“Shawn Carter was born December 4th...” are the first words Gloria Carter speaks to begin JAY-Z’s The Black Album, his eighth studio release. None of the seven albums that came prior start with a personal narrative or narrator. From the beginning, “December 4th” stood as a conceptually uncommon introduction for Jay. If you didn’t know his birthday then, you would never forget it after.
It’s been 16 years since “December 4th.” JAY-Z was 34 then, newly retired from rap, with the world as his oyster. No one knew what was next for the hip-hop superstar, and how could they? Jay at 34 had the charts and the classics, he was culture and commercial, a distinction that no other contemporary rapper balanced with his effortless zeal. Other rappers have found their footing between the spaces, but no one has reached the pinnacle of their peak as they were saying goodbye.
Now, 16 years after that short, but impactful goodbye, another December fourth is here, and JAY-Z turns 50. Knowing how many legends hip-hop has lost in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, to see Jay reach his 50s with the likes of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Rakim, Slick Rick, P. Diddy and more, it’s truly a milestone both for him and the culture. Younger rap artists can look at Jay and say, “I want that, 20-plus years in the game with the passion to create still in me.” There are a few other examples that better reinforce that real longevity is possible. More than luck is needed to turn a few hot summers into burning decades.
To commemorate JAY-Z’s 50th year, we’ve picked 30 teachable lessons from throughout his discography, which we can apply to most walks of life. Amongst the big singles and endless quotables, Jay’s nuggets of knowledge and his thoughtful outlook have made him an artist not just to study, but to enjoy. He paired the heart of a hustler with the talk of a teacher, with every album release a return to class. The best way to honor any teacher, or rapper for that matter, is to review their timeless words and remember why they matter to us.
Lesson 1: Do Not Believe Everything
Information ― both valid and inaccurate ― travels fast. Rumors often spread as verified truth, and facts become confused as childish fables. Enter: the second verse of JAY-Z’s “Ignorant Shit,” a verse opposing blind trust with realistic skepticism. Jay wants you to question what you read in headlines and hear in rap songs ― even if those words belong to one of hip-hop’s esteemed moguls. At a time when prosecutors are using rap lyrics as evidence in courtrooms and fans are citing gossip sites as credible sources, it’s important to remember that make-believe is supposed to sound convincing.
Lesson 2: Stand Back for the Perfect View
JAY-Z dedicates the third verse on “Anything” ― a deep cut found on Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter and Beanie Sigel’s The Truth ― to his nephews. He advises them with warm brashness, in a way that only a sophisticated, larger-than-life uncle could. Jay doesn’t speak of riches or how to become famous. Instead, he offers simple, coming-of-age observations. Jay’s best nugget of wisdom: “Standing back from situations gives you the perfect view.” He’s right. The closer you stand, the harder it becomes to see with big-picture clarity.
Lesson 3: Be Each Other’s Crutches
Kingdoms are built, not born, but they aren’t built alone. They require a team, crew, collective, whatever the current name is for those who help to make palaces out of stones. Roc-A-Fella Records was JAY-Z’s first kingdom, and he made sure to vocalize the knights of his roundtable. “Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches,” he raps on the 1996, Ski Beatz-produced “Feelin’ It.” This timeless mantra speaks to the strength of support; the kind of mentality necessary in corporate settings and street corners. In times of need, what’s better than a helping hand? Be supportive, build kingdoms, and don’t let each other fall.
Lesson 4: The Only Thing Worse Than Getting Old Is Not Getting Old
Aging, although painful, is a reward. JAY-Z, who released his first album at 26 years old, is now globally renowned and revered at 50. Even though getting older is a celebration, everyone wants to be younger — even Jay once said, “30 is the new 20.” On the Fool’s Paradise remix of his 1996 debut single, “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” he also said, “The only thing worse than getting old is not getting old.” Just look at Shawn Carter. He’s a testament that one year can change your life, and 10 years can change your family’s life. Imagine what he can do with 50 more. It’s not always easy, but another year is another chance, and that’s all getting old needs to offer.
Lesson 5: Watch for Friend & Foe
JAY-Z turned his hustler past into Platinum plaques without losing his streetwise skepticism. The quiet corners became sold-out stadiums. “The same sword they knight you with, they’ll good night you with,” Jay raps on the highlight-reel worthy “Grammy Family Freestyle.” The idea that every Caesar has a Brutus dates back to his debut album. It appears throughout his discography (“Friend or Foe ’98,” “A Week Ago,” and “Streets Is Talking”). Before Jay, it was Jean-Michel Basquiat who wrote, “Most young kings get their heads cut off.” Being cautious, even if you aren’t in the music business or a monarch of drug dealing, should be supported. Not everyone has your best interest at heart; we should always watch out for these people.
Lesson 6: The Art of Reintroduction
Longevity doesn’t happen without transformation. To follow JAY-Z’s career from 1996 to 2019 is to see a Marcy-project hustler change into a multifaceted business mogul. With each move, like with each album, like with each endeavor, Jay has always reintroduced himself. The throwback jerseys became Tom Ford suits; the wordy, rapid-fire flow became a slower, more conversational style of lyricism. He even went from selling CDs from the trunk of his car to purchasing a streaming service — ahem — for artists to host and monetize their music online. JAY-Z represents consistent change, not just consistent actions. Each step of the way, he has continued to reintroduce himself. Life is a journey, and Jay is a lesson in never standing still.
Lesson 7: The Motto
“My motto is, simply, ‘I will not lose!’” Jay raps on “It’s Like That,” a selection from his third studio album, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, released in 1998. More than a single line, this mantra appears throughout JAY-Z’s discography, including “Change The Game” and, most famously, the third verse and outro of “U Don’t Know.” He delivers the bar as if the spirit of a Gladiator jumped in his skin and spoke through his vessel. That confidence, to boldly say, “I will not lose!” comes from a place of unwavering self-belief. Another way to view this motto is outside of literal winning or losing, and how it’s better to claim the victory rather than questioning if you can win. Don’t wonder about the outcome, just don’t lose — ever.
Lesson 8: Be The Blueprint
What JAY-Z accomplished in hip-hop made him a star. His success, both commercially and culturally, made him a legend. How Jay and his team used his stardom in music to create businesses, build partnerships, and generate opportunities around his brand is what made him an icon. What artists and entrepreneurs alike can take from Jay’s advancements is how he continues to think ahead. That’s what being the blueprint allows you to do.
Lesson 9: Let No Amount of Money Ruin This Thing of Ours
There’s no escaping the opulence and grandiosity of JAY-Z’s lifestyle in his lyricism. Still, amid all the braggadocious celebration, he doesn’t lose sight of how money attracts the influence of greed, which can put lives and businesses in jeopardy. On “Never Change,” a fan-favorite, Jay raps, “Let no amount of money ruin this thing of ours” to no one in particular. For anyone who makes money with friends, this is an essential mantra. In any business or craft, not just music, money, when valued over a person, will create disharmony. You can always make more money, but friendships and relationships are harder to mend. Treat people with more delicacy than you would a piece of paper.
Lesson 10: Treat My First Like My Last and My Last Like My First
If The Black Album was JAY-Z’s retirement album, as he heralded it to be, “Treat my first like my last, and my last like my first” would have been one of his last messages. Even though Jay was closing a chapter, he wanted the finale to have the same drive and passion as his first. Given comfort is the luxury of wealth, this approach is easier said than done. Which is why money shouldn’t be the sole motivation in any art form. What happens once you make it? Contentment takes the place of creativity, and great art isn’t made by the complacent. So don’t forget why you started, even while crossing the finish line.
Lesson 11: Dawg, In Due Time
Trusting a process often feels like trusting a pyramid scheme. Especially for musicians, where most of the life-changing variables are often the most unpredictable. The wait can feel infinite and make you anxious, impatient, uncertain, and even depressed. Imagine how it must’ve felt to be Kanye West, signed to Roc-A-Fella Records, being told by JAY-Z, “Dawg, in due time.” Although no emerging artist wants to hear those words, “Jay’s favorite line” is inevitable advice. When the labels weren’t trying to sign Kanye, Jay waited and worked with him until they recognized his value beyond a producer. That process took many moons to manifest, but Jay wasn’t in a rush for an early harvest; he knew the seeds planted would bear fruit. Trust the process, JAY-Z did.
Lesson 12: You Can’t Heal What You Never Reveal
Maturity has made JAY-Z a more transparent rapper. With every post-retirement album, another layer is peeled back to share personal revelations that would usually go unsaid. The openness of his latest album, 4:44, feels like hearing the private testimonies of Shawn Carter, and not a public sermon by Iceberg Slim. His famous line, “You can’t heal what you never reveal,” is a mantra that reinforces how time doesn’t mend wounds that remain hidden. Nothing gets fixed without first acknowledging the problem, including trauma.
Lesson 13: Legacy, Legacy, Legacy
JAY-Z didn’t learn to move in a room full of vultures for a temporary job. No, his big-picture vision for music and his career was ownership. “My stake in Roc Nation should go to you, leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too,” Jay softly raps to his daughter Blu on the first verse of “Legacy,” the closing track on 4:44. This isn’t the first nor the only time Jay mentions generational wealth in his music. Still, it’s the clearest example of the opportunity ownership offers; a chance to give a gift to the future. You can’t give what you don’t own. To think and move as an owner in consideration of legacy is one lesson found in JAY-Z’s music that will stand the test of time.
Lesson 14: Live Enormous
Why settle for good if you have the promise to be great? Why stop at rich if you can be wealthy? JAY-Z, as both a rapper and a businessman, does not speak as someone who settles or accepts the bare minimum. The line “I’d rather die enormous than live dormant” is one of his most-quoted, a modus operandi advocating living as your largest self. Not everyone has that insatiable ambition to be large. Still, if you do, Jay is an example of what can happen when you break ceilings instead of shrinking to fit in rooms that can’t contain your genius. Living enormous does not mean chasing wealth or fame ― it means choosing to outdo the odds by betting on yourself.
Lesson 15: Hustle Hard In Any Hustle That You Pick
Life is a series of choices. Some you make, and some are made for you, but they all have a cause and effect. JAY-Z chose to hustle. He hustled on street corners and at studios, on stages, and in board rooms. Talent is always a factor, so is status and socio-economic circumstances, but on any given day, tenacity can create a miracle out of the impossible. Jay is someone who turns every opportunity into another opportunity, because hard work, when done correctly, doesn’t go unnoticed. If there is any lesson to take from Jay’s endurance, it’s hustling hard will open more doors than not. Choose your hustle wisely.
Lesson 16: I Might Break, But I Don’t Fold
At random points throughout the past 23 years, JAY-Z has found himself in the furnace. Despite participating in some of the most heated moments in hip-hop, Jay’s poise never breaks under extreme pressure. “I don’t bend, break, fold, scratch, go down,” he raps on 2000 single “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” a sentiment he reprised on American Gangster’s self-titled outro 11 years later: “When it all falls down, I’m like Kanye’s jaw, I might break but I don’t fold.” Musically, JAY-Z doesn’t allow his ice-cold composure to be compromised. The furnace is only as hot as you will enable it to be. Life will bring pressure — that’s unavoidable — but only you determine if you crack underneath it.
Lesson 17: Number One Rule For Your Set
The first time JAY-Z mentions living with regret is on the outro of his classic debut, Reasonable Doubt. “This is the number one rule for your set, to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets,” he confesses. Success, much like regret, comes with taking risks and making mistakes. As a recurring theme in his music, Jay never makes regret feel like a burden. His attitude is always to fix what can be fixed, accept what can’t be changed, and share your errors so others may avoid them. “Hov did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that,” he famously says on “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” In 2017, re-explores this sentiment on “The Story of O.J,” confessing to the financial folly of buying luxury cars instead of investing in prime real estate.
Lesson 18: Do Not Be Brainless
There will be times when the mightiest sword is the one remaining in its sheath. “If I shoot you, I’m brainless, but if you shoot me, then you’re famous,” JAY-Z raps to begin “Streets Is Watching,” a classic cut from his 1997 sophomore album, In My Life Time, Vol. 1. The line captures the conundrum of being challenged by an adversary who can fight without equal consequence. When tested, the wise mustn’t disregard their wisdom. Jay speaks to how the calculated, not the careless, are always aware of the stakes. Do what you think is best, but always think, because it may cost you.
Lesson 19: They’ll Distract You
The beef and battles JAY-Z has fought were written in hip-hop’s history books long before his 50th birthday. In competitive fields, challengers come with the territory of rising the ranks. He rose, he fought and continued to grow. Going through these motions is why he raps, “Here’s how they gon’ come at you, with silly rap feuds, tryin’ to distract you” on “Light Up,” a 2011 feature found on Drake’s debut, Thank Me Later. Drake didn’t heed the warning, but Jay was right; conflict is a distraction. Not just in rap, but in life. Why waste time on the yelps of dogs if you lead a pack of wolves? Try to remember this next time the urge comes to engage.
Lesson 20: Kill Your Ego, Kinda
On the intro of 4:44, Shawn Carter kills JAY-Z, the personification of his ego. The death sets the tone for the album’s refreshing clarity. On the seventh song, “Bam,” JAY-Z returns, saying, “Sometimes you need your ego, gotta remind these fools.” Conceptually, the resurrection is a great thematic texture, but it’s also essential life advice. Think of one’s ego as armor that is created to weather through storms. Knowing when to wear and remove the ego is one of the best lessons found on JAY-Z’s most mature body of work.
Lesson 21: Fading To Black
What JAY-Z did in 2004 with The Black Album, followed by his temporary retirement, showed hip-hop and the world at large how to say goodbye. You don’t go out quietly ― you leave loud and large like Just Blaze production. You don’t make your speech modest ― you make it unforgettable and outstanding like the first verse of “Public Service Announcement (Interlude).” As a model of grandeur extravagance, The Black Album is all about exiting in a blaze of glory. Fading to black is about one more moment of ruckus, not merely stepping into retirement. May your openings and your closings both be grand.
Lesson 22: The Only Christopher We Shall Acknowledge Is…
Hip-hop doesn’t take kindly to lies and politicians. Hip-hop puts belief in the wordsmiths who choose to tell the stories of their lives and neighborhoods. “The only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace, I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket,” Jay raps on 2017’s “Ocean.” He takes power away from a liar and uplifts one of the greatest rappers ever to live. Biggie was no saint, but he was ours. Lyrically, Jay doesn’t stop finding ways to lift peers and legends. Acknowledgment, even the smallest nod, can inspire voices to speak the names of their heroes instead of false prophets.
Lesson 23: Keep Fame at a Distance
In 2019, it’s easier to gain a million followers than to make a million dollars. Imagine having both and how attention and wealth create a life of invaded privacy and financial freedom. Even for JAY-Z, things can get messy. It wasn’t until Kingdom Come, his 2006 comeback album, that Jay started to speak openly about his relationship with fame. “Fame is the worst drug known to man, it’s stronger than heroin,” he says on the single “Lost Ones.” He even warns that it’s not for the faint of heart on the Beyonce-assisted “Hollywood.” His particular perspective, although harsh, speaks to the reality of mass attention. Every life in the shadows is affected by their spotlight.
Lesson 24: Whatever The Cost
“My life is based on sacrifices,” JAY-Z says on “Politics As Usual,” the second track on his debut album Reasonable Doubt. The line informs listeners on how life before music wasn’t a perfect sitcom. In your mid-twenties, just a stumble away from 30, different kinds of anxieties and concerns start to set in. That’s not what you hear from Jay, though. His voice isn’t weighed down by uncertainty. When he says, “By any means necessary, whatever the cost” on the last verse of “Allure,” it’s like a seven-word manifesto of how he pushed through the impossible. If what you’re building is supposed to resemble what JAY-Z has built, one’s attitude and ambition must be a match.
Lesson 25: The Game Will Play You
There’s a leech with a record contract for every microphone in Guitar Center. JAY-Z knows this. He doesn’t pretend the music industry is fair. Jay saw firsthand the shady business that affected mentor Jaz-O and fellow Brooklyn rap group The Cold Crush Brothers. They weren’t the only ones, either. “When you first come in the game, they try to play you,” he raps on the Kanye West-produced “Encore,” a lyric that is still relevant 16 years later. Anyone who sees music or entertainment — or any industry with a shifting hierarchy — as a potential profession must be aware that the game only attracts two kinds of people: the players and the played.
Lesson 26: Measure Success By…
How does one measure success? Is it based on wealth? Status? Respect? This question doesn’t have a single answer. Remember: the entrepreneur, not the customer, defines success. JAY-Z flaunts his accolades and finds pride in his accomplishments, but he’s careful not to lose what success is to him. He says it best in “BOSS,” from THE CARTERS 2018 album EVERYTHING IS LOVE: “Over here we measure success by how many people successful next to you, here we say you broke if everybody is broke except for you.” That metric of success is for the unselfish who sees being a boss as a privilege to help others, and not just help yourself. Why choose to be a crab in a barrel, when you can be the captain of a ship?
Lesson 27: Nobody Wins When…
Family is never far from JAY-Z’s thoughts — the voice of his mother, the laugh of his daughter, the singing of his wife, the names of uncles and nephews, aunts, and other artists he reveres. On every album, Jay includes a posse-celebration (“All I Need,” “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)...,” “Friends”), a record that shows but a corner of a career-long painting of camaraderie. With that said, Jay isn’t a stranger to feuds within the family. He represents how we build dynasties and how they can collapse. “No one wins when the family feuds,” Jay told us in 2017, a relevant mantra that will continue to be meaningful.
Lesson 28: A Loss Ain’t a Loss
Yes, this lesson conflicts with JAY-Z’s central motto, but how he feels about losing is his best contradiction. Even before rapping, “A loss ain’t a loss it’s a lesson,” on 2017’s “Smile,” Jay posed a similar ideology on 2002’s Blueprint². “I will not lose, for even in defeat, there’s a valuable lesson learned, so it evens up for me,” he raps. JAY-Z is still a titan at war, but he isn’t hungry enough for a victory to become jaded. When triumphant doesn’t come without bumps, wear the knots like a crown. They bring enlightenment that a win doesn’t offer. The motto is still the motto. Don’t learn too many lessons.
Lesson 29: Diamonds Are Forever
JAY-Z’s 2007 single “Blue Magic,” produced by Pharrell Williams, closes with this quote from Denzel Washington in the role of Frank Lucas for the movie American Gangster: “Blue Magic, that’s a brand name, like Pepsi, that’s a brand name I stand behind it, I guarantee.” Like Lucas, Jay understands good branding. Part of his brand is the dynasty sign. What’s a better symbol for a man of fortune and lasting durability than a diamond? “If you’re waitin’ for the end of the Dynasty sign, it would seem like forever is a mighty long time,” he raps on the remix of Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” in 2005. The end has still yet to come. That’s a brand you can trust.
Lesson 30: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered
JAY-Z is the greatest rapper to ever stand behind a microphone. If he is not the best now, history will tell our children otherwise in the years to come. Talent and taste are subjective, but no one in hip-hop has put more points on the board. Jay has been in every gym and has scored on every bucket. The milestone of turning 50 years-old adds another brag to his endless repertoire of stunts — a repertoire no other rapper can recite. JAY-Z didn’t start one, but he has ended up in a league of his own. All hail Hov, the first and the last of his kind. May we learn all we can learn from him while he’s here, and remember all he taught us on the day that he leaves.