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Jay Z, playing in the brand

“Shawn Corey Carter epitomizes the essence of the American entrepreneurial spirit.”

OK. That’s Steve Forbes, offering praise to a fellow capitalist of the uber-successful variety. Nothing surprising there.

Thing is, Shawn Corey Carter is not a real estate developer, head of a multinational corporation or semiretired billionaire with an eye on political office. He is a man better known as Jay Z – a rapper and former drug dealer from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The fact that a personage of such impeccable conservative credentials as Forbes is singing the praises of a rap star tells us just how far the idiom has come since its early ’80s genesis as a form of street poetry birthed by the urban underclasses. Hip-hop has officially been welcomed into the mainstream. Forbes’ signing off on Jay Z’s entrepreneurial acumen is to hip-hop what Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley in the Oval Office was to rock ’n’ roll – at once, a stamp of approval and a stripping of virility.

And yet, Jay Z, who arrives for a performance at 8 tonight in the First Niagara Center, remains perhaps the most successful symbol extant of hip-hop’s relevance to several generations of listeners. He’s turned his success as a recording artist into Donald Trump-level bucks, but somehow, Jay Z has retained enough “street cred” to remain an artist who matters to listeners who are unlikely to haunt his tax bracket any time in the future.

So how did Shawn Corey Carter, crack dealer, become Jay Z, hip-hop empire-builder? Forbes, writing in the foreword to Zack O’Malley’s 2012 book “Empire State Of Mind,” cites the rapper’s “passion; knack for imagining what doesn’t exist,” “iron-willed self-discipline,” “desire to control as much of (his) destiny as possible”and “ability to bounce back from setbacks” as the reasons for Jay Z’s success. These qualities were learned during his successful tenure as a crack dealer, Jay Z told Vanity Fair last year.

Forbes’ version of this “crack to riches” story is suspect, simply because it so obviously serves Forbes’ own belief in the unquestionable supremacy of free market capitalism and the attainability of the American Dream for any and every one willing to work hard. Down here in Realityville, such success stories are much harder to come by. Jay Z did work hard, but he also was incredibly lucky. Natural talent didn’t hurt him, either.

The short version goes something like this: While building a mini-empire as a drug dealer, Jay Z began developing his considerable talents as a freelance rhymer on Bed-Stuy street corners. Unable to garner major label interest for recordings of his burgeoning gifts, he started his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, and recorded his 1996 debut effort, “Reasonable Doubt.” Its startlingly fresh take on East Coast rap – coupled with its disarmingly frank, autobiographical narratives – pushed the album to No. 23 on the Billboard charts.

That success caught the attention of the Island Def Jam hip-hop conglomerate, and it duly ponied up $1.5 million to purchase a 50 percent share of Roc-A-Fella. Jay Z went from independent artist to millionaire rather abruptly, but he was far from finished burying his desperate hand-to-mouth upbringing. With his Island Def Jam money, the rapper diversified into the area of the sartorial, launching the RocWear clothing line, which, wouldn’t you know it, started turning massive profits right out of the gate.

For his next trick, Jay Z sold his remaining 50 percent of Roc-A-Fella to Island Def Jam for $10 million and, shortly thereafter, sold the rights to RocWear for a figure in excess of $200 million. Right around this time, he married girlfriend Beyoncé, an artist who was worth an estimated $500 million.

By this point, it was pretty much Jay Z and Beyoncé’s world, and the rest of us just lived in it. A stake in the creation of the Brooklyn Nets franchise and the launching of sports and artist management agency Roc Nation – with clients such as former New York Yankee Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia and pop star Shakira – placed the last few bricks in the Jay Z empire.

Who can fault the man for his apotheosis from street criminal to highly successful capitalist? No one.

But whatever your take on rabid capitalist endeavors may be, it is a certainty that Jay Z is emblematic of hip-hop’s turn away from the streets and toward the boardrooms. Consider this: Forbes magazine declared Diddy (aka Puff Daddy, aka P Diddy, aka Sean Combs) and Jay Z to be the two highest-paid hip-hop artists of 2013. At that point, Diddy hadn’t released an album under his own name in nearly four years. He makes most of his money from his own clothing line, signature perfumes and colognes and restaurants.

How long will it be before Jay Z becomes more active as a businessman than as a rapper? And will his fans, few of whom are likely to know anything about the world Jay Z inhabits, still be able to relate to him?

Like it or not, we’ve come a long way from freelance rhymes on street corners.


Jay Z featuring Timbaland, part of Magna Carter World Tour, plays at 8 tonight at First Niagara Center. Tickets are $125, $99.50, $59.50 and $39.50. Info:

The best of Jay Z

Increasingly renowned as an entrepreneur, Jay Z is in fact one of hip-hop’s truly great record-makers. It was the money earned from his brilliant 1996 debut album, wisely invested, that put the first brick in his entrepreneurial empire. Though last year’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” was a bit of a confusing mess, artistically speaking, Jay Z has undoubtedly made some of the strongest rap albums of the past 20 years. Several of them are considered stone-cold classics of the form. Here are three flawless gems in the Jay Z crown.

“Reasonable Doubt” (1996)

The introduction of the gritty realism that would come to define Jay Z’s best work. A tough, dense, muscular sound and a new high watermark in the evolution of East Coast hip-hop.

“The Blueprint” (2001)

Released during the week of the Sept. 11 attacks, this album might have been lost in the shuffle of national mourning. Instead, its forward-looking blend of well-known and obscure samples from the history of soul and R&B, coupled with Jay Z’s increasingly imposing baritone voice and its distinctive rhythmic cadences, pushed the album to platinum heights. Rolling Stone named it one of the 10 best albums of 2001. For once, they weren’t wrong.

“The Black Album” (2003)

This is the one that even folks who didn’t consider themselves hip-hop fans had to acknowledge. Presented at the time as its creator’s farewell gesture just before retiring from rap – a brilliant move that, in its own way, echoed the Who’s proclivity for suggesting that each tour would be the group’s last – the album all but single-handedly launched the “mash-up” craze. Beneath the considerable bluster lies the heart of a hip-hop visionary who also happens to be an unfailingly shrewd businessman.

– Jeff Miers