The Struggle That Made Jay-Z

Born in the heart of New York City and raised in the Marcy public housing projects, Shawn Carter went through tough times in his younger years. Growing up surrounded by turmoil, economic inequality, and widespread drug use, Carter recreated himself as Jay-Z, the self-proclaimed "god of rap," according to LA Live. Today, he has become one of the most successful musical artists in history, as well the owner of his own entertainment company, clothing line, record label, and more. 

However, Jay-Z's meteoric rise to stardom didn't happen overnight. From his early years in Brooklyn to his marriage to Beyoncé, he went through a lot to get where he is today. The story of how a kid nicknamed "Jazzy" became a hip-hop legend isn't just one of success: It's a story of beating the odds, believing in yourself, and knowing how to work — and empathize — with others, to achieve big goals. 

He had a strained relationship with his father

Growing up in Brooklyn, the young Shawn Carter was a shy kid who faced many challenges in his life, but arguably the most traumatic occurred at age 11, when his father Adnis Reeves abandoned the family. Talking to Oprah Winfrey on CNN, Jay-Z explained the intermingled feelings of pain, anger, reclusiveness, and responsibility that weighed him down as he felt pressured to step up and take care of his mom. These father issues haunted Jay-Z for decades, and as Complex points out, this trauma was central to many of the rapper's most popular songs, including "Can't Knock the Hustle" and "This Life Forever."

As an adult, Jay-Z got the unexpected chance to meet up with his father again. Describing the experience to Oprah, Jay-Z said that while he explained to his dad how damaging the abandonment had been, his father also confessed to the drug addiction, alcoholism, and emotional hardship that had caused him to leave the family. The two reconciled just a few months before Reeves died from liver failure. Though their new relationship was brief, Jay-Z has said that getting to reconnect with his father had an immensely positive impact on his life. 

He sold crack to support his family

Rewinding back to the beginning, years before the adult Jay-Z would conquer his demons, the 11-year-old Shawn Carter had to handle the real world consequences of his dad's absence. When his older brother Eric became addicted to crack, according to The Guardian, Shawn felt like he needed to support the family, so he went to the streets and started selling the same drug his brother was hooked on. 

Jay-Z has explained that during these years, everyone around him was using crack. Shawn himself never touched the stuff, not wanting to put a dent in his own supply. Plus, seeing the effects of the crack epidemic on his brother and father must have left an impression, considering how young he was. He sold crack for 14 years, and he says it was only when he got older that he really understood the consequences of drug dealing. At the time, it was just a way to survive, and all the other children were doing it, too. At one point, he felt like his only options were to smoke it or sell it, so he'd chosen the latter.

He shot his brother

One incident Jay-Z still doesn't like talking about today, according to The Guardian, happened when his brother Eric was at the height of his crack addiction. When Shawn was only 12, he got a gun at a friend's house and started keeping it on him. One day, Eric stole Shawn's ring — so Shawn shot him right in the shoulder, sending him to the hospital. Eric didn't press charges, and even asked for Shawn to visit him in the hospital the next day. Evidently, Eric felt the shooting had been his fault, and he took the chance to apologize to his little brother for the damage his drug addiction had done to their relationship.

By all accounts, Shawn found the whole incident terrifying. Though he went on to be involved in other shootouts over the years, he says this was the only time he actually pulled the trigger on a human being. Jay-Z continued being haunted by this episode as an adult, and he went on to rap about it in the song "You Must Love Me."

He had great company in high school

Maybe you haven't heard of a little Brooklyn public school called George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School, but as Mic points out, it was within those hallways that four of the biggest rappers in history honed their skills. Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, and DMX all attended George Westinghouse at the same time, and some of them even rapped together. According to Rolling Stone, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes once had an epic rap showdown in the lunchroom. If you're wondering who won, well, both of them admit Jay-Z came out victorious. But Busta didn't entirely lose out — he credits that particular rap battle with propelling him into being "one of the most dangerous speed rappers today."

Though Shawn was still dealing crack at this time, it seems like rap caught his attention in a big way. According to the Post-Standard, he dropped out of high school, but his newfound rapping skills were about to change the course of his life.

'Jay-Z' is born

According to Biography, Shawn was looking for a clean escape from the drugs, shootouts, and poverty of the Marcy Projects, and music became his pathway. In 1989, he joined up with an older rapper named Jonathan "Jaz-O" Burks, and Jaz-O began to mentor him. Together, the two rapped the song "The Originators," which got them onto the TV show Yo! MTV Raps

As this next chapter of his life began, Shawn decided he needed a new name. As a kid, he'd earned the nickname "Jazzy," and combining this nostalgic label with his mentor's pseudonym, he started calling himself "Jay-Z," a title that also hearkened back to the J/Z subway station near his home. He told The Guardian that these days, nobody refers to him as Shawn — except his grandmother, of course — and his friends and family members all call him Jay. As for Jaz-O, he and Jay-Z have had some feuds over the years, but they came back together in late 2017 and seem to be friends again, according to Rap-Up.

Jay-Z sold CDs out of his car

If you ever see a struggling young artist rapping on the sidewalk trying to sell you homemade tracks right out of their car, don't judge: Everyone has to start somewhere, and that method happens to be exactly the way Jay-Z got the ball rolling. According to the BBC, Jay-Z wasn't able to snag a record deal for his first CD, so he went back to the people skills he'd honed during his drug dealing days. Parking his car outside a popular hot dog joint on the intersection of 8th Street and 6th Avenue, Jay-Z and his friends would blast his music from the car stereo. When people came by and asked who was rapping, Jay-Z sold them custom CDs right out of the trunk.

This DIY approach built Jay-Z's brand within the community, and record companies started offering him deals. He turned them down. Instead, he and his friends Damon Dash and Kareem Burke formed their own record label, Roc-A-Fella Records, according to Biography. In 1996, Jay-Z's album Reasonable Doubt hit No. 23 on the Billboard 200, and then two years later, his second album, Hard Knock Life, won him a Grammy. By the dawn of the new millennium, Jay-Z was swiftly becoming one of the biggest names in rap.

It all (almost) comes crashing down

By this time, Jay-Z hadn't just made a name for himself as a rapper: He was a successful entrepreneur, businessman, and an established brand. But toward the end of 1999, one incident almost made everything fall apart, when Jay-Z attended a Manhattan party at the Kit Kat Club. By the time he entered the club, according to DJBooth, he was already fuming with rage after finding out his upcoming third album had been bootlegged a full month before its release date. By the end of the night, Jay-Z was charged with stabbing a record executive named Lance "Un" Rivera, reportedly because he believed Rivera was the one who'd bootlegged his album.

Initially pleading not guilty, the rapper faced up to 15 years in prison. He eventually pleaded guilty, and his sentence was softened to three months' probation. Speaking to CBS News, Jay-Z says the whole situation was a massive wakeup call about how fragile his newfound fame, success, and power really were. In the years since, he's never had any similar incidents, and he has noted that he's proud of how far he's come.

Jay-Z hits the stratosphere

After that near-disaster, Jay-Z got back to work, and his rap career took off like a rocket. According to Biography, Jay-Z rose to become the biggest name in hip-hop, with his albums and singles regularly taking top spots in the charts. His album The Blueprint, which came out in 2001, is considered one of the top releases of the decade. Then in 2003, at the height of his fame, Jay-Z announced he would be retiring. Why? He said he'd gotten bored, claiming that none of the competition could keep up with him. 

He released The Black Album as his last solo piece, then stopped making music ... until 2006, when he came back with a new sound, new ideas, and a new focus on edgy social topics like Hurricane Katrina. Jay-Z's couple years off the stage made his comeback all the more successful. However, his so-called "retirement" wasn't a calm, quiet period whatsoever. He'd simply taken a break from the stage so he could turn his focus toward the business side of things.

Businessman, husband, father

That "hiatus" period in the mid-2000s proved to be some of the most important years in Jay-Z's career, Biography explains. After becoming president of Def Jam Recordings, he signed on future stars like Rihanna and helped propel Kanye West from a producer to a major artist. Meanwhile, in 2004 he became the partial owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, and by 2008, he was able to leverage his Def Jam connections to create a massive entertainment company of his own (Roc Nation), as well as a clothing line (Rocawear), not to mention the 40/40 Club in New York City, and many other entrepreneurial endeavors. He also stepped into the political arena in 2008, becoming an outspoken proponent of then-candidate Barack Obama.

Throughout all this, he quietly romanced superstar singer Beyoncé Knowles, and the two shared a surprisingly small, unpublicized wedding in 2008. After experiencing a miscarriage that was initially kept private, according to The Independent, Jay-Z and Beyoncé had their first daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, in 2012. They followed this up in June 2017 with the birth of twins, a boy and a girl. Though they've faced difficult times, including Jay-Z cheating on her, they've now been together for over a decade.

Portrait of Jay-Z today

These days, Jay-Z has a net worth of at least $810 million. However, CNN points out that the surprising key to Jay-Z's success hasn't been ruthlessness, or even stubbornness — but rather, empathy. Jay-Z is open about how much therapy has helped his life, his relationship with his wife, and his ability to lead others. Because of everything he's been through, he has come to believe the major gateway to achievement is the knowledge that everything, and every emotion, is connected. Having reached a point in life where all of his youthful dreams have become real parts of his life — as The New Yorker points out, his newer songs have no need to exaggerate anything — Jay-Z still makes a point to understand those around him, to stay involved in the world, and to never forget the people who helped him along the way. Though he has now been walking the Earth for almost 50 years, there's a good chance his greatest achievements are still ahead of him.