Jay-Z, the man once noted for his drug-slinging testimonies and establishing a new hip-hop pedigree, has now set himself the project of evolving into one of our greatest musical icons. To some, this ambition might imply disregard for the late Michael Jackson, or any musical luminary crowned in countless Halls of Fame around the globe who've taken their sweet time to rise beyond celebrity and who still sell out shows without the cool of the streets and a superstar wife named Beyoncé. Add to the fact that hip-hop is still a sub-culture that struggles to be embraced as musical form by many, and the idea of a rapper from Brooklyn who doesn't sing, dance or play any instruments becoming the king of music could prove a very uncomfortable reality for some.
Yet the facts don't lie. Next week, the 39-year-old will release his 11th album The Blueprint 3, a musically diverse ensemble which has spawned his first ever No 1 single in the UK, "Run This Town", and boasts an album cover which even Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz described as "gnarly... it's like the U2 of hip-hop". Add to that a last-minute show he has booked at the Roundhouse in London, which sold out in two minutes, a support slot at Coldplay's Wembley gig and a clever promo opportunity in Jo Whiley's living room soon, and it's obvious that the UK finally gets Jay-Z. He has transcended the urban scene to be recognised as an accessible artist who wants to connect with as many people as possible.
Last year's triumphant Glastonbury headline outing (against the odds and in the face of an indie witch-hunt, led by Noel Gallagher) and Alan Yentob's BBC documentary, were both instrumental in presenting him to a new audience, one more closely affiliated with indie rock and less impressed by the hype which has fuelled his devotees since the release of his debut, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996.
Being the enterprising individual he is, Jay-Z has allowed himself to hug the indie culture right back, from wearing vintage clothes pieces to putting in appearances at rock shows, including his recent attendance of a Grizzly Bear gig with his wife and his sister-in-law, Solange Knowles. He told MTV: "What the indie-rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring. It felt like us in the beginning. These concerts, they're not on the radio, no one hears about them, and there's 12,000 people in attendance. And the music that they're making and the connection they're making to people is really inspiring. So, I hope that they have a run where they push hip-hop back a little bit, so it will force hip-hop to fight to make better music... it can happen."
Jay-Z's transformation has been in the making for years. On 2003's The Black Album, his supposed final encore with a title that took a cheeky wink at the Beatles, he presented the Billy Squier-sampled "99 Problems", helmed by rock/rap producer Rick Rubin. A year later, he presented Collision Course, an experimental album with Linkin Park that might have left fans on both sides a bit miffed, but proved to be a brilliant marketing strategy in collaboration with MTV. Then, in 2006, he struck up a friendship with Coldplay's Chris Martin, who appeared on the rapper's album Kingdom Come in the same year.
Jay-Z recently spoke of his keenness to branch out of hip-hop, telling a US magazine: "We have to expand the genre. I would love to listen to hip-hop all day. Of course, now there are other things making their way into my CD changer or iPod, because of the lack of material. It doesn't speak to me. Everyone is speaking to the kids, thinking that's the key to success. The sad part of it is that all these rappers saying it are 30 years old, at least. Sometimes 35. It's misleading. It's that lack of growth that will keep us in a certain place."
His charity work in Africa, his brief liaison with the corporate world via Def Jam and the powerhouse marriage to Ms Knowles have also helped to redefine his brand, which has thus far reflected a multi-millionaire's empire built up around clothing lines, restaurants, films, sports, and more recently Roc Nation, a music publishing and touring venture.
His endorsement of Barack Obama has helped suggest he has some political sense too. "For America it means so much," he told Rolling Stone last year. "I am that kid that grew up in [Brooklyn, New York's] Marcy projects and thought that no matter who was in office, we weren't part of the political project. Because our voice didn't count, and trickle-down politics – we were the last on the totem pole to receive any attention because we couldn't put a candidate in office. He represents to that kid in the Marcy projects, that we really are here."
Born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969, Jay-Z was raised by a single mother with three older siblings. He dropped out of school and turned to drug-dealing, shooting his brother in the shoulder when he was only 12 years old for stealing his bling. He grew up around the sounds of Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye but says his decision to become a rapper was "a natural transition" as rap was the music that everyone was into during that time. With his business partners Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, he founded Roc-A-Fella Records, an early indication that he wasn't just into music, but also the business surrounding it. Following on from the minor success of his 1996 debut, by the time he'd delivered the follow-ups In My Lifetime Vol 1, Vol 2... Hard Knock Life and Vol... 3 Life and Times of S Carter, he was braced to enter the new millennium with a roster of artists, a steady base of notable producers (including a pre-diva Kanye West) and enormous clout earned from surviving rap battles with Nas, a court case for stabbing a record producer, and a consistent presence at the top of the US charts.
The biggest turn in his career came when he decided to "retire" and take on the role of CEO and president of Def Jam in 2004. After he, along with Dash and Burke, sold 50 per cent of Roc-A-Fella to the famous label, it put Jay-Z in a more lucrative position, and it was not long before the other two went their separate ways. The split didn't damage the rapper's reputation, however, and during his stint at Def Jam, he managed to open the door for bankable stars such as Ne-Yo and Rihanna, and to enjoy the successful rise of Kanye West the artist. In 2007, he decided to step down as boss, but served out the remaining of his contract as an artist with a few album releases, including American Gangster, a tie-in with the Denzel Washington film.
The release of The Blueprint 3 is eagerly anticipated by fans and critics alike who've followed the progression of his career, many wondering where his new-found musical appetite might lead in the long run. In the US, BP3 has already faced criticism, with one Washington Post reviewer declaring: "Somebody fetch Jay-Z some smelling salts, a Starbucks gift card, a mid-life crisis – anything to knock him out of the stupor he has settled into... The rap icon's 11th album is the first full-scale disaster of his career, a collection devoid of the mega-jams we expect from hip-hop's undisputed alpha male." The Chicago Tribune averred that "at its core, the album is less about introducing newfound skills or subject matter than it is a platform for Jay-Z to showcase his imperious flow, to reassert his world-conquering ego, to remind everyone just who the heck he is."
Others have noted that, as he eyes his 40th this December, he may not be quite capable of keeping up with the kids. Not that he wants to, pointing out on the track, "On To the Next One": "Used to rock a throwback/ Ballin' on the corner/ Now I rock a teller suit/ Looking like an owner/ No I'm not a Jonas/ Brother, I'm a grown up". The entire album resonates with a contempt towards those who think he's more "Gray-Z" than the super-cocky Jiggaman of 13 years ago.
On the album opener, "What We Talkin' About", he says it plain and simple: "We're talking about music/ I aint talking about rap/ Talking about retired/ I ain't talking about that/ The conversation is changing/ I don't run rap no more, I run the map." Admittedly, older rappers are notorious for disappearing once younger rappers appear. Just ask Young MC, LL Cool J and even MC Hammer. But the difference is that Jay-Z has put himself in a position, thanks to his business acumen, which enables him to engage with whichever credible movement has caught his attention lately. That alone will keep him relevant enough to keep brushing the dirt off his shoulders for years to come.
'The Blueprint 3' is released on 14 September on Roc Nation. Jay-Z performs at the Roundhouse, London NW1 on 17 September
SHRINK RAP: THE VERDICT FROM THE MICROPHONE
"I grew up with my older brother listening to hip-hop, and Jay-Z was the main person I listened to. When it comes to his wordplay, he's just out of this world. That's my biggest inspiration when it comes to writing lyrics."
Favourite track: "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" ("The Blueprint 3", 2009) – "That's what I'm listening to the most right now."
"He's the most successful rapper alive and aside from his talent musically, he's a very successful businessman. He's important because he's been around for the best part of just over a decade, so he's seen and taken part in all the changes and sounds that have happened to hip-hop."
Favourite track: "Encore" ("The Black Album", 2003) – "I feel that was Jay-Z at his peak."
"I think Jay-Z has the influence to change culture all across the world. He sets trends and he's made it cool to be his age. That's been a breath of fresh air to a lot of people."
Favourite track: "Can't Knock The Hustle" feat. Mary J Blige ("Reasonable Doubt", 1996) – "That's when he was super-fresh and that's when he was spitting a lot faster and what he was saying at the time was so relevant. It was so inspirational."
"I think Jay-Z is the epitome of flash. There were a lot of rappers before him, like Biggie, who would talk about how much money and how many girls they got, and I think that Jay-Z was very much influenced by that. With his rhyme style, Jay-Z is not a lazy lyricist. He doesn't try to fill up space. Every line is a punchline, and a hot line. I think I get that from him, just trying to not be lazy.
Favourite track: "Dead Presidents" ("Reasonable Doubt", 1997) – "He's so eloquent on that song and so smooth as well."
"Jay-Z has massive influence over the rap game because he was the first one who managed to bring a corporate role into the music world. He sold himself as a businessman as opposed to an artist, and everything he did was strategic towards getting more money – from the marketing to the kind of things he was talking about in his lyrics. I don't think any rapper alive has been able to market himself the way Jay-Z does. I've definitely taken a leaf out of his book in terms of selling more story on record."
Favourite track: "Wishing On A Star" ("In My Lifetime", Vol. 1", 1997) – "It's such an inspirational record, and when you listen to it, it kind of takes you to square one."