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New bio of Jay-Z: some good business anecdotes, "loyalty to his money," a suggestion he got a discount on the Nets; an AY chapter riddled with errors

While Zack O'Malley Greenburg's Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office, is billed as "The Definitive Jay-Z Biography," it focuses, as the author acknowledges, on business, not music.

Thus there's less analysis of Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter's creativity and cultural impact, and no pick-up from the star's own 2010 book Decoded, which is both insightful and cryptic, leaving some lingering questions about the star's ethics.

There's a potted history of Jay-Z's involvement with Atlantic Yards, which offers some intriguing numbers regarding the value of Jay's investment, but is unfortunately riddled with errors.

And Jay-Z wouldn't talk to Greenburg; the author suggests that "Jay-Z doesn't like to share the proceeds of projects he feels he can execute on his own."

"His loyalty is to his money"

That said, Greenburg did crib from other interviews, talk to other journalists, and interview several people who worked with Jay-Z. The book portrays a capable and sometimes cutthroat businessman. As his mentor from Brooklyn, Jonathan "Jaz-O" Burks, suggests, "His loyalty is to his money."

Jay-Z, Greenburg writes, has gained self-control to "find a balance between street cred and restraint," graduating from the reflexive payback of his younger years, stabbing music pirate Lance Rivera and shooting his jewelry-stealing brother.

Some revelations

There's an interesting episode, based on an interview with Fred "Fab 5 Freddy" Brathwaite, regarding Jay-Z's sponsorship of a star-laden team in the 2003 Entertainers Basketball Classic tourney at Harlem's famed Rucker courts. Jay-Z's team was tearing it up, with cameras rolling for a documentary, but the latter never emerged.

Why? A blackout delayed the final game, Jay-Z didn't want to postpone a planned vacation with his relatively new love, Beyoncé (who, the author relates, helped broaden Jay's audience, and vice versa), and the star players wouldn't show up at the rescheduled game without a call from Jay. So the game was forfeited, and the film scotched.

Also, Greenburg spends an interesting chapter exploring how exactly Jay-Z shifted from promoting Cristal champagne, whose owners sniffed at hip-hop support, to Armand de Brignac, unknown until he made it trendy.

His conclusion: despite the company's protest that it has no financial involvement with Jay-Z, the latter receives millions of dollars a year through the champagne's importer.

What drives Jay?

Why does Jay-Z keep going? Greenburg writes:
Some observers would point to his seemingly infinite desire for wealth and fame, spurred by the insecurity and poverty of his youth.

Jay-Z might say it's something a bit nobler--the perfection of his legacy.
He cites lyrics to Jay-Z's "History," about the pursuit of dreams.

Observes DJ Clark Kent, an early mentor:
"I think it's unfair to call Jay-Z a rapper. I think rapping is something he does. When he says, 'I'm not a businessman--I'm a business, man,' you really have to take that seriously. He is a business, and rapping is just something that's in his business."
The Atlantic Yards chapter

A potted history of Jay-Z's involvement in Atlantic Yards offers a few nuggets, while it's punctuated by several errors, the inevitable product of reliance on the clip file rather than firsthand reporting.

A few are simply careless: the arena groundbreaking was held not in March 2009 but in March 2010, and the ceremony with shovels involving Jay-Z came at the end of the event, not the beginning.

Greenburg succumbs to two fundamental errors in his description of the site: no, Atlantic Yards is not "to be built atop the rail yard of the same name," nor did Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley hope "to build a new home for his team on the same site." (I mention the latter in a Columbia Journalism Review article on the "same site" myth.)

He suggests that Ratner coveted "an oddly-shaped triangle above the rail yards." It's no triangle, more of a wedge with a missing tooth, and the reason for the odd shape is that the developer drew the map, a source of much contention.

Regarding the groundbreaking, Greenburg misses the opportunity to describe the weirdness of the event, summarizing it as Borough President Marty Markowitz making "perhaps one too many jokes about Beyoncé," and quoting Jay-Z's banalities ("What I stand here and represent is hope for Brooklyn, New York City") without recognizing how Jay-Z was used as a Jackie Robinson stand-in.

AY history

Greenburg gets the initial story mostly wrong, regarding both timing and politics:
Ratner's plan was not an easy one to execute. To win his bid for the Nets, he would have to come up with the most lucrative package and also secure the Brooklyn stadium site. To secure the stadium site, he would have to woo city officials by proving there was enough support for the project from Brooklyn's constituents to overcome the powerful group of mostly upper-middle-class residents opposed to the construction of a giant entertainment complex in the middle of their neighborhood. Enter Jay-Z, one of the borough's most popular sons.
There's a germ of truth there--Jay-Z did bring important street cred--but otherwise it's wrong. Ratner won the bid for the Nets in January 2004 without having secured the arena site.

However, Ratner had secured support from both city and (more importantly) state officials before the project was even announced; he didn't have to woo anybody. The project didn't get approved until December 2006.

The "powerful" group of opponents emerged only well after the project was announced, and that "powerful" group raised less money than Forest City Ratner has spent in one year of lobbying.

Greenburg suggests that Jay-Z had the potential to lure his friend, superstar LeBron James, to the team after his first contract expired "at the end of the 2006-2007 season--right around the time the Brooklyn arena was initially scheduled to open."

Except the arena was initially scheduled to open at the beginning of the season.

Jay-Z profits?

How much is Jay-Z's stake worth? Greenburg writes:
The Daily News reported that Jay-Z invested $1 million in the team, while the Post pegged his holdings at 1.5%. The latter figure would put the value of Jay-Z's stake in the $300 million team at $4.5 million.
His analysis of the contradiction? Jay-Z got a deal.

That might be so, but it's also possible that the endless spinning regarding the team/project extends to Jay-Z's role.

Nevertheless, Greenburg suggests that Jay-Z was given a discounted rate--as celebrities can get--on an asset "that was sure to dramatically increase" upon the Brooklyn move, likely to swell to $8 million.

Unmentioned in the book is the likelihood that Jay-Z will perform at several concerts at the Barclays Center, perhaps even inaugurating in in 2012, much as New Jersey-ite Jon Bon Jovi opened the Prudential Center in Newark.

More questions

Greenburg describes a "twenty-year, $400 million naming rights deal with Barclays in 2007" without pointing out that the deal was eventually halved (more or less)--something he himself reported last month on Forbes.

He writes that "Atlantic Yards's construction costs had doubled to nearly $1 billion." That figure refers to the arena, not the project.

What goes unmentioned is that the arena still costs nearly $1 billion; one significant reason for dumping Frank Gehry's design was not the cost of the arena, but the plan that integrated it with four towers under construction over four years--timing that's impossible to achieve.

Three errors, one sentence

Greenburg writes:
[Ratner] also reworked his agreement with New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, replacing the scheduled $100 million purchase of the Atlantic Yards site with a series of payments that would cost him more over time.
Hold on. That's the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Ratner wasn't buying development rights to the entire 22-acre Atlantic Yards site, just the 8.5-acre railyard.

And the payments--$20 million down, with the remaining $80 million at an implied 6.5% increase rate, would not cost him more. (He would pay a higher cumulative total, but that ignores the time value of money.) The MTA argues that it would bring the agency the same amount.

But that's valid only if you think Ratner could've gotten cheap financing anywhere else. It was a great deal for Ratner.

Hip-hop connection

Greenburg writes that the connection between Jay-Z and the Nets began with a half-serious suggestion by Nets point guard Jason Kidd.

Maybe, but he does not mention the role of attorney L. Londell McMillan, who owns a piece of the Nets and has a big presence in the hip-hop world.

Excess credulity

Greenburg, quoting new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov as saying of Jay-Z, "we have a lot in common," suggests that one reason Prokhorov was so eager to buy the team was the opportunity to partner with Jay-Z.

I doubt that. Any New York-area team would have given Prokhorov the American platform he craved.

In closing the chapter, Greenburg suggests that Brooklyn may yet remain a destination for LeBron James after his initial contract with the Miami Heat runs out:
Once the new arena is complete, Jay-Z might have more luck convincing his pal to switch sides--and at least one prominent Brooklynite believes that's exactly what will happen.

"LeBron James has worked hard in Cleveland," explained Borough President Markowitz the day after James signed with Miami. "So maybe he needs this vacation in Florida before he moves on to reach his professional zenith--a championship dynasty in Brooklyn."
Um, doesn't everybody know Markowitz is paid to spin like that?

Another review

I agree with the review from Kirkus Reviews, which points out that Decoded, while providing less of a business story, conveys more of the heart:
The story of Jay-Z-as-businessman is better suited to a magazine article, and Greenburg injects far too much filler into the narrative. The author periodically interjects himself into the interviews, and while his writing is solid, his appearance in the pages adds very little to the proceedings.
The Brooklyn brand

As I've written, the Brooklyn brand has many aspects, from indie culture to the toughness Marcy projects.

Greenburg invokes the latter in a good anecdote involving high-school hoopster Sebastian Telfair, Stephon Marbury's cousin from Coney, being considered for that Rucker team:
Standing just shy of six feet and about one hundred sixty pounds soaking wet, the baby-faced teenager didn't look the part of an all-world street-ball team savior. "When I walked in, they were like, 'Aw, he's a kid, how's he going to help us?" recalls Telfair. "I looked at Jay and I said, 'I'm from Brooklyn.' And he just started laughing. But by the end of the night, he knew what exactly I meant when I said, 'I'm from Brooklyn.'"


  1. I considered buying until I saw it was a "biography" and not an autobiography. Other signs were the launch of Decoded. With Jay's media channels, this book would have been mentioned on one of them.

    I hate will "others" try to define, "decode" and discuss us.

    Fall back homie!

    Thank you for breaking this down and clearing up several things.


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