The American Dream is to be self-made. To carve out an identity wholly one’s own and to succeed beyond one’s wildest imagination.
The life and times of Shawn Carter are a blueprint of the American Dream and bear striking resemblance to one of modern American fiction’s greatest protagonists, Jay Gatsby.
Both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous parvenu and the Brooklyn-born MC sprung from conceptions of themselves – impoverished Midwestern teenager James Gatz morphed into the infamous Jay Gatsby while Shawn Carter took on the nom de rappeur Jay-Z.
Both knew the excesses and trappings of extraordinary wealth as young men and both fell in love with golden girl goddesses with voices full of money.
One noteworthy difference between Gatsby and Jay-Z?
Gatsby was a man, a mere mortal, damned and doomed from the onset, whereas Jay-Z is also Jay-Hova, and gods are not as easily felled.
Born in Bedford-Stuyvesant on December 4, 1969, Shawn Corey Carter was born in the projects amidst roaches, rats and a thriving drug culture. As a young teenager, he began selling crack cocaine as well as experimenting with music, banging out drum patterns, writing lyrics and freestyling rhymes. The latter got him attention. Now going by Jay-Z, the cocky young upstart battle rapped against fellow New York MC LL Cool J and worked as hype man for rap legend Big Daddy Kane.
Selling his CDs out of the trunk of his car, Jay-Z’s hustle paid off when he struck a distribution deal with Priority Records and released Reasonable Doubt in 1996. The album went on to reach #23 on the Billboard 200, sell 1.5 million units and be listed as one of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The release of Reasonable Doubt was the first step to a monstrously successful career. Signing with Def Jam Records in 1997 and a year later, released Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, featuring a title track which sampled the Broadway hit song “Hard Knock Life” from Annie. This became Jay’s most commercially successful album, selling over 5 million copies to date.
In 2003, Jay-Z retired from hip-hop to focus on a multitude of other ventures. Already the founder of multimillion-dollar clothing company Rocawear, Jay wanted to diversify. During this self-imposed exile, Jay recorded and toured with R. Kelly, released a collaborative album with rock band Linkin Park, and became president of Def Jam Records.
However, the lure of the mic proved to be too strong; two years later, Jay-Z released his comeback album, Kingdom Come. As the Man Himself said, “Can’t leave rap alone/The game needs me.”
In addition to dominating the charts and launching a vast empire including a basketball team (the Brooklyn Nets) and several successful real estate ventures, Jay-Z has also added husband and father to his resume. In 2008, he married pop diva Beyonce; four years later, he became father to Blue Ivy Carter, who at the age of two days became the youngest person to ever appear on the Billboard charts when her cries were featured on the Jay-Z track “Glory.”
Jay-Z started off hustling in the crack game; now he’s a multimillion who rocks Tom Ford and could actually be invited to one of Gatsby’s gleaming, dazzling parties. That is, if he wasn’t busy at his own lavish soiree.
The American Dream is more than just a diaphanous concept created to pander to the electorate or sell beer, trucks or McMansions.
The American Dream is the apotheosis of hope and Jay-Z is that hope made flesh.
Shawn Corey Carter escaped from the projects and as Jay-Z, he ran faster, stretched his arms out farther and now, his beat goes on.
So to the man who’s not a businessman but a business, man – Happy Birthday. You’re the eighth wonder of the world, the flow of the century, oh, you’re timeless. HOV’!
First published at Cover Me.