They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
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’!
Ed Sheeran – Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z / Alicia Keys cover)
This jangly pop cover of Jay and Alicia Keys’ ode to the City That Never Sleeps features a much bouncier chorus than the original. While Sheeran can’t flow as fast and furious as Hova, the way his voice soars when he shouts out Bob Marley’s name and the way he can turn an ode into a love letter earns him a great deal of forgiveness and much respect.
Amplify Dot – Holy Grail / (Doo Wop) That Thing (Jay-Z cover)
A two-fer featuring two hip hop legends by someone who could one day be one. South London MC Amplify Dot’s delivery makes these two tracks quintessentially English. Like fish, chips, cup o’ tea, bad food worse weather Mary Fucking Poppins London English, complete with pronouncing “th” as an “f” – but in this case, it works, and it’s a bit of alright, innit?
Halestorm – Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z / Alicia Keys cover)
Halestorm proves that they ♥ NY with this torchy cover of the Jay-Z/A. Keys hit. While Sheeran played it poppy and sweet, Halestorm’s lead singer Lzzy Hale howls, growls and gasps as if she’s trying to make her voice heard above cacophonous din of Manhattan city streets. The result is hard-knock hard rock that does the original justice.
Rita Ora – No Church In The Wild (Jay-Z / Kanye West cover)
British pop star Rita Ora’s take on this Jay/Kanye/Frank Ocean hit is much slinkier and more buoyant than the original. She hits all of Ocean’s notes perfectly and manages to capture Kanye’s swagger. While she may watch the throne, she daren’t approach it by spitting Jay-Z’s lines. This might have been a wise decision on Ora’s part, because if you come at the king, you best not miss.
Bonus: Jay-Z – Wonderwall/99 Problems (Oasis cover)
I used to think the Jay-Z line in “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me)” was a bit of a sly joke. “Both in the club/High, singing off key/And I wish I never met her at all.” Turns out – it’s not. Jigga man has the flow of the century and can spit bars of fire but dude cannot sing in tune. But that’s OK. Because when you see Jay-Z come out to the strains of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” – a gorgeous bit of English immortality better known than the national anthem – you don’t care about the key. You just care about being in the moment and singing along in a crowd of thousands. Luckily, he saves himself by launching into a blistering version of “99 Problems.” Hey, he’s got 99 problems and singing off key ain’t one.
For a fuller multimedia picture of Jay-Z, visit his Life + Times website.