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How Jay-Z & Lil Wayne Bridged the Gap on “Hello Brooklyn 2.0”

A peculiar partnership that was years in the making, Boardroom explores how a Beastie Boys reboot united eras and audiences on American Gangster.

Fifteen years ago, rap fans of all origins were faced with two totem questions:

  1. Had Jay-Z lost a step?
  2. Could Lil Wayne stay on a subject?

Ascending from street corner to corner office, fans felt Hov’s best art was behind him following 2006’s Kingdom Come. Growing older in a young man’s game, the pace of play was changing thanks to the constant hum of blogs breaking new music.

Photo by Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic

Feeding that appetite was Wayne: a shape-shifting bar dropper with an endless amount of freestyles.

While rap fans in the ’90s were willing to wait two years for a new Nas album, kids coming up in the 2000s had content at their fingertips and a shortened attention span.

Enamored by random and rapid punchlines akin to a Family Guy DVD set, Wayne wasn’t here to tell you a story; he was here to annihilate any radio rap record with references to Steve Largent, styrofoam cups, and the Gremlins.

Playing the same game but aligned with different eras, regions, and audiences, the two came together on a 2007 concept album inspired by Denzel Washington.

So, how did the best rapper alive since the best rapper retired break bread with his hero? Boardroom breaks it all down on the 15th anniversary of American Gangster.

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President Carter

As the active head of the Def Jam administration, 2007 was a relatively tame year where Jay-Z’s rap roster was concerned.

Acts like Redman, Fabolous, and Ghostface Killah still had hits in the tank but struggled to sell in the era of online pirating. Over on the R&B side, Ne-Yo proved palatable with Because of You going gold, while Rihanna ascended her global reach on the multi-platinum Good Girl Gone Bad.

Heading into the fall, Hov had another earner on his hands with the release of Graduation, Kanye West’s third studio album. While West was taking rap into the future, Jay-Z, the artist, was looking back. Following the corporate comeback that was Kingdom Come, his lowest-figure studio album in a decade, it was time to revisit the past — and adjacent inspiration.

Jay Z Lil Wayne
Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

As Jay climbed the corporate ladder, still looking to regain his grip artistically, performer peer Denzel Washington was still surging critically and commercially. Cast as the lead in American Gangster — a period piece seven years in the making with a budget exceeding $100 million — Denzel took on the persona of Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas.

Detailing the drug trade in the 1960s and 1970s in New York, the storyline sparked something in Jay.

“It immediately clicked with me,” Jay told The New York Times in 2007.

Concocting a concept album, Hov had a new idea based on something old. At once, he could reclaim his core fan base while drafting off the marketing machine of an acclaimed movie. In an essence, he was bringing back mafioso rap — a sub-genre The Firm fumbled a decade prior.

Working with familiar faces from New York’s hip-hop scene, the project reunited Roc-a-Fella alumni with Bad Boy brass Diddy, a pairing not seen on a Hov album since the shiny suit sheen of 1997’s “I Know What Girls Like.” Both had remained relevant in rap and business, taking on parallel paths in their pursuit of success. Just the same, both had outgrown audiences that learned to love their early endeavors.

Jay Z Lil Wayne
Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage

“People see me as far as the glamorous life shit or just think of me as someone who’s shit crossed over, going pop or whatever,” Puff told Elliott Wilson in 2007.

“Sometimes they may forget about the Lox album, the Biggie albums the Mary My Life, 411 albums, and some of the hardest rawest shit ever to come out of New York in the last 10 years. We did those albums. To be honest, the hardest album to come from a New York rapper, I produced it.”

For the first time in what felt like forever, music man Puff was back in the cut.

This time, the temperature, inspiration, and origin were all different, even if it was Sean Combs’ own artistic ambitions that started the process all along.

“The ‘American Gangster’ record was actually a demo for Puff,” Just Blaze told Boardroom in September of the album’s title track. “But Jay liked it so much.”

Being quite Frank, Jay looked to Lucas and the artistry of Denzel to take his storytelling and beat selection back to the old days, building a world in which the concept could fully take shape.

“Sonically, that album sounds very much like that era,” Just Blaze said. “That was kind of our lane already coming off the Blueprint albums.”

Relying heavily on The Hitmen while pulling in heat from The Neptunes, Toomp, Jermaine Dupri, and Just Blaze himself, a classic was quickly composed, recalling the lightning-in-a-bottle inspiration of the original Blueprint. Unlike previous pop plays, the album was all killer and no filler, sacrificing structure or commercial steering for what would be the uncut raw.

Even the deep cuts came from a place few fans expected.

“The thing nobody talks about is ‘No Hook,'” Just Blaze said. “I called an orchestra to play the strings instead of a hook. We tried a lot of different hooks from a lot of different artists, but nobody really nailed it. The rhymes were so dope and the beats were so good it didn’t need a hook.”

Back in his bag — no longer his briefcase — the hustler persona of American Gangster granted Jay the ultimate rebound. Critics of Kingdom Come came back to love the homage to the oldies.

“It was all coming from that era,” Just Blaze said.

Reclaiming his crown, the throne returned to its rightful owner.

However, while Hov had New York back, an emerging talent from New Orleans was rewriting the rules to rap. Untied to a topic, the surrogate son of Birdman was speeding past his peers by demolishing all of their top tracks with his own flurry of freestyles.

Loved in Louisiana but suddenly seen by all, Lil Wayne was ascending. Hot Boy turned D Boy, his unbounded creativity was catching on by way of new platforms of proliferation, upending the regionalism that long ruled rap.

Yes, Weezy F was from the South. However, he belonged to the Internet.

Embrace the Martian

Twenty-six years: that’s how long it took Jay-Z to find his path.

Lil Wayne on the other hand? Less than half that.

At the tender age of 12, Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. was signed by Cash Money Records. By 17, he had his own solo studio album sold at Sam Goody stores across the country, making him a Cash Money Millionaire not just in title but in earning appeal.

From Hollygrove to Hollywood, Wayne grew up fast, performing at The Tunnel by 14 and having his own platinum plaque three years later. Around the industry, artists had an affinity for Wayne thanks to his innate charisma and unique voice.

Among those artists? Jay-Z.

Being a businessman before becoming a renowned rapper, Jay was a master of marketing when it came to tapping new territories and aligning with up-and-coming talent. With only two years of being ten toes down in the game, Hov had already staked a claim in New Orleans by appearing on the “Ha” remix, returning the favor by featuring Juvenile on his own album shortly after.

All the while, Hov was building his own infantry of artists up and down the Northeast.

Over the course of the early aughts, Jay-Z expanded his portfolio of performers to include Harlem’s own Cam’ron, Philadelphia’s Freeway, and a kid from Chicago named Kanye West. Rap’s radio reign forecasted more magic from the South, with Hov soon courting Cash Money’s last remaining superstar, Lil Wayne.

While the new millennium had been kind to Jay, it’d been far harsher to New Orleans and its chosen son. Back home, Birdman and Mannie Fresh were feuding and big breadwinner Juvenile had fled for Jive. To make matters worse, Wayne’s sophomore and junior albums bricked, making many start to wonder what would be left of the house the Williams Brothers built.

By 2004, the energy shifted.

Wayne’s fourth album, Tha Carter, caught commercial and critical acclaim. Growing dreads and paying homage to rap’s elder Carter, young Wayne worked his way back into Rap City rotation through D Boy branding and R&B features. This swan song glow-up mixed with the shaky situation at Cash Money made the Jiggaman put his GM hat on.

Jay Z Lil Wayne
Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Around 2005, Hov hosted Wayne at the 40/40 with Derek Jeter and Denzel Washington in attendance. As Wayne tells it, his hero pitched him a lowball contract worth $175,000 to flee from New Orleans and join The Roc.

Impressed by the interest but offended by the offer, Wayne went back to Cash Money where Birdman quickly appointed him president of the label.

Jay claims he reached out to Birdman to discuss what could be considered tampering, resulting in legal actions and a falling out. Regardless, the sliding doors situation proved good for all parties.

As the new leader of Cash Money, Lil Wayne rose as the leader of a new generation. Absolutely owning the feature and freestyle space, Wayne flooded the underground with mixtape material while assisting a wide gamut of talent on their radio singles.

Whether on TRL or DatPiff, you could catch something new and hot from Weezy damn near every day for a four-year run.

While the kids were absolutely loving Lil Wayne, the gatekeepers couldn’t stand him. Arrogant and unorthodox, his rock-star rags and random raps were far from the focused toughness touted by 50 Cent.

Then in 2006, only a year after Hov hit him with a below-market offer at the 40/40 Club, Wayne wrecked shop on all purists by absolutely obliterating Jay-Z’s comeback single, “Show Me What You Got.”

At that moment, everyone took notice.

“The internet was going crazy,” Just Blaze said.

A student of hip-hop history and the producer of the original track, Just Blaze had a unique proximity to the titans of the game as well as the chatter on online message boards. Not only was he hip to the new, but he was also adjacent to the now.

“It was like Wayne had this overnight transformation into this god-level MC. A lot of people looked to that era as he was maturing,” Just Blaze said. “I was definitely impressed when I heard it. I was very surprised because I always thought Wayne could rhyme, but I had never heard him rhyme like that.”

The code had been cracked, but would the gates be fully opened? Better yet, would Hov’s history with Wayne prevent future work?

Home & Home

Jay-Z has always admired Michael Jordan — not just for his drive but also his ability to deliver in the clutch.

As Hov homed in on his concept classic, it was still missing one thing. While this album was meant to be timeless, the stamp of a good Jay project always served as a time stamp, spotlighting a guest verse likened to the hottest rapper of the moment. From sparring with Biggie on Reasonable Doubt to enlisting Eminem on The Blueprint, each piece of his catalog positioned Hov side by side with either who was now or next.

In 2007, no one was both more than Lil Wayne.

As fate would have it, the mixtape martian was also in the studio, cutting countless tracks for what would become Tha Carter III. Occupying a unique lane, Wayne had Middle America mall shoppers and the streets salivating over each song. Shuffling through tracks by the best producers in all of hip hop, he heard a beat that reminded him of his hero: Hov.

Somehow, Hov had heard it, too.

Brought to Jay by Gee Roberson and Kyambo ‘Hip Hop’ Joshua, Roc-a-Fella alumni who had went on to work with Wayne, the timing was perfect to finally pair both Carters on record.

“Jay heard the song some type of way,” Wayne told MTV in 2007. “When he heard it, he said, ‘Ask the homie if I can get this.'”

More honored than offended, it was an easy answer.

“When I was asked the question, I told them it wasn’t even a question — he’s got it. Everybody in the world knows how I feel about Jay. He’s the king, utmost respect,” Wayne said.

The song was “Hello Brooklyn” — an unreleased Wayne cut amended with a ‘2.0’ due to the sequel nature of the track. Rebranded a la other New York classics like “Dead Presidents II” or “Shook Ones (Pt. II),” it brought Jay back home while placing Wayne right in the Mecca.

Despite its underground appeal, the beat was built by Derrick “Bigg D” Baker, a Floridian famous for producing Pretty Ricky’s Bluestars album and “Unpredictable” by Jamie Foxx. Having helmed Wayne’s hard-hitting “Best Rapper Alive,” the 2006 BMI Urban Music Songwriter of the Year was well-versed in sound and structure. Additionally, he was astute in sample clearance, having just cleared a 4 Non Blondes melody for Chris Brown and Kanye West.

This duality led Baker to dig deep in the crates, dusting off the fifth section of “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” from the rhythmic outro to a Beastie Boys classic, Paul’s Boutique. Baker brought back Ad-Rock’s booming b-side all the way to its streaking start, setting the stage for a side of Wayne the world had never heard.

“The song has a sample on there that says, ‘Hello Brooklyn,'” Wayne told MTV. “Me not being from Brooklyn, I think it’s cool because you always wanna know what an outsider thinks of your place. I made it so that I’m talking to a woman and the woman has the traits of the actual place [where the song is set].”

Pulling parallels to Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” or Kanye’s cut “Home,” Wayne went in on one theme and stuck to it. Hov had his ’80s piece of the pie where soundscape was concerned, checking topical guest verse off the list while igniting opposing audiences.

On Oct. 26, 2007, just days before American Gangster was set to hit stores, the Internet proved a strategic setting to debut “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” for all to hear. In a matter of moments, both the album and even the movie leaked, cutting into opening-week numbers but providing booming conversation.

Nevertheless, the song proved profitable for both parties. Each earned new ears, adding substance and longevity for years to come.

Brooklyn Carter

Where rap music is concerned, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z have both sons and daughters in today’s game.

Still active and actual fathers themselves, they’re each embarking on their fourth decade in the industry, handing out guest verses to today’s top talent. Hov has laid the blueprint for conquering corporate America while Weezy has reshaped hip hop both socially and aesthetically, as seen by the endless output and tattooed terrain of the new guard.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

As American Gangster turns 15, the album finds itself as fifth best in Hov’s personal rankings, but it might mean more where his legacy is concerned. Without this concept piece, one has to wonder where Jay would’ve gone next.

Would he leave rap on a low note or would he hop trends to remain relevant? For an artist equally sparked by inspiration and strategy, we may never know.

What is certain is that the pseudo soundtrack served as a springboard for Hov’s second act as an MC. On top of that, “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” helped Wayne win over gatekeepers and the old New York.

As a thank you for the lob, Jay returned the favor on 2008’s “Mr. Carter,” an early entry off Tha Carter III that helped build buzz and bridge a gap like the Beastie Boys backflip.

Though the two artists have had a contentious relationship on wax since, the mutual respect remains not just by both icons, but also by their frenetic fanbases. At that moment, Hov got back on top, while Wayne stayed on subject. In the end, each emcee answered countless critics.

But in turn, it was good business for both — particularly the concept album’s starring figure.

Like Lucas, Jay never forgot where he came from, even if it took an out-of-town talent to provide direction.

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