Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Jay-Z: A Profile in Failure

Jay-Z: The greatest people in history have been failures. Certainly, we remember these individuals as successes--success stories--and we treat those stories as legends and those individuals as gods. 

But each of them failed epically and repeatedly, more so than the combined successes of all of humanity.

Failure should not be overlooked in anyone, especially not those we admire. It is through failure that these individuals were able to learn, grow and ultimately succeed. We know this about ourselves but even as we learn to accept our own failures, sometimes we don’t recognize that the most successful people in the world have had an abundance of failure.

Our heroes need to be held to the same standard as the ancient Greek gods: awesome but not infallible. Failure is a humbling exercise, both for the observer and the observed. But learning is a humbling process. Once we realize that our heroes are just like us, we can examine how failure drives success. So I’ve started collecting stories about the failures of successful people, as a reminder that if you’re making mistakes and learning from them, you’re actually on the path to success.

It seems that the darkest parts of the human experience often inspire more creativity than happier times. The stereotype of the tortured-soul artist is based on real characters: Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Kurt Cobain. They all suffered through great hardships that are reflected in their bodies of work, and they all eventually chose to take their own lives.

Then there are those who started at the bottom and clawed their way to success and happiness, not only overcoming their rough pasts, but channeling their experiences into impressive works of self-expression. Maya Angelou and Ella Fitzgerald come to mind, as does Shawn Carter, known to many as Jay-Z.
Jay-Z: A Profile in Failure
Worth an estimated $520 million and ranked by Forbes as the 6th most powerful celebrity in 2014, he has sold over 75 million records and received 19 Grammy Awards. He is also a brilliant businessman. He’s a record producer, clothing designer, real estate mogul, and NBA owner, among other things.

But Jay-Z started life in one of the poorest, most downtrodden places in America. Born in 1969 in the Brooklyn projects, he and his three older siblings were raised by his mother after his father abandoned the family. It was a neighborhood where crime was commonplace and often ignored by authorities: Jay-Z himself shot his brother in the shoulder after an argument but was luckily never charged. Jay-Z showed early academic potential but dropped out of high school to sell crack cocaine, contributing to the decline of his neighborhood. In his own words: “Broad-daylight shoot-outs had our grandmothers afraid to leave the house, and had neighbors who’d known us since we were toddlers forming neighborhood watches against us.”

Even as he was dealing drugs to make money, he wrote lyrics and competed in freestyle rap competitions in his spare time. More than once he read the dictionary cover-to-cover to learn words for his rhymes. He quickly became known locally as a lyrical genius, not just because of his talent for rhyming but also for the way he painted his real life experiences through his lyrics. He told his stories, raw as they were, through his songs. “I was part of a generation of kids who saw something special about what it means to be human—something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America—and hip-hop was our way of reporting that story, telling it to ourselves and to the world.”

After being shot at more than once and having several other near-misses, Jay-Z got tired of the drug scene and decided to make something of himself in the music business. He first partnered with an older rapper and released a song called “The Originators.” The song earned him a feature on MTV but did nothing more. So he convinced various DJs to work with him to record tracks, and then he tried to get a record deal.

He went to every major label in the country and received rejection after rejection. No one believed there was enough of a market for Jay-Z’s brand of music. It quickly became clear that hip-hop was not going to earn him a living, at least not in the traditional way.

But Jay-Z was ambitious and took that experience as an opportunity to learn and adapt. Instead of giving up after producers turned him down, he decided to become a producer himself and started a label. He partnered with two friends and created Roc-A-Fella records in 1996, ambitiously named after billionaire John D. Rockefeller. The record label had a rocky start; they lost most of the artists they signed before ever recording an album. By 1997, Jay-Z was still the only artist to release an album at Roc-A-Fella. But Jay-Z and the two other founders persisted.

That persistence paid off indirectly. Jay-Z built a strong relationship with the producer for Notorious B.I.G., who had become one of hip-hop’s biggest acts. When Notorious B.I.G. died, Jay-Z was asked to collaborate on a posthumous album, Life after Death, which allowed Jay-Z to promote himself and Roc-A-Fella Records, both of which he mentioned and promoted within various songs.

In 1998, Jay-Z launched his album Vol. 2 which led to his first hit song, “Hard Knock Life,” and from that point on his music legacy was secured. Like so many successes, music is where Jay-Z first failed. Instead of giving up, he leveraged his experience and expertise at producing to propel himself into a music star.

As for his production company, Roc-A-Fella records went on to great success, culminating in a sale to Def Jam Records for millions. As for Jay-Z, he temporarily retired from hip-hop to become President and CEO of Def Jam, effectively creating a reverse merger where he took over the combined company.

Of course, he later returned to his artistic passion but Jay-Z continues to build what is now considered one of the largest hip-hop empires. Jay-Z has co-founded or co-owned companies as diverse and successful as Carol’s Daughter, Barclay’s Center, the Brooklyn Nets, 40/40 Club, J Hotels, Rock Nation Sports, and Rocawear—the latter of which he sold to Iconix for $204 million.

As someone who has seen rock bottom, he often speaks of failure. In his book Decoded, speaking of the song “This Can’t Be Life,” he summed up his thoughts about failure:

“It was a verse about fear of failure, which is something that everyone goes through, but no one, particularly where I’m from, wants to really talk about. But it’s a song that a lot of people connect to: The thought that “this can’t be life” is one that all of us have felt at some point or another, when bad decisions and bad luck and bad situations feel like too much to bear, those times when we think that this, this, can’t be my story. But facing up that kind of feeling can be a powerful motivation to change. It was for me.”

Mistakes are inevitable: they are accidents and they are unfortunate. Bad upbringings—poor parents, poor environments, just plain being poor—are no better. It is always hard and sometimes next to impossible to break free of situations that are out of your control. But the best of the best do just that. In fact, they do more than escape: they triumph in the face of adversity. They set aside mistakes and life circumstances and instead focus on the future and will themselves to success. Jay-Z certainly fits that profile. But he fits another that is even more instructive than overcoming adversity: he takes failures, embraces them, and allows himself to learn, adapt and evolve. Darwin would be proud.

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