When you’ve spent a lot of time at your craft, you learn more about yourself and the world around you. Some artists possess a certain self-awareness like this, which circulates through how they move and operate. Jay-Z is one of the best examples of his own conscious knowledge, not only because he’s arguably the most successful artist in rap, but because he’s always talked about himself and his career in a very measured manner. It’s as if every step is carefully mapped out. With Jay-Z’s 51st birthday coming up on Dec. 4, XXL is highlighting some of his most thoughtful quotes about both music and life at large. Jay-Z is well-respected, and when he speaks, people listen.
At the outset of his career, Jay-Z experienced a lot of pushback when it came time to get signed. As he discusses in one of the quotes highlighted here, he took his goals into his own hands, getting his music pressed up and taking the singles to record stores. This helped him get his name out there as a rapper on the rise. That reflects the same way he handled his career in 2009, when he tweeted that he’d never be signed to a label again. Surely, those days of working on his own (and anything he didn’t like about being signed when he was with the majors) made him step away from the traditional record deal strategy. With 13 solo albums behind him, 22 Grammy Awards wins solidified and his own full-service entertainment company Roc Nation thriving, Hov has set himself up nicely for the future.
Jay-Z is a role model within hip-hop and business, but even he had people he looked up to on the come up. One of those inspirations is famed boxer Muhammad Ali, who stood up for his beliefs and Black people as a whole. In one of the quotes showcased here, Jay explains why Ali meant so much to him, and why his decisions were impactful. He even paid homage to one of Ali’s greatest quotes on his song “F.U.T.W.”: “America tried to emasculate the greats/Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes/Wait, tell them, ‘Rumble, young man, rumble’/Try to dim your lights, tell you, ‘Be humble.'”
From being destined for greatness to accepting your past, check out words of wisdom from Jay-Z to apply to your life.
Jay-Z on Accepting Your Past
“Identity is a prison you can never escape, but the way to redeem your past is not to run from it, but to try to understand it, and use it as a foundation to grow.”—Jay-Z in his book Decoded
On Using Genuine Emotions
“If I go into a studio and find my truth of the moment, there are a number of people in the world who can relate to what I’m saying, and are going to buy into what I’m doing. Not because it’s the new thing of the moment, but because it’s genuine emotion. It’s how I feel. This is how I articulate the world.”—Jay-Z in Forbes
The Breakfast Club
“I personally don’t believe anybody could stop me. That’s really just how I believe. I was comin’, I was destined to be here.”
The New York Times
“I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected,” he said. “Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a … you’re at such an advantage.”
“You make your first album, you make some money, and you feel like you still have to show face, like, ‘I still go to the projects.’ I’m like, why? Your job is to inspire people from your neighborhood to get out. You grew up there. What makes you think it’s so cool?”—Jay-Z in his book Decoded
On Patience With Creating a Brand
“The iTunes Store wasn’t built in a day. It took Spotify 9 years to be successful…,” he tweeted in 2015, regarding the launch of TIDAL.
“That’s another thing, people are not given time to develop, they’re expected to be great. You know, from the first record, people are like, ‘You better be great!’ You can’t be great, you’re new! You have to develop. In the case of Lil Wayne, he had years and years and time to develop. He started so young, he had years to develop to who he is now. I pretty much just look for star quality; if you’re a star, you’re a star.”
“Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people, distracted by the blur of life, might miss. Just sharing that truth can be a very powerful thing.”—Jay-Z in his book Decoded
“When I came into the music, I was forced to be a CEO, I was forced to be an entrepreneur, I was forced to…because I was looking for a deal. I didn’t have this grand scheme of starting a record company and then morphing into a clothing empire. I didn’t have this five-year plan, and this 10-year plan, these business plans that people write up for themselves. I wanted a deal, I looked everywhere. I looked into every single record company for a deal. I wanted a recording contract. And when I couldn’t get a deal, it was like either quit or, you know, make your own company.”—Jay-Z on TalkAsia
On Muhammad Ali’s Impact
“I’d say Ali is first; the blend between sport and entertainment, and how he stepped outside that arena, and spoke to a group of people, and gave them hope that they could be somebody. Like he was saying, ‘I’m pretty’ at a time when Black people were told, ‘You’re ugly and monkeys’,—he was like, ‘I’m beautiful and gorgeous.’ He gave us confidence to feel we’re gorgeous and beautiful as well.”—Jay-Z in The Guardian
On Record Deals
The New York Times
“When one of us gets signed, it doesn’t end our connection to the ’hood or the streets. Our lives are still there, our cousin still needs a lawyer, our mother still can’t make the rent. This is real life.”—Jay-Z in The New York Times
The Oprah Magazine
“There’s the gift, there’s the spirit, and there’s the work—all three have to come together. If one of those things is off, it can stop you from becoming who you were meant to be.”—Jay-Z to Oprah Winfrey in The Oprah Magazine
On Being Vulnerable
“We can feel when it’s not authentic. We’re fans of music, too. It makes you cringe. I would rather not sell any records than (not tell) my truth. Because I believe that truth, whether it happens now, whether this album was successful now or 20 years from now, it was going to be successful because it was honest and it was true.”—Jay-Z to The Tennessean
On Doing It Yourself
“I got ’em to press up singles. I had to go to the record stores myself and ‘Here, take this.’ Come back, $100, $200, give him some more records. It really started like that, but it made me appreciate it, so much more. No one gave me anything.”
“Everyone needs a chance to evolve.”—Jay-Z in his book Decoded
On Creating Roc-A-Fella Records
“The genius thing that we did; we didn’t give up. We used that ‘What do they know?’ approach. We didn’t give up at that point.”
For my mother to have to live as someone that she wasn’t and hide and protect her kids, didn’t wanna embarrass her kids. For all that time, for her to sit in front of me and tell me, ‘I think I love someone. For her to sit in front of me and tell me ‘I think I love someone’; I mean, I really cried. That’s a real story. I cried because I was so happy for her that she was free.”—Jay-Z to David Letterman on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman
The New York Times
“I believe in people. I want what’s best for people. I love people, so I don’t have that sort of thing, like ‘I wanna vote Republican so I can save money, that’s not the endgame. It’s not about who got more money and who got more houses. You’ve earned it, buy what you want! You know? But don’t forget what’s important. Without people, being rich would be very boring.” – Jay-Z to The New York Times
On Moving on From Major Labels
“I will never have a ‘record deal’ again,” he tweeted in 2009.
On Supporting the #MeToo Movement
“This had to happen to purge itself…it has to happen. The movement and everything that’s going on and what we’re finding out. It’s like racism—it existed the whole time. It’s almost like we normalized it. It’s the normalization of the things we do to survive. For women to go to work knowing this sort of abuse was happening every day; because you can look and logically say, “Why would you stay there?” [But] what’s the alternative? You have to survive in America.”