Almost three decades in the public eye, JAY‑Z is one of the most powerful figures in pop culture. As he launches a new campaign with Puma, the 51‑year‑old music mogul grants a rare audience to Louis Wise
A little tip for you guys: when you interview an A-lister, make sure you have Zoom Pro? I’m 20 minutes into my encounter with one of the greatest cultural icons of the past 25 years, a man whose initial fame as a rapper has been doubled, tripled, quadrupled by his influence in sports, politics, and fashion, his status as hip-hop’s first billionaire and, yes, as Beyoncé’s husband. He is holding forth, one of the very few times he ever does press, especially in this past year, and suddenly the message comes up on my screen: “Your meeting will expire in 15 minutes unless you upgrade.” Oh, gawd.
How would you tell Shawn Carter, as he was born, that you quickly need to pay a much-resented £140 to keep this going beyond 40 minutes? Speaking to me from the vast terrace of his £65 million home in Bel Air, with sun- loungers and red and pink bougainvillea gleaming quietly behind him in the morning sun, Carter looks resolutely fresh-faced and casual at 51, clad in a blue zip-up Puma sports jacket, his hair, in short, loose dreads. I mean, obviously, he’s wearing Puma, because the other person zooming in is Bjorn Gulden, the CEO of the sportswear giant, as well as their two respective publicists (although silent and invisible). Carter is here to discuss the brand’s new summer campaign, Only See Great. What does it mean? I’m still not sure — but if it got you a bit nearer to Beyoncé’s sunlounger, wouldn’t you?
Gulden is no small cheese, to be clear: since he took over Puma in 2013, the chatty, no-nonsense fiftysomething Norwegian has guided it back to relevance, an acclaimed 2015 partnership with Rihanna onwards. Not that I’m allowed to mention that: I am told beforehand that Carter will not speak about any other artists or their business ventures, and we are asked that JAY-Z be written in caps (he changed it in 2017).
Carter with Beyoncé and their children, Blue Ivy, and twins Sir and Rumi, in a 2019 documentary ABC/BACKGRID
Anyway — what’s he like? Well — nice. Affable, serious but up for a joke. Perhaps the best sign is how he reacts when I finally admit to both men, after minutes of silent panicking, that I just quickly need to stop them in order to pay Zoom the sodding money. If Gulden looks a bit dismayed, Carter remains resolutely chill. “This is a good time to upgrade,” he smiles. Perhaps he’s in a particularly good mood because he has come straight from the gym, although today was leg day. Is that the worst day? “You have ever seen my legs?” (Carter is 6ft 2in.) “They’re horrible. So of course!”
That Only See Great slogan, then. Essentially it is the “tagline” to encourage a wave of positivity as we emerge from last year’s grimness, timed to coincide with big sporting events like the Olympics and the Euros. “We have to bounce back and we have to be great and we have to rebuild,” Carter says. “I’m forever an optimist.” It is broadly pegged on his simple, repeated assertion that “I only see great, I don’t settle”, and in fairness, his CV bears this out. Having risen from poverty in Brooklyn’s projects to pop-culture royalty, after a violent childhood and youth funded by drug dealing, he got into the music industry by founding his own rap label, Roc-A-Fella, in 1996, aged 26 (nobody would sign him). He quickly ascended: his 2001 album, The Blueprint, is still heralded as one of the best of all time. He has more Grammys than any other rapper (23). Add to those achievements like founding the behemoth entertainment agency Roc Nation and investments in sports teams, music streaming, even marijuana recently. But in the immediate I want to know what his life has been like this past year, living with his wife and three children — Blue Ivy, nine, and twins Sir and Rumi, who will be four in June. At one point Carter suddenly stops himself and coos at someone passing off camera. “Hiii, beautiful!” He blows kisses. “That’s my youngest daughter, Rumi.” How has lockdown been?
“In the beginning, it was time for everyone to sit down and really connect, and really focus on family and being together, and take this time to learn more about each other,” he says. “And then, as it wore on, it’s like, ‘OK, all right, what is the new normal?’ ” Carter is broadly an optimist, but he is still cautious about how life will change post-Covid. It’s not clear when he will perform live again (“I’m not planning it, but I’m definitely missing it”). But family, he repeats, “is your foundation”. In fact, he goes on, “feeling loved is the most important thing a child needs, you know? Not ‘Here’s this business that I’m going to hand over to you, that I’m creating for you.’ What if my child doesn’t want to be in music or sports? I have no idea, right? But as long as your child feels supported, and feels loved, I think anything is possible.”
It’s funny he mentions that, because the Carter children’s destiny does seem somehow set: after all, Blue Ivy last month became the second-youngest person to bag a Grammy, for her mother’s Brown Skin Girl video (she had a writing credit). Surely, however much he may want his kids to have normal lives, it’s essentially impossible — they have such a huge legacy to live up to. How do they negotiate that? “Yeah,” he acknowledges. “Just make sure we provide a loving