The first time the hip-hop artist and record executive Jay-Z witnessed a murder, he was 9 years old. It was 1978, and in those days, he was known as Shawn Carter—a quiet kid who lived with his mother and three siblings in a sprawling housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
"That was my apartment right there—5C," Jay-Z told me one afternoon in August as we strolled the sidewalks of the Marcy Houses. "Navigating this place was life-or-death." He wasn't exaggerating; as the crack epidemic took hold in the 1980s, 13-year-old Jay-Z began selling drugs. His father had abandoned the family when Jay-Z was 11. And like many of his friends, he found his role models in the neighborhood dealers. "On the streets, you had to operate with integrity," he told me. "If you broke your word to someone, he wasn't going to take you to court—he was going to deal with you himself. So it was here in the projects that I learned loyalty."
It was in the projects, too, that he began rapping. Around the neighborhood Shawn became known as Jazzy—a reference, he says, to the way he carried himself: "like an older guy, like an older spirit." He gained a local following after he started selling his own records out of his car. And in 1996—disenchanted with the small-time label that finally signed him—he launched his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records. Later that year, Reasonable Doubt
hit stores nationwide, and Jay-Z (the play on Jazzy he'd adopted after that name started to feel "too glittery") was on his way.
Since then, Jay-Z has released ten solo studio albums (the most recent, The Blueprint 3,
debuted on September 11, 2009). He has sold more than 30 million records, won seven Grammys, and built a business empire that includes the Rocawear clothing line and Roc Nation entertainment company. In 2004 he became a part owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
In December he will turn 40, and in recent years his focus has been on more than just his career. In 2003 he reconciled with his father, Adnes Reeves, shortly before Reeves's death. That same year, he began to put his wealth to good use, founding the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund for disadvantaged and formerly incarcerated youth who hope to attend college (though Jay-Z never did time himself, in 2001 he pleaded guilty to stabbing a record executive at a Manhattan nightclub and was sentenced to three years' probation). In 2006 he teamed up with the United Nations to raise awareness of the worldwide water shortage. And in 2008, after six years of dating, he married the singer Beyoncé Knowles.
After our walk through the Marcy projects, Jay-Z and I visit a three-story row house a few blocks away. The house used to belong to his grandmother, and until he was 5, Jay-Z lived here with his parents, three siblings, and extended family. As we sit on the front stoop chatting (the same spot where, Jay-Z says, he spent long summer evenings "just chillin'"), the passersby who spot him form a crowd on the sidewalk; several boys climb the iron fence that surrounds the property. "Is that really Jay-Z?" one boy says to another. "Yep—and he's from here," the other responds.
Sitting on this stoop, it's stunning to think about how far Jay-Z has come. Not only is he an entirely self-made man, he's found his great success doing exactly what he loves. He is thoughtful and intelligent, a reader and a seeker. And in between telling me how he survived life on the streets, how a scolding from his mother helped him fall in love, and even how he and Beyoncé managed to keep their wedding small and private, he explains why he cares so much about connecting with kids who remind him of him—kids he hopes will point to his photo and say, "I can make it, too." Start reading Oprah's interview with Jay-Z