The Jay-Z Brand Decoder | Adweek The Jay-Z Brand Decoder | Adweek
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The Jay-Z Brand Decoder

Prolific, cryptic, and intellectual, Jay-Z is a rap icon whose brand goes well beyond the music

Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

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Hip-hop has more than a few playaz in the 35 percent tax bracket. Lil Wayne's not-so-little bank account holds an estimated $85 million. 50 Cent, with a net value of $250 million, has the distinction of being worth 500 million times the amount in his name. But of these musicians/businessmen (they've all done an endorsement deal or two, and can certainly sell music)--only one has leapfrogged the demographic boundaries of rap to become, in one cross-cultural, multi-categorical swoop, a living brand. That would be Shawn Carter, known to all--including those fans who've bought 50 million of his recordings--as Jay-Z. His estimated worth: $450 million.

Carter's success is an unlikely one. Raised by his mother in Brooklyn's low-income Marcy Houses, he was dealing crack by age 13. But Carter--whose stage name is a reference to the J and Z subway lines that ran through his neighborhood--had two things going for him: a talent for words (when Oprah asked him in 2009 if he liked anything about grade school, Carter said, "I loved English"); and a nose for business. Unwilling to trust the sharks at the record companies, Jay-Z created his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, in 1995. He's since racked up more No. 1 records than Elvis Presley.

Carter's fame opened doors. His business efforts range from his own megabrands, like Rocawear, to helping upstarts like beauty brand Carol's Daughter. It's his choosing which doors to go through--and being hands-on once he does--that distinguishes Carter from others who just name-slap for the sake of royalty checks.

"He's managed his brand very well, and he's always been very conscious of the value of it," says longtime friend and business associate Steve Stoute. "His first success came from betting on himself, so he understands the power of that."

"It's important not to discount the impact of his music," adds Zack O'Malley Greenburg, author of Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind. "He keeps releasing good stuff year after year. That success really fuels his other business ventures."

A snapshot of those ventures follows here.

1. Restaurants Dom Perignon meets buffalo wings at Carter's 40/40 Clubs in Manhattan and Atlantic City. He also owns a stake in New York's The Spotted Pig (he liked it so much, he bought the building).

2. Music As if 11 No. 1 albums and 14 Grammy Awards aren't street cred enough, Jay-Z was also founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, president of Def Jam Recordings, and now runs Roc Nation, a venture with Live Nation that manages, records, distributes, and promotes artists such as Bridget Kelly, Hugo, Willow Smith, and J. Cole.

3. Books After pulling out of a deal for a memoir (too many personal deets reportedly made him nervous), Jay-Z finally released Decoded in 2010. Part autobiography, part lyric explanation, the book is a New York Times best-seller.

4. Advertising When everything you do turns into stuff people buy, you might as well be an adman. That's exactly what Carter did in 2008, co-founding Translation Advertising with record industry vet Steve Stoute. So far, the duo's efforts have included Justin Timberlake's rendition of "I'm Lovin' It" for McDonald's, and the Cherry Coke can redesign. Jay-Z, Stoute told us, "knows where youth culture is headed."

5. Apparel After starting the Rocawear label in 1999, Jay-Z sold it in 2007 for $204 million to Iconix--which was smart enough to keep him on as creative director. (It was Carter who decided that baggy jeans were over.)

6. Athletics Carter is part owner of the Brooklyn Nets, which will play in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., when it opens in 2012. He hopes to win fans for the former Jersey team by headlining the arena. (He also hopes the Nets will start winning, too.)