Neil Drumming
November 05, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

By his own admission, Jay-Z used to be a hood, then an MC. Then he morphed into a confident performer capable of rocking Madison Square Garden — a triumph faithfully captured in Fade to Black. The documentary, which follows the rapper from the recording of his multiplatinum Black Album to his sold-out concert last year, hits screens Nov. 5 — as Jay-Z preps for yet another incarnation: record exec.

In Fade to Black you say rappers are afraid to be themselves. Who’s to blame?

The buying public. They’re quicker to accept a person [who’s] been in shoot-outs and things like that than the person trying to be themselves — a Jay-Z versus a Talib Kweli. A 50 Cent versus Mos Def.

Wait, are you saying there’s more to you than the guns-and-drugs Jay-Z who’s sold millions of albums?

It’s basically me. I’ve been through hustling — fortunately and unfortunately. That subject matter exists in my life. Those ideas will always be popular.

Have you had to restrict who you really are?

I wouldn’t say ”restrict.” I had to tone it down. If it was up to me, I would do a 50-bar rap and that would be the song every time. It wouldn’t have a familiar hook. No one could sing along with it. I’d [only] think about the couplets and the metaphors.

You have earned that creative freedom. Why retire?

To challenge myself. I’ve done just about everything rapping, so now I have to push the envelope on the executive side.

Reports say you’re considering a high-ranking position at either Def Jam or Warner Music. Can you talk about it?

I can talk around it. I have a couple of situations, and they’re both pretty close. It looks like it’s going to be a photo finish.

As, say, the president of one of those labels, how would you help artists to be themselves?

Put music first. Everyone’s stuck making music for radio. Record companies encourage that — ”You have to have your club song. We need to get 50 million in audience before we drop the album.” We got away from the artistry of it when we started catering to radio. You may sell 8 million now — you may sell 8 million again — but in the end, the creativity is going to suffer. And as soon as you don’t have that perfect club record, your career is finished.

Sounds like this job might renew your passion.

I’m just hoping that it can come anywhere close to music. It’s like having a new girlfriend: You just hope that it matches your first love.

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