The Longform Guide to Jay-Z
His biggest fan, his relentlessness, his wife, and his lyrics parsed by a law professor—the many sides of Jay-Z.
Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Moet Rose.
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The most-read story on Longform this week? Zadie Smith’s profile of Jay-Z for T Magazine. Wasn’t even close. Here’s “The House That Hova Built,” plus four more on Jay-Z from our archive.
Zadie Smith • T Magazine • September 2012
On his enduring relevance.
“He’s not late. He’s dressed like a kid, in cap and jeans, if he said he was 30 you wouldn’t doubt him. (He’s 42.) He’s overwhelmingly familiar, which is of course a function of his fame —rap superstar, husband of Beyoncé, minority owner of the Nets, whose new home, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, will open this month—but also of the fact he’s been speaking into our ears for so long. No one stares. The self-proclaimed ‘greatest rapper alive’ is treated like a piece of the furniture. Ah, but there’s always one: a preppy white guy discreetly operating his iPhone’s reverse-camera function. It’s an old hustle; it makes Jay chuckle: ‘They think they’re the first one who’s ever come up with that concept.’ ”
Caleb Mason • Saint Louis University School of Law • July 2012
A scholarly look at the 2004 hit.
“Jay-Z says that, in the actual incident, the drugs were concealed in a hidden compartment built into the sunroof of the car. In the video, the drugs are in three briefcases in the trunk, and the stop occurs on a surface street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. As he suggests both in the book and in the song, he was probably targeted by the New Jersey police for fitting a drug courier profile. Law students have to learn the hard lesson that racial profiling does not give rise to a Fourth Amendment suppression claim if there was objective probable cause for the stop. For example, suppose a police department systematically pulled over every black driver who exceeded the speed limit, while letting all the white speeders go. If contraband was legitimately found in a black driver’s car during the stop, he would not have a suppression claim based on the fact that the department systematically targeted black drivers. Those claims do have remedies—Fourteenth Amendment remedies—and most importantly, political remedies. They don’t, however, have Fourth Amendment remedies, which means there won’t be any suppression. The U.S. Supreme Court made this explicit in Whren v. United States back in 1996: If there is objective probable cause for a stop, the courts may not inquire into the officer’s subjective motivation as a basis for a Fourth Amendment suppression claim.”
Terry Gross • Fresh Air • November 2010
A transcript of an interview timed to the release of Jay-Z’s book, Decoded.
“GROSS: And it just changed everything for you because you - and you write about this in the book and, you know, you've rapped about it, too. You ended up being a hustler. You ended up selling crack and helping your mother, as a single mother, support the family. Did she know that's how you were making the money?
“JAY-Z: I'm sure she suspected, you know, as much, because it was so prevalent. What happened was, it was either you were using it or selling it, and that was pretty much the two options. I know there was--and that's a very blanket statement. I know it was a very small percentage that, you know, had nothing to do with drugs—maybe-- in their household but, you know, the brother or sister, somebody-- the uncle, the aunt--it was just so prevalent. You know, you could smell it in the hallways. You could see crack vials in the elevator, on the curb, you know, where the water flows; crack vials floating up and down like a river or something. It was just everywhere.
“GROSS: So you'd seen how it really damaged people - crack - and then when you started selling it, did you ever think, I'm contributing to that damage.
“JAY-Z: Oh, not until later on. You know, at 14, 15 years old, you know, you're thinking about-- to be honest with you, you're thinking about sneakers, or you're thinking about some sort of relief from all the pain you feeling. You're thinking about buying some food for the house. You're thinking about paying the extra light bill. So at that young age, you're not thinking about the destruction that you're causing your own community.”
Dream Hampton • Vibe • December 1998
An early profile.
“ ‘I was never a worker,’ says Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter. ‘And that's not even being arrogant. I was just never a worker.’ Jay, who made his fortune a decade before the release of his debut, 1996's Reasonable Doubt, isn't exactly forth-coming about his past. You half expect him to pat you down or check the hotel room smoke detector for cameras—and I've known him for a little while. We both knew and loved Big, and became friends because of him. ‘My situation—’ He restarts, tensely, ‘I went out of town, not far, to Jersey. Me and my man. We was pioneering some shit. I was never around the Calvin Kleins, 'cause to be around them you would have to be under them. You weren't going to be over them. That would have been conflict.’ ”
John Herrman • Buzzfeed • July 2012
David Johnson's unrequited correspondence with Jay-Z.
“Consider, then, what it must have been like to find out — or at least come to sincerely believe — that Jay-Z was reading those emails. Not just one or two, but all of them, sometimes more than once. To believe this is to believe that you have the ear of a man who millions of people admire, and that you've become a part of his life. To believe that what you were typing in Davis was reaching a hero of yours as he roamed the world. To believe this is to believe that you have a deeply strange but nonetheless real relationship with Jay-Z.
“Ten, 20, or 50 years ago, this kind of interaction really could be only interpreted in one way. The power of the fan letter has always been directly correlated with the sender’s power of imagination, and will to believe. There were the people who sent one or two letters, and then fell prey to a sense of futility. There are those that sent more, never really believing they were getting read but never knowing for sure that they weren’t. Then, there were the stalkers.”
Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.