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 environment, be very attentive to who they want to be. It’s easy for us, as human beings, to want our children to do certain things, but we have no idea. We’re just guides.” He mostly goes to the gym, he chuckles, “just to be able to catch my children on the lawn. Those are my goals.” Is that still easy? “Now it is, but Blue is nine — she’s not a baby anymore.”
RAVEN B VARONA
“If anything came from this,” he says of Covid, “it’s that we have to recognize that we’re all connected. It’s a metaphor for how connected we are.” But what feels even more pertinent is the Black Lives Matter movement, and this is something where the Puma connection comes into play. The brand has a long and illustrious history of sponsoring Black sports talent, which Carter flags up. He mentions Tommie Smith, who caused a furore at the 1968 Olympics by making the Black Power salute as he stood on the podium with his gold. In the famous photo he’s got his Puma trainers with him. Gulden reveals proudly that he set up meetings between Smith and Carter. Smith’s gesture was particularly strong, says Carter, “because he did it at a time when it was not popular. Today you can see the support — back then you’re risking your life, risking everything, you know?”
I nod, but at the same time that gesture was more than 50 years ago now. Considering what we have seen recently — considering, as Carter points out, that the trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder is “happening today, right now” — is it not frustrating that there is still a long way to go? “Yes,” he replies. “As a human race we’re still on basic things,” he sighs, meaning people’s appearances. “We’re still on Stop Asian Hate. We can’t sit and cry over spilt milk, but we do have to acknowledge that there’s milk, right?” A rueful laugh. “But yes, to answer your question, it’s very frustrating.” Still, he refuses to be negative. “Are we here today? No. Are we further than 50 years ago? Yes.”
The other pertinent thing about the Puma connection is that it emphasises just how much sportswear, and hip-hop culture, have infiltrated every level of pop culture and high fashion. According to both Gulden and Carter, the dominance of athleisure is not ending anytime soon. Gulden tells me that the proposed swing back to sharp tailoring in fashion, which was being forecast before Covid, had zero effect on his sales. Carter, meanwhile, states that “there’s no such thing as athleticwear going out of style. It’s just impossible. We won’t see that in our lifetime.”
Sometimes Carter can be refreshingly direct. When I ask whether, if he were 20 years younger and starting out in the game, he would be all over social media, his response is immediate: “No.” (He isn’t on Instagram and barely uses his Twitter account.) Likewise, when I ask if cancel culture might end anytime soon, the response is immediate. “Er, no!” he laughs. “You can’t give someone a microphone for 24 hours a day and [have them] not think they have to use it!” He seems to feel a bit sorry for the younger stars coming up today. “These kids, it’s unbelievable,” he goes on. “Imagine having a microphone and you’re asked about social justice questions at 18 years old? It’s like, ‘What? I’m meant to know the answer, and if I don’t answer the correct way, if I don’t say everything right, even if my intentions are right, and I don’t say the same right thing, it’s going to be everywhere.’”
Other times he is more oblique and even tries to be modest. When I ask him how he thinks he will be remembered, he pushes it away. “I have no idea,” he insists, but then says: “I’m not beyond ego, right? Hopefully, they speak of me [with] the names of Bob Marley and all the greats. But that’s not for me to say.” OK, fine. But what are you most proud of? “I’m most proud of overcoming my circumstances and providing an opportunity for people who look like me and who came from the same situation that I’ve come from.”
Perhaps the best example is when he talks to me about blackjack. “There are certain things you do in blackjack,” he starts, promptly explaining his approach to the game to me, which broadly boils down to the idea that whether you’re “$1 down or $100 million down, you’ve still got to do what’s right — you’ve still got to go for it. You can’t base it on money. You have to base it on the love or passion of what you’re doing.” That’s what matters, he insists. “You’re not gonna be right all the time, and you’re gonna fail — and you’re gonna fail big, you know? But you’re also going to win big, and when you’re right, you’re gonna be really right.”