In the back room of a north London recording studio Jay-Z is rolling a rhyme around his mouth. "What was it again? 'I've got 99 problems but the ... huh?'" he says, scanning the walls, desperately trying to remember. "'I've got 99 world problems but the ba ...' Damn!" Slouched on a sofa, Jay-Z - AKA Shawn Carter, the Jigga Man, the God MC, the self-proclaimed "black Sinatra" - is recalling the last time he pressed flesh with the president of the USA. The 39-year-old rapper had been booked to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration party but at the last minute, panic set in. Worried that the first lady and her daughters may not take kindly to his casual cursing, he quickly reordered the set, reworking the lyrics of some his best-known tracks including "99 problems but a bitch ain't one". "It was slick," he laughs, "I gotta get that to you."
A quick Google reveals the line was "I've got 99 world problems but a Bush ain't one" but the anecdote only serves to underline the extraordinary journey Jay-Z's taken and where he stands on the pop-cultural landscape. Thirteen years on fron the release of his debut album, his life story reads like a made-for-TV movie: Carter Jr grows up in Brooklyn's notorious Marcy Projects to a single-parent mother, starts dealing drugs, turns to hip-hop, releases his debut album himself; years pass and he's crowned the greatest rapper of all time, amasses a fortune through various business ventures, marries the hottest pop singer in the world and his friend and fan becomes the POTUS.
If you came across it on the Biography Channel you'd baulk at the predictability of the rags-to-riches, American-dream trajectory and flip channels. Yet his impact and influence is there for all to see. You can hear his God-given skills as a rapper on his best albums such as 1996's Reasonable Doubt (the self-financed debut), on 2001's The Blueprint and 2003's The Black Album. You can see it on forbes.com where it's noted that between June 2008 and June 2009 Jay-Z earned $35m from touring revenues and business ventures. It's on fan messageboards and MTV.com, where he was crowned the greatest MC of all time. It's visible in the charts where his proteges and signings Kanye and Rihanna (who both appear on new single Run This Town), and Ne-Yo run riot. And you can see it on YouTube when the future president, on the campaign trail, mimics Jay's Dirt Off Your Shoulder video by brushing metaphorical enemies off his shoulder.
Chattier and gigglier in person than his on-stage persona would suggest, over the next hour Jay will tell us why he doesn't do Twitter ("I'm a private person but I am a Twitter voyeur"), what his friend, the slain rapper Biggie Smalls might be doing now ("We'd be working together, we started an album called The Commission"), and what he's listening to (MIA, Arcade Fire, Drake and MGMT, who were originally pencilled in to appear on his new record).
But first, Jay-Z has taken it upon himself to give hip-hop a huge kick up its low-slung backside. If anyone can save it, Jigga man can. DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune), the blog-busting taster from the new album, The Blueprint 3, calls time on lazy MCs and the auto-correction tool popular with radio-friendly rappers. "I know we facing a recession, but the music y'all making going make it the great depression", he raps as fluoro-coloured outfits are blown to smithereens in the song's Zabriskie Point-inspired video. How could his friend and producer, the fluoro-favouring, Auto-Tune addict Kanye West not take it as a personal attack?
"Hip-hop is just about expression: he expresses himself one way, I express myself in another," he begins, quite clearly unthreatened by the prospect of one of Kanye's CAPS LOCK!!! ripostes. "I mean he's on the song; he says, 'That's too far.'"
The track is indicative of Jay-Z's belief that this is a time for action: "As a person at the forefront of my genre, it's my responsibility to make my contribution to correct it. If people see me being fearless with my influences, taking chances, then maybe everyone will go for it. I don't do it for the money, it's for the love of the music and the protection of it. It's like, 'COME ON, WAKE UP!'" he pleads. "This is a call to arms. If I didn't care I would make a record with Auto-Tune and keep going until one day we wake up and no one's listening to rap, like what happened with rock music. When everybody let the hair bands run crazy, rock went through that terrible period. Kurt Cobain was the anti-hair band." If this were his friend and fellow rapper P Diddy speaking you'd feel duty bound to laugh in his face. Or wonder if hip-hop needed saving. Yet, even though Jay-Z's last two albums were the sound of a coasting superstar, no other rapper has sustained a comparable career and stayed at the top of their game. The Guide's sneak preview of his new album, The Blueprint 3, suggests it doesn't quite scale the heights as effortlessly as the original Blueprint, but there's no denying the ambition.
Over here Jay-Z is best known for his triumphant 2008 Glastonbury performance, after the rock'n'roll bores ruled that a rapper shouldn't be headlining the UK's premier music festival.
"What a fantastic time, huh?" he beams, when asked how he looks back on it now. "Ha ha! It's a career-defining moment, like winning the first Grammy. It just felt like a barrier being broken and for the good. It was almost archaic to me. Like this is going on right now?" he says, still bemused that anyone, never mind Noel Gallagher, would question his validity. "What are you talking about? It's all music. I may not play instruments but I have more words in one verse than you have in an entire song. I can say that, I have an argument."
At the time, he said he'd like to sit Noel down and teach him about hip-hop. What would he play him?
"So many different albums. I'd play him NWA [Straight Outta Compton, 1988] so he could really understand the angst and what was going on in LA at the time. Because hip-hop is not just, 'Fuck, bitch, shit, ass, motherfucker.' You know, understand that the riots were happening, and LA was burning, and these kids were in the hood in Compton and the cops would just drive by, beat them up and then drop them off in an opposing gang's neighbourhood. That's deliberate; like, you could die. This is real, this really happened. So when you hear a song like Fuck Tha Police, that's not because they think they're tough, that's because they've been beat and they're fighting back."
As well as Tupac, Biggie Smalls and Dr Dre, Jay would also make Noel listen to the original God MC, Rakim, to teach him about intelligence of the rhymes; to show how far ahead of his time Rakim was in the late-80s. "When people was rhyming [raps] 'I don't care, the rocks ya'll wear' he was using couplets like [raps Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em] 'I'm the arsenal/I got artillery/Lyrics of ammo/Rounds of rhythm'," he pauses for breath. "It was mind-blowing that someone was doing this."
Aside from the ensuing media storm, rumours that he would be arriving at Glastonbury by mega-bling helicopter disturbed him too. "It was just not true," he stresses. "If I was in the club and I had 30 bottles of champagne and I was celebrating, then say that. But if I came on the bus then don't say I came in a gold-plated helicopter because I know what you're doing at that point. I'm all about intention."
What does he think the intention was?
"The intent was, 'These foolish black guys who spend too much money on things and they think they're all this and that.'"
Noel aside, there's another N-word that triggers a passionate outburst. In 2007, rap mogul Russell Simmons and political activist Al Sharpton gathered in Motown at the NAACP's annual convention to give the word "nigger" a symbolic funeral. On Jay-Z's new album the word can be heard as often as it can on many other rap records. Did he think twice about using it? "It's not an issue for me at all," he says, shaking his head. "I think people give words power and a racist is a racist; if you eliminate the word 'nigger' he'll say 'monkey' or 'jigaboo'. What we had done in hip-hop is we defused the power of the word and changed it into a term of endearment. I know a lot of people don't buy that but that's just what you have to accept."
It's the racist mentality that people should be attacking, he says, and the energy that's spent focusing on the word denies hip-hop's socially cohesive powers. "I think hip-hop music ironically had a big play in the home," he reasons. "Racism is taught in the home; you're taught racism as a child. But it's hard to teach racism when your child is partying and listening to black people."
Similarly, he refuses to follow the growing consensus among black America's cultural power-brokers (Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Spike Lee et al) and condemn gangsta rap. Admittedly, he has a vested interest, but condeming it is a cheap shot as far as he's concerned.
"Put it like this: everything is birthed from somewhere real, right?" he says. "These emotions and this anger and this angst in reality rap is coming from a real place. People in those circles try to dismiss it, but you can't because it's part of culture. They only attack hip-hop because, and I hate to sound like a cynic, but this is all done for publicity purposes, right? You don't attack the real issue; you attack the thing that's popular."
Which is why he had to tread carefully during Obama's campaign. The incoming president's image loomed large over Jay's live shows last year; at Glastonbury it was used in the Oasis-baiting intro video to suggest that the times were a-changing. He and Barack have spoken on the phone recently but Jay-Z says he knows when to back off. "I didn't want the association with rappers and gangsta rappers to hinder anything that he was doing," he says. "I came when I was needed; I didn't make any comments in the press, go too far or put my picture with Obama on MySpace, Twitter, none of that."
Having conquered the music and business worlds, the Bio Channel trajectory would surely end with Jay-Z running for office. How long before he crosses over?
"Nah," he says, quickly batting away the suggestion. "People are held to such a standard and that's just not real or true. In a field like that the truth is not as important as the perception of who you are. The only reason I've been involved in any politics is because the hope of Obama is bigger than politics. It got to the point where we weren't living out our tag line: you know, 'America, home of the free'."
"Maybe now we can have some type of dialogue and get back to a normal place."
• Run This Town is out on Mon; The Blueprint 3 is out on 14 Sep
fonte: the guardian online