As you'd expect from someone who has just scored his second No. 1 album in a row, rapper Jay-Z's manner is relaxed and good-natured during an interview--until he's asked about being arraigned on charges of stabbing a rap record executive in a New York nightclub.
Before the question is even finished, the 29-year-old Brooklyn native snaps, "I can't talk about that."
That answer has become as familiar in rap circles in recent years as the standard pledge of street authenticity: "Keep it real."
More than a half-dozen major rap figures have been charged with violent crimes since the music became a dominant part of the pop scene in the '90s--including Sean "Puffy" Combs, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Snoop Dogg, Marion "Suge" Knight and the late Tupac Shakur.
But there's little evidence that any of that behavior has hurt record sales.
Jay-Z's fourth album, "Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter" (his given name is Shawn Carter), entered the nation's pop charts at No. 1 on Jan. 5, selling more than 460,000 copies during its first week in stores. That's up 30% over the first-week sales in 1998 of Jay-Z's third album, "Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life," which went on to sell an estimated 4.6 million copies and win a Grammy for best rap album.
Jay-Z even boasts that he could have had bigger first-week sales with "Vol. 3" if he had catered to pop radio and released a duet with Mariah Carey that appears on the album as a single.
"In the marketplace, Jay-Z's [legal problems] will make absolutely no difference to record buyers," says Bill Adler, a veteran rap industry consultant. "If they hear about it, they won't care. And as long as he continues to sell records, his partners in the music business won't care either."
Jay-Z was arrested in December for allegedly stabbing a rival record executive at a party in New York. He was recently arraigned on assault charges.
But even if album buyers don't seem fazed by the mounting arrest records in rap, there is increasing talk within the record industry about major labels eventually drawing a line and distancing themselves from violence-prone acts.
Jay-Z--whose Roc-a-Fella label is a joint venture with Seagram, whose music empire also includes such high-profile rap artists as Dr. Dre, DMX and Eminem--doesn't think the music conglomerates will ever draw that line.
"When you're part of rap, anything that happens definitely is going to be related back to rap, which is unfair," he says, sitting in a record company office in West Hollywood.
"It doesn't happen with any other genre of music. When Michael Jackson has a problem, [people] aren't like, 'Pop music is [expletive] up.' That never happens. These are just individual problems. It's not hip-hop's problem.
"You've got to realize that [rap] is something that people hoped would go away, that it would just be a fad. There's always going to be something, but we're always going to be here and we're always going to get around it and keep moving on. The music is too strong and it represents too many people."
Except for his defense of rap, Jay-Z shrugs off all questions about his arrest. He doesn't seem particularly defensive or worried about potential jail time.
In many fields, any link with violent behavior would almost certainly result in an employee or executive being fired or suspended until the matter was resolved in court. But record companies say they are powerless to act until a conviction because of contractual provisions in the artists' recording contracts. If Jay-Z is convicted on assault charges, Seagram could cut ties with the rapper by claiming a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in their contracts, sources have said.
Outwardly at least, however, Jay-Z, who is due back in court on Jan. 31, seems totally focused on his multifaceted career, which also includes a clothing line (Roca Wear) and a two-picture deal with Miramax. The studio is scheduled to release a documentary this spring that was filmed during last year's "Hard Knock Life" tour with DMX.
Jay-Z is among the most respected rappers, someone whose mix of detail and humor in his street-based narratives is paired with a musically ambitious sound. His conversational rapping style has enabled him to connect both with industry professionals who vote for the Grammys as well as young pop and rap fans.
It's a sign of his musical range that he can convincingly tour with DMX, whose music is built around a far more abrasive style of rap than Jay-Z's, and record with someone as mainstream as Carey.
That's a delicate balance, and one that Jay-Z seems intent on maintaining. It may have made business sense to release the duet with Carey, "Things That U Do," as the first single from the new album. The likely radio exposure from that track might have added considerably to the collection's first-week sales.
Instead, Jay-Z released the gritty "Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)," which features virtually unknown rappers Amil and Beanie Sigel.
Jay-Z--who grew up in a Brooklyn housing project and has alluded to drug dealing as a teenager--points to the decision as an artistic statement.
"That's what an artist is supposed to do--things that people didn't expect them to do," he says.
"Why are we here if we can't push the envelope, do different things? We're not here to do everything that's expected of us."