The artist as entrepreneur: why Jay-Z’s billionaire status feels hollow

What’s the meaning of a life when it’s lived as one long commercial?

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The rapper Jay-Z is a billionaire now, and I suppose I’m supposed to be excited. Jay, 49, born Shawn Carter in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, New York, is the first hip-hop star in history to amass a fortune of this size, which is mildly shocking, considering the ubiquitousness of the genre around the world.

Modern acts like Migos and Travis Scott are the dominant musical voices of American life, which gives them a head-start in every other country on the planet. Before them, artists/moguls like Sean “Diddy” Combs and Master P sought to extend their brands into a variety of products, from clothing to alcohol. But none of them have made as much money as Jay-Z, who is now rich enough to get invited to the best orgies at Davos — the super secret ones where I bet murder is allowed.

Jay-Z’s gilded empire wasn’t just built on rhymes and catchy hooks. He didn’t simply start a clothing line, a liquor brand, a record label, a management company, or a streaming music service. He did all of those things and was hugely successful with most of them. In addition to his Rocawear apparel company, there’s Armand de Brignac champagne — a sparkling wine that comes in one of those gold-plated bottles they only seem to serve at nightclubs, since the gaudy packaging is easy for the common, gawping masses to spot from across the room. There’s also D’Usse, a cognac he co-owns with Bacardi. This is another beverage I’ve never seen anyone order, nor do they sell it at my local 7-Eleven, though I suppose that’s the point. If I knew what it was, it wouldn’t be worth having anymore.

The Forbes article announcing Jay-Z’s new billionaire status outlined the breadth of his wealth, but also the lengths to which Mr. Carter will go to guarantee a brand’s success. A Jay-Z record is not just a big-budget musical venture, it’s also an endlessly repeating advert for his business interests. Incessantly shouting out Rocawear in his music during the early 2000s allowed Jay-Z to sell the company for $204m in 2007. He did the same for D’Usse and Armand de Brignac, lending his gravitas and popular appeal to companies he had significant investments in.

After buying up a bunch of Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, Jay started peppering his lyrics with references to the late downtown New York artist, which made the value of his work skyrocket thanks to increased popularity. In essence, there is no longer a distinction between Jay-Z the artist and Jay-Z the entrepreneur. It’s all inexorably linked, with money and market share flowing from one end to the other. Jay-Z’s music is “We Are the World,” but instead of the charity raising money for starving African children, it’s raising money for Jay-Z.

I suppose I’m not sure why I’m supposed to feel this is such a spectacular achievement, and that I should be shooting fireworks out of all of my orifices in celebration, when the very idea of blind accumulation of wealth has never felt more hollow.

I will grant that building this level of wealth is incredibly rare for African-Americans, especially those who grew up in the projects, like Jay-Z did. It’s no accident I referenced “We Are the World,” a song written by African-Americans, but performed by primarily white musical acts in order to benefit a continent ravaged by white colonialism. Against all odds, hip-hop moguls like Jay-Z, Diddy, Drake, Kanye West, and others are making black music for black audiences that has transcended color and become mainstream pop culture at a moment when racial tension feels like it’s at a boiling point.

It takes not only skill, but dogged determination for a minority from an impoverished background to achieve such prosperity. The history of America is stained with slavery, segregation, and systemic racism. Jay-Z succeeded based on the arbitrary metrics we’ve set for what “success” means. It means having a lot of money, a private plane, an island or two, and some rare paintings shoved into a climate-controlled storage facility that you might never actually look at. An article on ESPN’s culture vertical The Undefeated describes Jay’s story as a “testament to the power of the black dollar.” The rise of Jay-Z might not be anywhere near as significant as the Obama presidency in the history of US black culture, but it serves the same narrative purpose. We’ve been given the ultimate African-American Horatio Alger tale: the street kid made good against all odds.

But it’s still the same story we’ve been telling in America for centuries, just with a different coat of paint. Financial success is what we’re all striving for, after all. Jay-Z certainly gives to worthy causes, but there’s still something rather grim about cheering like trained seals when someone becomes so rich that they make a half a million dollars just by rolling over on the other side of the bed in the morning. The supremely wealthy are like aliens with nipples where their fingertips should be — totally unknowable creatures who may or may not make milk come out of their nipple-fingers and that sustain themselves through the gaudy flaunting of excesses on a planet dangerously close to exhausting its most precious resources.

There’s no point in being rich without the flex associated with it. That’s why Drake flew to the Bahamas on a private jet with his name on it that ravenously consumes fossil fuels. According to TMZ, the jet in question retails for around $200m, though some sources say that it was a gift from the manufacturer. Why give a person a $200m plane for free? Well, when the person is Drake and the plane has your logo all over it, you’re talking about yet more free advertising, just like Jay-Z’s bars about cognac. What’s the meaning of a life when it’s lived as one long commercial? The longer I mope about this perilous existence, the more pervasive the notion that we must always be selling something. This is the endgame of American life: an airplane with your name on it.

Dave Schilling is a writer and humourist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Vice, and New York Magazine. He tweets @dave_schilling.