Jay-Z, named Shawn Carey Carter, was born on December 4, 1969 in Brooklyn, New York .
This rapper made his splash debut in 1996 and cranked out album after album and hit after hit throughout the decade and into the next. Jay-Z became so successful that Roc-a-Fella, the record label he began with Damon Dash, became a marketable brand itself, spawning a lucrative clothing line (Roca Wear); a deep roster of talented rappers (Beanie Sigel, Cam'ron, M.O.P.) and producers (Just Blaze, Kayne West); a number of arena-packing cross-country tours; and even big-budget Hollywood films (Paid in Full, State Property). While such success is amazing, Jay-Z's musical achievements outweigh the commercial achievements of his franchise. Every one of his albums sold millions, and his endless parade of singles made him omnipresent on urban radio and video. Moreover, he retained a strongly devoted fan base -- not only the suburban MTV crowd but also the street-level crowd as well -- and challenged whatever rivals attempted to oust him from atop the rap industry, most notably Nas. As a result of his unchecked power, Jay-Z and his Roc-a-Fella clique greatly influenced the rap industry and established many of the trends pervaded during the late '90s and early 2000s. He worked with only the hottest producers of the moment (Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Teddy Riley, Trackmasters, Erick Sermon, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz) and if they weren't hot at the time, they surely would be afterward (Neptunes, Kayne West, Just Blaze). He similarly collaborated with the hottest rappers in the industry, everyone from East Coast rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. ("Brooklyn's Finest"), Ja Rule ("Can I Get A..."), and DMX ("Cash, Money, Hoes"), to the best rappers from the Dirty South (Ludacris, Missy Elliott) and the West Coast (Snoop Dogg, Too Short).

Born and raised in the rough Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, NY, Jay-Z underwent some tough times after his father left his mother before the young rapper was even a teen. Without a man in the house, he became a self-supportive youth, turning to the streets, where he soon made a name for himself as a fledging rapper. Known as "Jazzy" in his neighborhood, he soon shortened his nickname to Jay-Z and did all he could to break into the rap game. Of course, as he vividly discusses in his lyrics, Jay-Z also became a street hustler at this time, doing what needed to be done to make money. For a while, he ran around with Jaz-O, aka Big Jaz, a small-time New York rapper with a record deal but few sales. From Jaz he learned how to navigate through the rap industry and what moves to make. He also participated in a forgotten group called Original Flavor for a short time. Jay-Z subsequently decided to make an untraditional decision and start his own label rather than sign with an established label like Jaz had done. Together with friends Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, he created Roc-a-Fella Records, a risky strategy for cutting out the middleman and making money for himself. Of course, he needed a quality distributor, and when he scored a deal with Priority Records (and then later Def Jam), Jay-Z finally had everything in place, including a debut album, Reasonable Doubt (1996).

Though Reasonable Doubt only reached number 23 on Billboard's album chart, Jay-Z's debut became an undisputed classic among fans, many of whom consider it his crowning achievement. Led by the hit single "Ain't No Nigga," a duet featuring Foxy Brown, Reasonable Doubt slowly spread through New York; some listeners were drawn in because of big names like DJ Premier and the Notorious B.I.G., others by the gangsta motifs very much in style at the time. By the end of its steady run, Reasonable Doubt generated three more charting singles -- "Can't Knock the Hustle," which featured Mary J. Blige on the hook; "Dead Presidents"; and "Feelin' It" -- and set the stage for Jay-Z's follow-up, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997).

Much more commercially successful than its predecessor, In My Lifetime peaked at number three on the Billboard album chart, quite a substantial improvement over the modest units Reasonable Doubt had sold. The album boasted numerous marketable contributors such as Puff Daddy and Teddy Riley, which no doubt helped sales, yet Jay-Z's decision to move in a more accessible direction for much of the album, trading gangsta rap for pop-rap, increased his audience twofold. Singles such as "Sunshine" and "The City Is Mine" confirmed this move toward pop-rap, both songs featuring radio-ready pop hooks and little of the grim introspection that had characterized Reasonable Doubt. In My Lifetime still had some dramatic moments, such as "Streets Is Watching" and "Rap Game/Crack Game," yet these moments were few and greatly eclipsed by the pop-rap.

Jay-Z's next album, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (1998), released a year after In My Lifetime, furthered the shift from gangsta rap to pop-rap. Though Jay-Z himself showed few signs of lightening up, particularly on brash songs like "Cash, Money, Hoes," his producers crafted infectious hooks and trend-setting beats. Thus, songs like "Can I Get A..." and "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" sounded both distinct and unforgettable, garnering enormous amounts of airplay. Again, as he had done on In My Lifetime, Jay-Z exchanged the autobiographical slant of his debut for a sampler platter of radio-ready singles; and again, he reached more listeners than ever, topping the album chart and generating a remarkable six singles: the three aforementioned songs as well as "Jigga What?," "It's Alright," and "Money Ain't a Thang."

Like clockwork, Jay-Z returned a year later with another album, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter (1999), which sold a staggering number of units and generated multiple singles. Here Jay-Z collaborated with yet more big names (nearly one guest vocalist/rapper on every song, not to mention the roll call of in-demand producers) and his most overblown work yet resulted. Jay-Z scaled back a bit for Dynasty Roc la Familia (2000), his fifth album in as many years. The album showcased mostly Roc-a-Fella's in-house rappers: Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and Amil. Jay-Z also began working with several new producers: the Neptunes, Kayne West, and Just Blaze. The Neptunes-produced "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" became a particularly huge hit single this go round.

Jay-Z's next album, The Blueprint (2001), solidified his position atop the New York rap scene upon its release in September. Prior to the album's release, the rapper had caused a stir in New York following his headlining performance at Hot 97's Summer Jam 2001, where he debuted the song "Takeover." The song features a harsh verse ridiculing Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and Jay-Z accentuated his verbal assault (including the lines "You's a ballerina/I seen ya") by showcasing gigantic photos of an adolescent Prodigy in a dance outfit. The version of "Takeover" that later appeared on The Blueprint also included a verse dissing Nas as well as Prodigy. As expected, the song ignited a sparring match with Nas, whom responded with "Ether." Jay-Z accordingly returned with a comeback, "Super Ugly," where he rapped over the beats to Nas' "Get Ur Self A" on the first verse and Dr. Dre's "Bad Intentions" on the second. The back-and-forth bout created massive publicity for both Jay-Z and Nas.

In addition to "Takeover," The Blueprint also featured "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," one of the year's biggest hit songs, and the album topped many year-end best-of charts. For the most part, Jay-Z performs alone on all of the album's songs except an Eminem collaboration, "Renegade." The lack of guest rappers made The Blueprint Jay-Z's most personal album since Reasonable Doubt. Consequently, many began comparing the two, calling The Blueprint Jay-Z's best album since Reasonable Doubt or even going so far as calling The Blueprint his best album yet. Jay-Z capitalized on the album's lasting success by issuing two versions of the single "Girls, Girls, Girls" and also the song "Jigga That N***a" as yet another single. Furthermore, he collaborated with the Roots for the Unplugged album (2001) and with R. Kelly for Best of Both Worlds (2002). He then went on to record, over the course of the year, 40 or so new tracks, 25 of which appeared on his next record, the double album The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse (2002). Though billed as a sequel, The Blueprint² was remarkably different from its predecessor. Where the first volume had been personal, considered, and focused, the second instead offered an unapologetically sprawling double-disc extravaganza showcasing remarkable scope. As usual, it spawned a stream of singles, led by his 2Pac cover "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" (with Beyoncé Knowles). He guested on Beyoncé's summer 2003 classic "Crazy Love," as well as the Neptunes' video hit "Frontin'," but then announced his retirement after the release of one more album. That LP, The Black Album, was rush-released by Def Jam and soared to the top spot in the album charts.

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