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The Psychic Contortions of the Black Billionaire

This led to a peculiar situation in which boardroom drama spilled out in the form of diss tracks by Def Jam artists aimed at their employer’s lead executive. Roc-A-Fella eventually folded. But still, to this day, Jay-Z owes much of his image as a business magnate to the dynastic sheen his labelmates gave “the Roc,” not to mention the marketers, graphic designers and interns that made them icons of New York street swagger.

Jay diversified his portfolio in the years after that. He has a stake in Oatly, two separate highly valued liquor companies — Armand de Brignac Champagne and D’Ussé Cognac — several homes, the streaming platform Tidal, a club near Madison Square and an expansive art collection. If on his debut he spoke a little beyond his means when he said he was “well connected,” he has made it true. It is hard to think of a door he cannot open. Even as he has outgrown what made him Jay-Z, that project remains central to his business. He is the best rapper alive, the entrepreneur who made it out of the projects, the kingpin. The albums remind you why the Cognac is worth so much money.

‘What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially if they from the same hue as you.’

This situation is not unique. In the entertainment world, people must become corporations if they want to become truly wealthy. High-profile singers, athletes, actors and so on often make their real money from endorsement deals rather than their day jobs. What separates the billionaires from their peers is that they turned endorsements into equity. Michael Jordan gets a percentage of Nike’s Jordan brand revenue. Kanye, who owns the Yeezy brand outright, has major deals with Adidas and Gap. Winfrey and Perry have sprawling media concerns. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty is a subsidiary of the LVMH luxury conglomerate.

Many of these businesses could keep running without their famed figureheads, but the sheen would dissipate somewhat. Dell does not sell its computers by trading on the fact that it and its founder share a name. But without Kanye’s imprimatur, it’s hard to imagine Yeezy’s moon-boot look becoming a default sneaker silhouette. Fenty, by contrast, seems to have capitalized on a real gap in the market by broadening the available shades for foundation and concealer. Still, the entertainer-billionaire is as much the product as the shoe or concealer up for sale. From the outside looking in, this seems like a shaky foundation for a fortune so vast. Stars lose their luster all the time. It’s part of their appeal.

On “The Story of O.J.,” from his latest album, “4:44,” Jay-Z raps about the psychic drama of successful Black Americans. In the animated video, his character tells his therapist that he failed to invest in Dumbo real estate early and missed out on a 1,250 percent return. Later he explains that art he bought for $1 million appreciated in value and is now worth 8. The song weaves back and forth between an examination of racial stereotypes and a guidebook to gaining freedom through asset ownership.

You could hear Jay-Z, over time, growing more comfortable with his newfound status. On “The Black Album,” he rapped, “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them, so I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win.” It’s a defensive sentiment. The poor do help one another; there is often no other choice. That song is called “Moment of Clarity” — but nothing seems very clear at all. All the old signifiers, the ones linking public prominence and political progress, are slipping. They have to be reasserted from the top down. “What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially if they from the same hue as you,” Jay-Z rhymed on “4:44.” The ghetto’s music is starting to sound like prosperity gospel. Rap is relatable because the fan embodies the rapper. The “you” is rarely the listener, rather an invitation to adopt a new “I.” That “I” might get high, duck, dive, sling, get shot at and shoot back. But who is this “I” who accumulates such an immense sum of money, he starts to see things from the other side while insisting we’re still the same? The hue tells me nothing about what you’ve become.

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