Growing up in the Brooklyn projects, Shawn Carter—better known by his nom de rap Jay-Z—identified with the underprivileged kids in the movie musical Annie. "It's the hard knock life for us!" they sang in one signature number. " 'Steada treated, we get tricked! 'Steada kisses, we get kicked! It's the hard knock life for us!" "These kids sing about the hard knock life, things everyone in the ghetto feels coming up," says Jay-Z, 29. "That's the ghetto anthem."

It apparently strikes a chord elsewhere as well. Jay-Z's catchy sampling of the chorus led to a hit single and a Best Rap Album Grammy and helped sell more than 4 million copies of his third CD, Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. That, in turn, has made him hip-hop royalty. "He's a star," says Carlito Rodriguez, senior articles editor for The Source, a hip-hop magazine. "He comes off as being above average intelligence, not only on his music but in his business deals."

His business acumen, he admits, didn't come from Harvard. The playfulness of Hard Knock Life's chorus aside, many of Jay-Z's lyrics are about drug dealing. Some are autobiographical. "While others were getting shot up and murdered and going to jail," he says of his teenage years, police and rivals "looked right over me because I was so quiet. But I was doing just as much as these guys, maybe even more." He won't talk about specifics but claims he was shot at three times. "If the rap didn't work," he says, "I was going right back."

Though he first began pursuing a music career in 1988, he had little luck until he teamed with entrepreneur Damon Dash and founded Roc-A-Fella records. His first album, 1996's Reasonable Doubt, spawned a gold single and was lauded for its authentic voice. "It's the honesty of it all," says Dash of Jay-Z's songs. "But beyond that, he's got a lot of skills, a lot of rhythm, so he's the perfect package as far as a rapper goes."

Yet in the world of rap, where real violence competes with music for headlines, tragedy is often only a concert away. In 1997, Jay-Z's friend, fellow Brooklynite and gangsta rap's reigning poet laureate Notorious B.I.G. (né Christopher Wallace) was shot and killed in Los Angeles. Jay-Z says he felt the death of B.I.G. intensely. "You lose a lot of people along the way," says Jay-Z. "But this guy, we both did the same things, and we both came from the same place."

That place is Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Jay-Z was the youngest of Gloria Carter's four children (Jay-Z has been estranged from his dad since age 12). Carter supported the family by working as a supervising clerk for an investment company. Before Jay-Z began hustling in his teens, he was considered a good student with a pleasant personality. "He was a very dear kid," says Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, his sixth-grade teacher. "There is so much more to him than a person who sings about bitches and 'ho's. Gee, I hope I'm not killing his image."

It is unlikely that Rosenblum-Lowden's fond memories—or even Jay-Z's own admission that he loves Aerosmith and is addicted to The Simpsons and Seinfeld—could seriously damage his street credibility. In fact, it is the perception that he is what he says he is that has brought him the trappings of success—a new home in Fort Lee, N.J.; a Range Rover; a platinum Rolex—and he is determined not to lose touch with his roots. "The bigger you are," he says, "that doesn't change you as a person—unless you let it."

Nick Charles
Cynthia Wang in Fort Lee

  • Contributors:
  • Cynthia Wang.