JAY-Z @ BILLION: A 20 Year History Of His Greatest Business Decisions

The next time Shawn Carter tweaks his stage name, perhaps it will include a stock symbol. Earlier this month, the rap mogul formerly known as Jay-Z and Jay Z officially rechristened himself JAY-Z, unveiling the tweak within a certain kind of announcement that’s also become commonplace for Hov: the heralding of yet another corporate partnership. His new album, 4:44, will be available this Friday exclusively to both Tidal subscribers and Sprint wireless customers, in what is Jay’s third collaboration with a phone company.

JAY-Z has long been clear-eyed about his relationship with giant corporations. In his 2010 book Decoded, when explaining his 2006 freestyle “Operation Corporate Takeover,” he writes, “Our ambition was never to just fit into the corporate mold, it was to take it over and remake that world in our image.” From owning his own masters to fundraising for President Obama, Jay has arguably done just that. Forbes has estimated his net worth at $810 million, up from $610 million last year and ever closer to legit billionaire status. If JAY-Z indeed beats Dr. Dre and Diddy in the race to $1 billion, the simple fact of getting there—“from street corner to corner office,” to quote the title of one biography—will matter more than how he got there.

Still, Jay’s embrace of the No. 4 wireless company in America shows how the corporate world has rubbed off on him, too. Plenty of his business ventures are in an entrepreneurial spirit that befits his art and the lifestyle projected therein: from his chain of 40/40 Clubs to his help in bringing the Nets to his hometown of Brooklyn, from his champagne and cognac brands to, of course, his artist-backed streaming service. But trace the arc of Hov’s corporate entanglements, and humdrum ways of turning a profit can be seen sapping a bit of his robber-baron mystique. With 4:44 days away, here’s a timeline of Mr. Carter’s encounters with corporate behemoths, from raiding the boardroom at Def Jam to shilling wireless contracts.

Here is the new, improved JAY-Z Blueprint

1. Def Jam (1997-2007)

In 1996, JAY-Z and two partners founded the independent label Roc-A-Fella Records, which released his landmark debut, Reasonable Doubt. The decision to strike out on his own, undertaken because no major labels wanted to sign him, turned out to be an auspicious one. He later reportedly turned down a traditional deal with Def Jam, supposedly telling them, “I own the company I rap for.” So instead of signing outright to the major label-backed Def Jam, Jay and co. sold half of Roc-A-Fella to them in 1997 for $1.5 million. Def Jam bought the other half of Roc-A-Fella in 2004 for $10 million.

As far as early dabblings with corporate money go, Jay’s Def Jam deal was well navigated and fruitful in every sense of the word. He released nine solo albums throughout his tenure and took over as president and CEO in 2005 for three years. Smartly, his contract included a clause that would give him ownership of his catalog beginning in 2014.

2. Reebok (2003-2007)

In 2003, JAY-Z became the first non-athlete with an endorsement deal for his own line of athletic shoes, setting off a major trend. Though there was speculation at the time that Jay actually wore Nikes, his four-year partnership with the No. 2 sneaker maker, Reebok, resulted in the popular S. Carter brand. He also co-starred in a commercial with 50 Cent.

3. Nokia (2003)

JAY-Z was in the music-on-phones business earlier than some might remember. In 2003, he teamed up with phone maker Nokia (remember them?) for a device called the Black Phone. One of the places the product could be bought was Sam Goody (remember those?). Predicting the rapper’s later business moves, the Black Phone came preloaded with The Black Album.

4. Hewlett-Packard (2006)

In 2006, Hewlett-Packard was emerging from one corner-office scandal and still several years a few from its next one. In the meantime, the tech colossus launched a new ad campaign featuring Pharrell, Mark Cuban, Alicia Keys, Gwen Stefani, Shaun White, and, in one CGI-festooned spot, JAY-Z. His pattern of collaborating with the less cool competitor in a given industry would continue.

5. Budweiser (2006-)

One relatively early instance of JAY-Z promoting new music via corporate partnerships came with 2006’s Kingdom Come, which was marketed with a Budweiser commercial during “Monday Night Football.” Around the same time, Anheuser-Busch named Jay as co-brand director of its Budweiser Select beer. Jay’s relationship with Bud has continued to its sponsorship of his Made in America festival. Say what you will about the actual taste of the stuff, at least here was a case of Hov teaming up with a company that was No. 1 at something.

6. Iconix Brand Group (2007-)

In 1999, JAY-Z and partner Dame Dash built on their Roc-A-Fella Records success by launching a clothing line, Rocawear. Eight years later, Iconix Brand Group—a company that has licensed the brands for Joe Boxer, Ocean Pacific, and more—bought the rights to Rocawear for $204 million in cash. The deal allowed Jay to keep creative control and his stake in Rocawear’s operating company. Here would seem to be a prime example of JAY-Z reshaping the corporate mold, though the bland testimonial from the brand’s new face, DJ Khaled, could just as easily be selling Esurance: “When you’re rocking Rocawear, you’re rocking greatness. It’s quality, it’s fly, and it’s part of my history that I’m excited to bring to my fans.”

7. Coca-Cola (2007)

When the soft-drink behemoth wanted to relaunch its Cherry Coke product, it turned to JAY-Z. In 2007, the rapper reportedly designed a new can and oversaw radio, TV, and print marketing for the revamped Cherry Coke. The cans kept Jay’s design until around 2011, but Hov would probably appreciate that Warren Buffett’s face is now on Cherry Coke cans in, where else, China.

8. General Motors (2007)

An earlier attempted deal with Jeep had fallen through, but in 2007, JAY-Z made inroads into the auto industry. He worked with General Motors on a GMC Yukon Denali that was painted “JAY-Z Blue,” but alas, the concept SUV never hit the highways. (Jay reportedly still got paid, though.)

9. Live Nation (2008-)

In 2008, after leaving Def Jam, JAY-Z signed a $150 million deal with Live Nation. Like the company’s previous contracts with U2 and Madonna, the arrangement allowed Live Nation to share in revenue from merch, licensing, and touring. The deal also created a new management (and more) company, Roc Nation, now famed for working with Rihanna, Vic Mensa, and J. Cole. The company has kept expanding its businesses, including the launch of a sports management subsidiary and investment in startups, including an early stake in Uber. Jay also recently signed a new decade-long touring partnership with Live Nation, valued at $200 million—perhaps enough to push his net worth over the billion mark.

10. Rhapsody (2009)

JAY-Z was leaning on tech companies to debut his new albums well before the infamous Samsung deal. In 2009, he marketed The Blueprint 3 with a memorable commercial for the streaming service Rhapsody, which also promised subscribers early access to the (eventually leaked) album. The company has since rebranded as, ironically enough, Napster—now one of Tidal’s competitors.

11. Microsoft (2010)

The $1 million marketing campaign for JAY-Z’s book Decoded doubled as promotion for Microsoft’s then-newish search engine, Bing. Fans could find pages from the book in unlikely places—everywhere from a rooftop in New Orleans to hamburger wrappers in New York—by using clues from a dedicated Bing site. Bing is, of course, a distant No. 2 to Google, but hey, at least it was a better fit than Ask Jeeves.

12. Samsung (2013)

In 2013, JAY-Z gave away 1 million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail through an exclusive app on Samsung Galaxy phones. His mantra at the time, unveiled via a ponderous three-minute Samsung commercial during the NBA Finals, was that he needed to write the “new rules” for music in the online era. Earning Jay an estimated $20 million, the deal was ridiculed for “selling the concept of selling out.” Speaking of new rules, the RIAA made it clear that those Samsung sales would count toward MCHG’s platinum status, but Billboard blocked the album from debuting at No. 1. (Not that Jay didn’t get there eventually.)

13. Tidal + Sprint (2015-)

In early 2015, JAY-Z bought the platform that would become Tidal from the Norwegian company Aspiro for $56 million. In January 2016, Sprint bought 33 percent of Tidal for $200 million. On top of that huge profit, Jay’s service scored wins with exclusive releases from Rihanna, Kanye West, and, of course, Beyoncé. But between technical hiccups, a revolving door of CEOs, and most importantly, a subscriber base supposedly hovering around one-sixth of Spotify’s 50 million paid users (and possibly even lower), where JAY-Z’s streaming service will end up in all this remains to be seen—particularly when factoring in rumors that Sprint may soon be absorbed by T-Mobile.

If and when JAY-Z becomes a billionaire, it will be huge. It would be even more remarkable if he can get there, not through dull-as-dishwater financial arbitrage, but by making more stuff people like.


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Article credit. This article was originally posted on Pitchfork.