Jay-Z Is About to Redefine What a Man’s Fifties Look Like

Shawn Carter has rewritten the playbook and outgrown men twice his age. Does a billionaire have anything left to prove?

Illustration: Jacob Rochester

TThe year Shawn Carter turned 20 (1989) was the year Jay-Z was born. A peripatetic hustler, he’d been running the streets, running from poverty — a quest that also helped him outrun, if unwittingly, an early demise. His mentor, Jaz-O, had been sent to London by his record label to record his debut album, and brought along his talented protege. While Jay was overseas, federal officers raided the illegal narcotics trade his band of brothers had going back home, shattering the business and sending much of his cohort to face the judicial system. That European trip took Shawn Carter away so that Jay-Z could remain.

A man’s twenties are for testing hypotheses of success, for seeing what sticks. Not Jay. Even as a teenager, the young entrepreneur was exercising the third-eye foresight that would guide him towards a legacy of transformative craft and unprecedented black business. Despite being wealthier than the elders in his life, he never ceded to contentment, or to his commitment to becoming the greatest rapper alive. Over the subsequent decades, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter survived it all: the crack era, Rockefeller Laws, start-up pains, an assault charge, a declining recording industry, infidelity, aging in a young artist’s game, even the fast-expiring limitations of bravado itself. His reward? Walking into his fifties the most accomplished African American born since the Nixon Administration.

A man’s thirties are for realizing he has painted by the numbers long enough, and for beginning to seek a new kind of agency. That’s the time when men commit to the man they intend to become — a greater feat for men of color, as we’re told at every turn who and what we are. Not Jay. He’d already realized that signing to someone else’s record label was a scenic road towards the riches, and co-founded Roc-a-Fella Records at the ripe old age of 26.

In his thirties he found his legend. Already a double platinum superstar, he went on to make The Blueprint, a perfect hip-hop album, in an astounding two weeks’ time — purely from memory. The project kid who began his studio career rhyming over samples from his mother’s record collection had finally found his soul’s sound. (Much credit due, of course, to the early genius of new in-house producers Kanye West and Just Blaze.)

Securing a number one spot in one’s thirties is already a rare achievement, and two mammoths of the moment looked posed to endanger Hov’s path to supremacy. Eminem was a foe on the charts; Nas, his nemesis on the streets. So Jay declared war on one (“Takeover”) and invited the other (“Renegade”) to help raise the stock of what eventually became his finest work.

Yet, while Jay’s thirties witnessed his peak as performer, only half his greatness was produced inside a studio. Normally men don’t begin reckoning with their own toxic patterns until their forties. Not Jay. The evolution of Shawn Carter allowed Jay-Z to become reverential instead of merely exceptional. The thirty-something Carter lowered emotional walls (“Song Cry”) and shed expired behavior (see “Hey Papi”), exposing fans to his most human version. The progression brought him to what he claimed with regularity was the elusive catch: Love. At an age where many men are dragging through divorce, Jay won Beyonce’s Midas hand in marriage. Shawn Carter isn’t the breathing statue he is today without a generational icon as his better half.

Truth is, Jay’s thirties packed in more living than most people’s entire existence. Those years saw him commit some of his grandest mistakes and endure transformative growth pains, all in the public eye. After the otherwise even-keeled Carter stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera at a Q-Tip album release party — over bootlegging or Charli Baltimore, depending on who you ask — he spent much of 2001 in court facing a 15-year prison sentence. (He ultimately escaped with three years of probation and the knowledge that anyone profiled on 60 Minutes can’t live by the street code. Today’s streets are watching with smartphones and TMZ cameras.)

Missteps like the collaboration tour with R. Kelly and his rocky transition from Roc-A-Fella CEO to President of Def Jam Records presented Jay with a necessary mirror. While much of his rise came in opposition of life’s polar winds, he never swam against the process. He accepted that he outgrew friends and business partners, even when they were one and the same, and even when they’d helped launch his career. He formed strategic alliances with those who knew more than him: the Steve Stoutes and Lyor Cohens of the world. He smartened up, then opened up the market. If people once viewed Roc-A-Fella Records as the 2004 Cavaliers — Lebron and a bunch of nondescript role players — now it was a superteam, buoyed by stars like Camron and Kanye.

Normally a man hits his forties at his cognitive best. Not Jay. He’d spent his entire life outsmarting everyone from corner boys to corporate CEOs to himself; at 40, he hovered with a senior’s wisdom, his status irrevocably emeritus.

All the while, he was leveraging his prominence to change the culture. From effectively ending hip-hop’s love affair with Cristal to shaming Auto-Tuners, from precipitating the downfall of oversized jerseys to breaking Elvis Presley’s record for number-one albums. He even had the audacity to aim for his own shade of blue. What person of color owns a color? What man retires in his mid-thirties — then un-retires to inform the world that 30 is the new 20?

When December 4th, 2009 arrived, Jay-Z was light years ahead of past and present peers. With life’s winds now on his back instead of against his chest, he used his career’s most benevolent momentum to accrue business normally achieved by elderly white men (see NFL deal). A black man retaining full ownership of his masters, becoming part owner of a sports franchise that built its new arena across the street from his former apartment, and founding today’s most influential record label simply reveals God’s penmanship.

Normally a man hits his forties at his cognitive best. Not Jay. He’d spent his entire life outsmarting everyone from corner boys to corporate CEOs to himself; at 40, he hovered with a senior’s wisdom, his status irrevocably emeritus. But while this was the most complete Shawn Carter, it was still an imperfect one. His forties became a time to redeem his earlier self, to achieve an evolved balance of masculinity and femininity. Whether the issue required therapy, a No ID-produced public confessional, speaking on Colin Kaepernick’s behalf, or staying poised while his sister-in-law blacked on him in an elevator, Jay showed his best no matter the situation. He was now moving with America’s highest currency: Privilege.

With Jay, time was always of the essence. Forever a student of his counterparts in the culture, he knew he could’ve easily been one of those outliers who never reached the heights their massive wings promised. Earl Manigault. Billie Holiday. Basquiat. Big L. Jay never let the clock catch him.

What’s left to conquer when you’ve become an African American billionaire before crossing the half-century mark? That third comma means you’re now playing with much more than house money; that’s plantation currency. You’ve gifted your ancestors a new legacy, and your family a freedom afforded only to a single percentile of every Black person that’s ever occupied U.S. soil. Blue Ivy will travel more of the globe by age 10 than her father did before age 30. Rumi can attend any educational institution her dreams desire. Sir won’t need a wicked jump shot nor his father’s flow to avoid the sand traps of white supremacy. They were born where the road to riches concludes.

Yet, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter may be entering waters more dangerous than the ones that surrounded Marcy Projects in his formative years. On “Young Black & Gifted,” he boasted of being “America’s worst nightmare.” Now, on the eve of his 50th birthday, he’s just that: A generational change agent with white-man money and an emperor’s grip on Black culture. Jay-Z has made prison reform cool and black-owned a mandate. The next Black president will need his cosign to get elected. If you’re not convinced this is God’s work, just ask yourself: How many of the world’s billionaires come from city housing?

There’s a reason he’s called Hov. Just thought I’d remind y’all.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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