Sway: "99 Problems" is a graphic video. You see everything from naked men in prison to pit bulls fighting, and at the end you're essentially being shot and killed. What made you decide to do that scene?
Jay-Z: First of all, I want to say no rappers were harmed in the making of that video. ... I really just wanted to ... do powerful images in Brooklyn. The last two videos, I mean, they're cool, but I was pretty much just going through the motions. [This time] I was like, "Man, we can't shoot the same old thing." So I called Mark Romanek ... he's like the director's director. Every director is like, "Mark is the one." He's the best right now.
Sway: What's some of the work he's done in the past?
Jay-Z: He did Johnny Cash's "Hurt," did some work with Lenny Kravitz, the Michael Jackson joint ["Scream"] with him and Janet. ... I just really wanted him to shoot, like, where I'm from in Brooklyn and shoot the 'hood, but shoot it like art, not shoot just a bunch of dudes or a bunch of cars around it — shoot it like art. And shoot it powerful and strong. So that's basically what we came up with, but at the end, the whole [being] shot thing is just really symbolic to the whole retirement thing and putting the whole Jay-Z thing to rest.
Sway: So is it comparable to when Prince went to the symbol? "Jay-Z" is officially dead now?
Jay-Z: Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. We still in the street like, you know, "What up, Jay-Z?" It's all good. It ain't on that level. It's just like, you know, the artistry, I'm putting that down, to the side. ... It's just symbolic. It's artsy.
Sway: It's some artsy stuff?
Jay-Z: We trying to show the artsy side in hip-hop.
Sway: OK, and that's a good thing, 'cause I think hip-hop has hit a wall in a lot of areas, especially with video making. But I heard that the symbolism also represented the death of Jay-Z and your retirement, so to speak, and the birth of Sean Carter as an artist.
Jay-Z: That's been coming, you know, the whole time. People seen that coming, you know what I'm saying? But I don't want to get extreme with it where I'm in the paper like, "Don't call me Jay-Z no more."
Sway: OK. You don't want to P. Diddy this one.
Jay-Z: Nah, nah, that's Puff. You take that one, Puff.
Sway: There's been so many rumors swirling about your retirement. There's been talk that you will come back as Sean Carter the artist, that we might see Sean Carter albums.
Sway: There's also talk that Sean Carter might have his own label with other artists. Do you want to speak on any of those things?
Jay-Z: Yeah, everything's early, you know what I'm saying? But everything's about growth. Especially the album thing, it's too early. Like, my whole thing with moving on, like you said, I feel like I hit a wall. Like, I just didn't want to just go into the studio and just record music and put out an album just to make money, just to be doing it and going through the motions. I gotta be passionate about it, and I wasn't feeling that passion, so I put it down. I still feel the same way. I've still got a lot of other things to do. So that's a long way away, and as far as the label, I know I'm going to have to come back to music, 'cause it's my first love. And I know I love working with new artists and seeing them go through that transformation and putting out new artists and seeing a new guy blow up or whatever. I just don't know if that's this year or three years from now.
Sway: OK, well I'll tell you what they're saying.
Jay-Z: Yeah, yeah. I done heard everything, but you tell me.
Sway: They're saying that you're signing a label deal with Warner Bros., that you're going to sign possibly Talib Kweli, Foxy Brown and maybe some other artists.
Jay-Z: Well, I like those artists, so I don't know. Maybe next year, maybe three years, but we'll see.
Sway: OK, OK. You're not saying no, but you're not saying yes.
Sway: You did a record with Kanye West, "Never Let You Down," where you rap, "The Eighth Wonder on the way." I assume that's the title of an album?
Sway: Is that still coming? What was that about?
Jay-Z: What happened was that that song was done when I was recording Blueprint 2. I was going to name Blueprint 2 The Eighth Wonder. So I was saying, "The Eighth Wonder on the way." And if you notice, I say [I have] four #1 albums [in that song]. I have six. So it was before Blueprint went #1 and Black Album went #1, so that was done two years ago.
Sway: That was an old lyric. All right ... Now, when you shot this video, it had to pass through your mind that with all these different graphic scenes, MTV would say, "No, absolutely not." Especially with the climate the way it is now.
Jay-Z: First of all, Mark couldn't really care less about MTV. He doesn't. He's just straight whatever. I'm like, "Mark, come on. We have to [clean it up]." You know, I'm calming him down. "Mark, we have to get this thing on air, though, we gotta calm it down." But at the end of the day it's art, and it's not really supposed to be compromised. And if y'all can't play it, then that's cool, you know what I'm saying? I mean, I've sold a couple records already; it's not detrimental to my survival. If that was the case, then I'd go right back in the club and give everybody what they like. It seems that people, they always complain about the state of videos, but then when you give them something new and something strong, you know, it's a problem. Which is good, though — I like the controversy. Ban me. Give me the Madonna thing. I'll go right outside with a picket sign and everything.
Sway: That's a good position to be in. But what about the imagery? Were you concerned about young kids seeing the pit bulls fight, the naked men in prison, or even you appearing to be shot and killed?
Jay-Z: Well, that was my biggest worry, as far as younger kids seeing me get shot — that was it, really, because all that other stuff is part of life. You know, when you go to prison you're gotta get strip-searched. I know we're not gonna show full nudity on TV. I know that's blurred out. I know DMX had dogs in a video before, so I never really thought about the dogs being a problem, you know? But as far as me getting shot, I just looked at it as seeing Denzel [Washington] in "Training Day," or seeing any other actor, you know? I was just acting out a part. I was trying to show Hollywood I got some chops too. Maybe I'll get a little job.
Sway: You know, Puff is doing Broadway now.
Jay-Z: Yeah, yeah. I'm on your heels, Puff.
Sway: Is that a possibility?
Jay-Z: Hey, we'll see how it goes.
Sway: Jay, tell me, man. I know somebody must've thrown a script at you.
Jay-Z: I've got a couple right now. ... I'm really excited with how many people want to work with me. You know, ["Training Day" director] Antoine Fuqua, everybody.
Sway: Are you excited about that? I mean, have you actually taken acting lessons?
Jay-Z: Yeah, yeah. I'm going through that right now. But I really just want to touch everything, like as far as writing, as far as directing, everything. I feel like we never really ever had an East Coast movie that really, really told the story of the struggle. The closest thing we had was "New Jack City," you know? I think you guys [on the West Coast] had "Boyz N the Hood." That was good. Y'all had "Menace II Society." I think that captured L.A. life the best. So I'm interested in doing stuff like that, and even going left with it. You know, I'm an artist first.