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Coachella 2010: Why Jay-Z is still hungry

April 16, 2010 |  7:18 pm

Jayz Is it not enough to land one of the richest deals in pop music history, marry into R&B/pop royalty and score 11 No. 1 albums? Jay-Z has done all that plus shattered the glass ceiling for straight-up hip-hop acts playing the mainstage at Coachella (respect to the Beastie Boys).

The Times’ chief pop critic Ann Powers may have put it best when she noted that Jay-Z is “taking strong steps to adjust his place in history from the ‘great’ category to the ‘legendary.’ ”

Just a couple of hours before he's due to go on, it's worth considering.

But to hear it from Hovi Baby, who turned 40 in December, he’s hardly content to slide by on past glories. With the same icy professionalism that has defined his most notable career moves -- investing in the successful chain of 40/40 Club sports bars, taking on part ownership of the New Jersey Nets basketball team -- Jay-Z has surveyed the marketplace and run a diagnostic on his biggest liabilities.

And the man who anointed himself “the greatest rapper alive” cops to a surprising level of insecurity as he slides toward middle age.

“I have the biggest challenge of them all, I believe,” Jay told The Times last month at the New York offices of his clothing label Rocawear. “Hip-hop in its 32-whatever years has always been viewed as a young man’s game. Hip-hop has always been about the gift of discovery. What’s new? Yeah, I know Jay-Z. That’s ain’t even cool to say he’s good anymore. It’s cool to say MC Nobody and put that on my iPod.”

“Hip-hop is all about ‘You doing this? I’m doing that’ -- the individualism it gave you," he continued. “People are like, ‘Oh, that’s fresh!’ Fresh: the biggest word in hip-hop.”

In an age of fad dances and auto-tune-dominated gimmick-raps, when popularity is judged by ring-tone download ubiquity as much as radio play, Jay-Z feels a strong sense of obligation to hip-hop culture -- instead of to his ego, his concert promoter Live Nation or the bottom line -- to continue coming correct.

“So my challenge is to expand,” he said. “To grow hip-hop and the genre. My job, Eminem’s job, everyone who’s been performing for more than a year, our job is to push this thing forward and find some kind of truth in where we are now. It has to be about something. Truth, emotion, growth. In order for us to survive as a legitimate genre of music, we have to stretch out.”

-- Chris Lee

Photo: Rapper Jay-Z and musician Ira Tuton of Yeasayer backstage during Day 1 of the Coachella Valley Music & Art Festival 2010 held at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2010 in Indio, California. Credit: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images