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Hard Truths

A drug lord's story reminded him of his own, so Jay-Z returned to the street-based tales of his past, hoping for a fresh connection with . . .

November 04, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — "SEE, that's Fort Greene right there, the projects, and I went to school right here -- this is George Westinghouse," says Jay-Z, looking through the window of his gray Rolls-Royce as it chauffeurs him into his past.

"Marcy Projects is about five minutes straight down," he says, pointing east toward the housing development where he lived as a youth. "See that? That's one thing I liked about going to school here," he adds with a smile, indicating a road sign that reads "Jay St."

Jay-Z, 37, doesn't return often to this Brooklyn neighborhood, where he grew up as Shawn Corey Carter. Stardom and wealth have taken him away to a Manhattan home and the globe-trotting life of a hip-hop star and major-label record executive.

It's his role as a recording artist that's brought him back on a warm fall day, to rehearse for a taping of the "VH1 Storytellers" show on a soundstage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As the car inches through late afternoon traffic, past the courts where he used to play basketball and the corners where he once sold drugs, he finds that his emotions are stirred.

"Yeah, man, it's the place that made me," he says softly.

As it happens, Jay-Z's physical homecoming parallels the artistic journey he made on his new album, "American Gangster," which comes out Tuesday.

Until recently, he had no plans to make a record, but when he got an early look at the movie "American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington as 1970s Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas, he was immediately inspired to create an album based on the film.

Sort of.

"The album is not about the film," explains the rapper, who completed the collection in a typically fast three weeks. "It connected with me on an emotional level. It was so similar to the neighborhoods that I came up in, and things that happened there. And Denzel's character as well . . . you know, his laid-back persona, that's pretty much how I am.

"It's really about the emotions of that life. I would take an emotion that I felt was important, or things that resonated with me . . . and make a song.

"But none of the emotions are current emotions. I mean, success is, because that's the thing that I've dealt with, but none of the songs are currently how I feel now. . . . It's like writing a book, going back to all these things, these emotions that I thought were buried. Because as a person you grow and you add layers on who you become. So I never thought that I would get back to that place.

"I didn't just want to go back to that place because it's the cool, popular thing to do. That seemed reckless to me. I think when you achieve a certain level of success, your job as a person who's reached the top of your field is to push it further -- try new, different things so people won't be afraid to. Not to play down."

Keeping it rolling

The car parks in the Navy Yard, now a busy business and industrial complex, and Jay-Z strolls toward the soundstage, dressed casually in loose jeans, white Nikes and a black "Crooks From Hell" T-shirt with a cartoonish design of a masked man behind bars.

He has a hug or a friendly fist-tap for crew members and other workers inside the building as his band warms up, but along with the easygoing approachability is an unmistakable air of stardom.

He wears that quality easily too. He's accustomed to it after a decade of consistent popularity, an unusually long run in the hip-hop world. He's sold around 25 million albums in the U.S., and such collections as "Reasonable Doubt" (from 1996), "The Blueprint" (2001) and "The Black Album" (2003) are among the consensus classics in the hip-hop canon.

Along with such common hip-hop perks as a clothing line, the success has also helped him win a girlfriend named Beyonce and, in 2004, the title of president and chief executive of Def Jam Recordings, the iconic rap label that's now part of the Universal Music Group and the home of such artists as Kanye West, Nas, Chingy and Beanie Sigel.

His track record in that office has been mixed, but all the old-line music companies are struggling these days, and at least he can point to the breaking of four new artists -- Rihanna, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross and Ne-Yo.

As an artist, Jay-Z's taste for the unpredictable led to a 2004 collaboration with Los Angeles rock band Linkin Park. A writing collaboration with Coldplay's Chris Martin on last year's "Kingdom Come" was less notable, and the album, which ended a three-year retirement, was the lowest-selling and worst-reviewed of his career, with much criticism directed toward his lyrics about luxury products and exclusive resorts.

Jay-Z dismisses the concerns, claiming to be proud of the work and satisfied with the sales of about 1.5 million. But as he gets ready to run through the seven new songs he'll perform on "Storytellers" (the show will be shown Thursday on VH1), you get the feeling he wouldn't mind making a point.

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