just Blaze, Pharrell, Kanye West, Dr. Dre and Coldplay's Chris Martin (single entitled "Beach Chair"). The first week saw 680,000 sales of the CD, which Entertainment Weekly said was "the highest single-week total in Jay's decadelong career". This album has sold 2 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Jay-Z released his tenth album entitled American Gangster on November 6, 2007. After viewing the Ridley Scott film of the same name, he was heavily inspired to create a new "concept" album that depicts his experiences as a street-hustler. The album is not the film's official soundtrack, although it was distributed by Def Jam. Jay-Z's American Gangster depicts his life in correlation to the movie American Gangster. At the start of the album's first single, "Blue Magic", Jay-Z offers a dealer's manifesto while making references to political figures of the late 1980s with the lyric: "Blame Reagan for making me to into a monster, blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra, I ran contraband that they sponsored, before this rhymin' stuff we was in concert."Also notable about the "Blue Magic" music video was Jay-Z flashing 500 euro notes, in what Harvard Business School professor Rawi Abdelal has called a "turning point in American pop culture's response to globalization." The album has sold 1 million copies in the US.
Glastonbury and The Blueprint 3
It was controversially announced on February 2, 2008 that Jay-Z would headline Glastonbury Festival in 2008, becoming the first major hip hop artist to headline the British festival. He was blamed by some for relatively slow ticket sales for the festival, although a more likely cause is the preceding run of terrible weather and flooding that in 2007 made life at the festival very difficult. One of the more outspoken critics of his selection was Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame. In response to Gallagher's criticism, Jay-Z opened his Glastonbury set with a tongue-in-cheek cover of Oasis's iconic song "Wonderwall". His Glastonbury performance was heralded as a successful response to pre-festival criticism. He also headlined many other summer festivals in 2008, including Roskilde Festival in Denmark, Hove Festival in Norway and O2 Wireless Festival in London.
Jay-Z also stated that after he finishing touring he will work on a new album. Timbaland has previously stated that he will be producing the entire album. Recently, however, Jay-Z went on record to say that it is not guaranteed to be a full Timbaland production.
During Kanye West's August 6, 2008 concert at Madison Square Garden, Jay-Z came out to perform a new song and he and Kanye proclaimed that it was to be on The Blueprint 3. On May 21, 2009, Jay-Z announced he would be parting ways with Def Jam, and is signed up in a multi-million dollar deal to sign for Live Nation. His next album The Blueprint 3 will be put out by Live Nation in September 2009.