Jay-Z is a legend. We’re not here to debate that today. The rap titan has dominated the music scene during his career, racking up the most Billboard 200 #1 albums of any solo artist in history. But did you know that’s he’s also hip-hop’s first billionaire? Here’s how Jay-Z made his fortune–and increased it by 40 percent in a single week!
From the Projects to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Before he was Jay-Z, Shawn Carter was a kid from the projects in Brooklyn. He and his three brothers and sisters were raised by their mom, Gloria, and his childhood was anything but idyllic.
He went to school with rappers AZ, Notorious B.I.G., and Busta Rhymes but ended up never graduating. Instead, he sold drugs and dodged bullets. But at home, his mother noticed that her son had a gift. His innate sense of rhythm and love for music blossomed into a fledgling career as a rapper.
During the late 80s, Carter was under the wing of Jaz-O, a rapper and record producer who was from the same housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Although just five years older than Carter, the young rapper looked up to his mentor so much that it influenced his choice of stage name.
Jay-Z mostly made appearances on other rappers’ recordings throughout the first decade of his career, including Big Daddy Kane, DMX, and Ja Rule. He wouldn’t release his first single until 1995 with “In My Lifetime,” but the record wasn’t the express shot to stardom that he hoped it would be.
Climbing the Charts
How do you get to be as successful as Jay-Z? It’s not just about talent–although that’s a huge part of it. It’s also about hustle. After failing to score a record deal following his first single, Jay-Z decided to start his own independent label. He sold CDs from his car and continued to collaborate (and sometimes start beef, including with LL Cool J) until inking a deal with Priority.
Jay-Z’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, made a splash when it debuted in 1996. However, he jumped ship to join Def Jam the following year and reached new heights with In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. The follow-up album would be certified 5X Platinum, setting the standard for the rest of his career, and earned him a Grammy award.
He partnered with major stars like Mariah Carey, Swizz Beats, and Timbaland during the late 90s and early 00s, displaying an uncanny knack for hot collaborations. In addition, he took on a mentoring role for up-and-coming artists, just as Jaz-O had done for him. His most famous protege is, of course, Kanye West.
Legal Trouble and Controversy
In 1999, Jay-Z was involved in an altercation with Lance Rivera, a record producer, in New York City. Jay-Z and Rivera encountered each other at the infamous Kit Kat Club during an album release party for Q-Tip. Allegedly, Rivera had sold bootleg copies of Jay-Z’s album Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter ahead of its official release. The fight ended with Rivera being treated for multiple stab wounds.
Jay-Z plead guilty in 2001, and he received a relatively minor sentence of three years probation. He would later explain in his book Decoded (2010) that he had blacked out with anger. “There was no reason to put my life on the line, and the lives of everyone who depends on me, because of a momentary loss of control. […] I vowed to never allow myself to be in a situation like that again.”
The other major stumbling block in Jay-Z’s story happened after his marriage to Beyoncé. After the 2014 Met Gala, Solange Knowles went off on her brother-in-law in an elevator, the first significant sign of trouble. Rumors would continue to swirl until the couple confirmed it: Jay-Z had cheated on Queen Bey. After dealing with the public fallout, the couple sought counseling and is now more solid than ever.
He would later tell David Letterman, “We did the hard work of going to therapy. We love each other, so we really put in the work for years.” Fans also got the Beyoncé album Lemonade out of the ordeal, so we can’t exactly complain. But I think we’re all grateful that music’s top power couple was able to work things out.
In the same candid interview on Letterman’s Netflix series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Jay-Z also confirmed that his mother, Gloria, had come out as a lesbian. He revealed finding a sense of closure about his father, who abandoned their family when he was 11. Jay-Z has worked through the trauma of his experience through his music, but he claims to understand his father more as he’s gotten older. Although the father and son only had a brief window to reconcile before Aldis Reeves died in 2003, Jay-Z said, “I have compassion for what [my dad] went through, which was anger.”
Business Empire State of Mind
Being one of the bestselling solo artists in the world wasn’t enough for Jay-Z. He also applied his energy and creativity to a string of business ventures throughout his life.
Along with Damon Dash, Jay-Z founded Rocawear, a street fashion label similar to Daymond John’s FUBU. He sold the brand to Iconix in 2007 for a sweet $204 million, proving that he was a master of not just rhymes but business acumen. He bet big on TIDAL, a Spotify competitor, and scored an incredible payday earlier this year when he sold a majority stake to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. That deal reportedly earned him $302 million on his original $56 million investment in the company.
Incredibly, he inked that deal just a week after he arranged to sell half ownership in his champagne company, Armand de Brignac, to LVMH. His net worth jumped 40 percent in spring 2021 thanks to those transactions, but I do not doubt that he will continue making deals and wise investments.
Jay-Z’s business deals follow a predictable pattern: He helps launch an innovative brand or project, figures out how to make it wildly profitable, and then sells out for a massive payday. In that way, he’s following the playbook of the most successful entrepreneurs in tech and other industries. His catalog of music is, of course, an incredible legacy. But his investment portfolio is no less impressive in its own way.
According to Forbes, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have amassed a $120 million art and real estate portfolio. He also holds about $425 million in investments in a wide variety of buzzy businesses. We’re talking everything from Uber and SpaceX to Oatly, a plant-based beverage company. He’s also betting on JetSmart, an Uber-style model for private jets, to take off (pun intended).
His next big project might end up being focused on cryptocurrency. We’ve written extensively about the topic at Mind Your Dollars, and for a good reason. Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies are poised to change the world. Jay-Z, ever the innovator, wants in on that. In a March 2021 interview, he said:
We’re all creatures of habit. There was a time when we all looked at the internet and said, ‘there’s not a chance I’m going to put my credit card on that thing’. We’re all afraid of change, but I think that we are best served as human beings always to keep ourselves open to all possibilities. For me, my belief is in anything that offers more democracy to the people. I want to take a look at anything that allows people, small business owners, to participate in the growing economy without having to go through hoops.”
Jay-Z and Beyoncé: Ultimate Power Couple
While Beyoncé is a bigger hitmaker in the era of digital singles, raking in $26 million compared to Jay-Z’s $17.5 million, the rap mogul has higher overall album sales. Beyoncé has earned $15 million from album sales, while Jay-Z’s records have brought in nearly twice that with $27.5 million.
However, it’s worth noting that those figures don’t include Destiny’s Child, so don’t count Bey out. As a power couple, they made $345 million with their combined “On the Run” tours. Both of them earn bank from solo tours as well–the Formation World Tour brought in $256 million alone!
But although Beyoncé is arguably the more public of the pair–and despite her business ventures with Ivy Park and her fragrance line–Jay-Z’s net worth eclipses that of his wife. From his combined investments, businesses, and album sales, Jay-Z’s net worth is a staggering $1.4 billion.
Don’t worry, though–although they are wealthy beyond most folks’ wildest dreams, the Carters are also committed to giving back. He and his mom founded The Shawn Carter Foundation in 2003 to award college scholarships to kids who were struggling. He donated half a million dollars to aid the victims of Hurriance Katrina and continues to pitch in to support Black Lives Matter protestors in need of bail money. Jay-Z’s most recent philanthropic headline was when he donated a million dollars to help New York City get through the pandemic.
As Jay-Z famously said, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” And business is booming.