Can’t Knock the Hustle: The Blueprint of a Billionaire Brand

This month, Forbes reported that JAY-Z’s fortune “conservatively totals $1 billion.” You already know the king in America’s royal couple is super rich, but how he built his dynasty is remarkable. Twenty-three years ago this week, he dropped his debut album with business partners Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs through their own imprint, because major record labels couldn’t see their vision. Today, that thought seems crazy to imagine. JAY-Z is not only “the Mike Jordan of the mic recording,” he’s a brand name with multiple business ventures, making him the first hip-hop billionaire. As we celebrate Black Excellence and Black Music Month, here are five things marketers can learn from JAY-Z’s bars when it comes to brand building.

1. If everybody in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged. Nobody will fall, ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches. – “Feelin’ It,” 1996

This bar from JAY-Z’s debut album defined his business model. While we often hear about self-made success stories, the story of JAY-Z can’t be told without Dame Dash and Kareem Biggs. He wisely surrounded himself with a team who was equally hungry and focused. Reasonable Doubt was supposed to be his only album, then they would focus on the business side, and take over the rap game. Though the former thankfully didn’t happen, the latter did. While he was running an $18MM tour, Biggs was helping to drive Rocawear to $700MM in annual sales, and Dame was growing the label roster and diversifying the brand portfolio. While most wouldn’t give Kanye West the time of day as a rapper, “Dame believed.” From that came The College Dropout, which reshaped pop culture. When the Roc started to crumble, ’Ye stayed with JAY-Z, and his influence on his success is evident. But, the world doesn’t get the greatest album of the decade without Dame seeing what he saw in him, and the rise of Kanye’s crew in fashion had roots with Rocawear and Biggs. JAY-Z said “R-O-C is the strongest team.” Assembling a strong team, and outlining a clearly defined goal, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities will steer your brand towards success.

2. Show ’em how to move in a room full of vultures. Industry is shady, it needs to be taken over. – “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” 2001

While culture vultures thrive off the click-bait narrative that hip-hop is divided, JAY-Z rewrites the narrative. Not only did JAY-Z support Meek Mill through his exhausting legal troubles, but he penned an op-ed, and spent millions on his legal fees. With countless people of color adversely affected by an unjust “justice” system, he and Meek joined others to change it, creating the REFORM Alliance. He brought the story of Kalief Browder to audiences, showing the horrors of this unjust system, and will tell Meek Mill and Trayvon Martin’s story next. Lil Wayne revealed that when he was dealing with a back taxes situation, JAY-Z helped him, even though they had an ongoing rap beef. Earlier this year as 21 Savage was facing deportation, he spoke out and intervened. At his recent B-Sides 2 show, he took the unity further, bringing out Cam’ron, a former Roc artist who he’d been feuding with for years, to perform one of New York City’s greatest anthems period – a true cultural moment that most thought would never happen. Just last weekend, after a video went viral showing Phoenix police threatening to kill a Black couple in front of their children, Roc Nation again stepped up. JAY-Z really does this for the culture. For brands trying to build awareness and loyalty, the focus should be on purpose, culture, and authenticity, as young people expect the brands they back to back social causes, be culturally aware, and be real.

3. What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially if they’re from the same hue as you. — “Family Feud,” 2017

While JAY-Z promised “we gon’ reach a billi first,” he is equally famous for putting his people in positions to profit. Kanye evolved from producer to MC to creative designer, and brought his crew up with him. It’s no surprise that his latest drop quickly sold out, and had consumers lined up online, and on the block. Rihanna followed JAY-Z’s blueprint, proven to be a model that “will not lose,” as she is now the world’s richest female musician. Kevin Hart, named one of the Top 50 standup comedians of all time, had his first starring role in a Roc-a-fella film. Emory Jones, a day one, leads Roc Nation branding and has a successful sportswear partnership. Virgil Abloh, named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people, just unveiled his first-ever museum exhibition, and his rise in fashion has roots with The Roc. JAY-Z indeed did “reach a billi first.” Rihanna’s new partnership makes her the first Black woman to lead a major luxury fashion house.his Virgil’s appointment as menswear artistic director made him the first African-American head of a top French fashion house. By building a strong team and empowering them to build their own teams, JAY-Z was able to increase his brand equity through the brands that consistently branch out from the Roc-a-fella family tree.

4. Put me anywhere on God’s green earth, I’ll triple my worth. – “U Don’t Know,” 2001

When offered a record deal, JAY-Z, Dame and Biggs instead sold 50% of their label to Def Jam for $15MM, and then sold the other half for $10MM. JAY-Z then brokered a deal that made him CEO while still running Roc-a-fella. This go-getter mentality allowed JAY-Z to grow as an entrepreneur, transitioning from music to business. While the value of his original stake in a champagne brand was estimated to be $50M, Forbes estimates that his bet on himself is now worth $310MM. His early investment in a ride-sharing service paid off with the announcement of its IPO, and when he invested in an NBA franchise and brought a team to Brooklyn, he later sold his stake for a massive return. His entertainment company has expanded to manage some the world’s top artists across genres, and top athletes across sports, and as streaming began to take over music he bought TIDAL, releasing exclusive content to compete with other services. His latest album, 4:44 saw him contemplating the future, talking generational wealth. JAY-Z knew the smart play is to think of your long-term brand strategy, control your brand narrative, and build sustainable brand loyalty. Nipsey Hussle learned much of this from JAY-Z, who was an early supporter and mentor. But, back to this bar. He really did triple his worth from 2005 to 2018.

5. I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars. They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla.” – “Moment of Clarity,” 2001

With his debut hailed as a hustler’s handbook, purists have criticized JAY-Z for becoming too commercial, going back to the singles from In My Lifetime… Vol. 1. We saw in this change in direction peak on Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, when he dropped a lead single with an Annie sample. But, it was that song that propelled JAY from street fame to the suburbs, to reach a much larger audience and expand his fan base. The tour broke records in sales, and made JAY-Z a household name. As an MC admired for the intricate metaphors and wordplay he flexed on his first album, JAY absorbed the criticism to extend his reach, with the end goal in mind. He built a brand name he could stand by, and one that people would want to support and align with, from the block to the boardroom, and he’s still breaking tour records. While some purists are big mad, nobody can deny his influence on pop culture, which extends from pro sports to presidents.

The biggest lesson marketers and brands should learn from JAY-Z is how to evolve. JAY-Z is a globally recognized brand that reaches every cultural and socioeconomic demographic. He’s marketable on “any Martin Luther,” from Marcy Projects, to Middle America. His stock continues to skyrocket, making him a valuable partner for brands and businesses. He established a unique relevance that transcends cultures. JAY-Z’s brand strategy is the blueprint for the total market code that brands are trying to crack. He even decoded it, if you dudes listen to music, and don’t just skim through it.