I'll admit it: I came late to the Jay-Z party. As a 1990's adherent of the Roots and the Pharcyde, I wasn't trying to hear that sound or feel that flow. But after hearing the "waved away picks" lick a couple dozen times, I was finally convinced that I might need to investigate.
While the other East Coast Dons of hip-hop -- Russell Simmons, Sean Combs, and Jermaine Dupri -- all rose from the producer ranks, Jay-Z can only be compared to his West Coast counterpart Dr. Dre, who was first a performer before becoming his own brand. But while Dre remains famous as a maestro of beats and hooks, Jay-Z's career has taken the path of the straight-ahead American Dream: from hustling drugs on Brooklyn street corners to heavy rotation on MTV to being tapped as CEO of Def Jam -- hand-picked by Antonio "L.A." Reid to become the future of one of the biggest outfits in music, Island Def Jam Recordings. Jay-Z, known to his mama as Shawn Carter, is Berry Gordy, Tony Hawk, and Steve Jobs all in one. He didn't invent the game; he just figured out a way to make it look easy.
Most importantly, S. Carter has what they call "the vision thing." Other black music industry heavyweights have tested the waters of the crossover market by expanding their repertoires to include white artists. Few have done so more successfully than Jay-Z. When Fall Out Boy paid homage to Jay-Z in last year's VMA acceptance speech, it was no accident. Neither was Rick Rubin's cameo in the "99 problems" video. With Rocawear, co-ownership of the N.J. (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets, endorsement of Hewlett Packard, even a New York Times ad, Jay-Z, like the true media mogul that he is, has diversified into whatever ventures will expand his slice of the pop pie.
When he styled himself "the black Brad Pitt," Jay-Z was mainly referencing his prowess with the ladies. But his persona is starting to take on other Pitt-like attributes. In both cases, their celebrity is so all-encompassing that their art is now an afterthought. We still go to see Pitt's movies and buy Jay-Z's records, but really, most people are just checking out what these cats are doing in their free time.
Pitt took his family vacation in Namibia to draw attention to the AIDS crisis in Africa. Not to be outdone, Jay-Z partnered with MTV and Kofi Annan to launch the United Nations' Water for Life campaign. Pitt publicly refuses to marry baby mama Angelina Jolie until gays and lesbians can legally wed. Jay-Z drops Cristal (preferred bubbly of the bling demographic) from his chain of nightclubs after the chairman of Cristal's parent company decried the ghetto fabulous appeal of the $200-a-bottle champagne. If a few more superstars get into the act, by this time next year we might cure cancer, end the war, and get Survivor off the air.
There are two directions Jay-Z can go from here. He can continue to cycle in and out of his "grown and sexy" Brioni-suit wearing record exec role and occasionally don the Marley t-shirt and Nike A1s, like he did last year when he collaborated with Linkin Park to turn in the best performance at last year's Live 8 concert in Philly. There's nothing wrong with that. But what if Jay-Z ran for president? I mean, the bar is set pretty low at this point.
Granted, he probably doesn't have the subject matter expertise to head up a cabinet-level department. But the specific job of president is fast becoming a figurehead position -- an über-spokesmodel for this or that point of view (James Madison would be so proud). I guarantee you that George P. Bush (you know, the Latino pretty boy who disappeared after the 2000 election?) will be running about 10-12 years from now, so why not Jay-Z? If he wanted to, he could easily win a Congressional seat in NYC, bide his time until Republicans run some gimmick candidate, then Democrats counter with "H to the Izzo ..."
After all, Jay-Z got club kids to pull their pants up, he won't ever stutter on the microphone, his future wife is the Jacqueline Bouvier of the 21st century, and he has the Clintonian touch that we seem to be missing in foreign affairs. I can see him now: fresh-pressed, white guayabera shirt, summer weight slacks, Gucci sandals and a lit Cohiba robusto, walking down Main Street in Baghdad with Beyoncé, Chelsea Clinton, and Zara Sheikh, sampling the local cuisine, low five-ing little kids, and dapping-up street vendors. Then, sitting down for a libation with politicians and clergy, all of whom ask President Shawn Carter to autograph their copies of The Blueprint. You never know ...
Read more about Water for Life at www.un.org/waterforlifedecade.