Roc-A-Fella Records is located in a no-frills office space in New York City, blocks from the World Trade Center. The young, black staff looks like extras from a hip-hop video.
Phones ring, questions are shouted down hallways and music blasts from open office doors. The office where Carter spends little time is large, but not luxurious, with a typical New York view - the tops of other buildings. The decor includes a framed poster from the movie ``Heat'' and several framed stills from the gangster classic ``Scarface.''
Once the interview begins, Carter is focused, ignoring the constant banging on his closed office door.
It's the kind of focus that took him from a career as a hustler in his native Brooklyn to the successful artist and businessman he is today.
With friend Kareem Burke and former manager Damon Dash, Carter started his own label two years ago, making ``Reasonable Doubt'' the first release. The success of that project has drawn other artists to the label. Establishing his own label was the first step in a career course Carter had carefully plotted.
``It was just the need to have that control - control over your product and for the future, [to be able to] own your own masters just in case anyone samples your work,'' Carter explained. ``In the year 2000 or whatever, we'll reap all the benefits from it because we put in our blood, sweat and tears during the creative part. When kids wake up, like here's an old Jay-Z record and blow the dust off and want to sample something, I want to be able to sit in my rocking chair and rock back and say, `Another check.' ''
The cocky, cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing rapper from the ``Reasonable Doubt'' album cover and his videos has been replaced by a thoughtful, outspoken and introspective man with a sly sense of humor. With his Reebok soccer shirt, jeans, boots and stocking cap, the only things Carter seems to share with his flashier alter ego are a diamond-studded platinum Rolex and a distinctive laugh.
``I'm just not a Broadway type of person,'' he said when asked about his lack of flamboyance offstage. ``There are two personalities. I see it. But it's a great attribute, actually. I guess it will take a while, but eventually I'll have to show them both sides. You have different emotions. You see that through my music. One day I feel like this, one day I feel like that, but it's all one person. I can make a song like `Dead Presidents' and then turn right back around and do `Ain't No Ni--a.' It's all part of one thing.''
Carter and his younger sister grew up in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. His mother worked in the city controller's office, his father for the phone company. His family was comfortable but not wealthy. His parents separated when he was a teen-ager, and he maintains a relationship with his father.
Influenced by the soul music his parents often played, Carter began dabbling in rap in high school. He attended Brooklyn's Westinghouse High School, a veritable breeding ground for rappers - Busta Rhymes and the Notorious B.I.G. went there as well.
Busta remembers battling Jay-Z in high school rap contests.
``He was sharp then, just like he's sharp now,'' Busta said. ``He was killing s--t.''
By then, rap music had expanded from its origins in the Bronx and flowed into Brooklyn and Queens. Old-school stars Big Daddy Kane, his DJ Mr. Cee (who would be instrumental in discovering the Notorious B.I.G.), U.T.F.O. and others were emerging with hit records and albums.
Now 27, Carter's early experience in the rap game started with Brooklyn rapper Jaz, who lived nearby. Jaz was one of the first rappers to sign a major-label deal and had a hit with a song called ``Hawaiian Sophie.'' The months Carter and Jaz spent recording Jaz's album in London would prove valuable to Carter's future, though he didn't know it at the time.
``I learned a lot about business from that one experience,'' Carter said. ``I learned all about touring and recouping and studio budgets, shysty people . . . After that, I knew that if I was ever going to get into the business, I was prepared.''
Disillusioned by the record business, Carter found the streets a more attractive way to make money and started hustling. ``It was real sexy,'' he said, laughing. ``You go from being a relatively shy person, everybody's looking at you now, you're doing things that you're not used to doing. For the first time, I was really enjoying myself in life. It took a dangerous game for me to really be comfortable. Isn't that crazy?''
As he chronicles on songs like ``D'Evils'' and ``Regrets,'' the hustler lifestyle took its psychological toll. ``It was giving me insomnia and things like that,'' he said. ``You start waking up and thinking, `What am I going to do when I'm 30?' ''
These days, Carter's future is more assured. ``Reasonable Doubt'' was completed months before its release, and the songs for ``In My Lifetime'' were titled and written a long time before the tracks were even laid.
Like his friend and collaborator, the Notorious B.I.G., Carter completes his lyrics in his head. Though he used notebooks when he was younger, none of his current songs are ever written down before they're recorded.
``It started out because I was running so much I didn't have time to sit down and write. I would have to run into the supermarket or whatever to get a piece of paper, write something down and try to save it. Like anything you do, it becomes an exercise and it just becomes second nature. I have a gift. I'm really thankful because I'm really blessed.''
With the death of the Notorious B.I.G., who was a close friend, Carter is now at the forefront of the Brooklyn scene, considered the hub of East Coast rap. His charisma, his facile delivery and often complex lyrics are ingredients for rap superstardom. If his album is well-received, Carter could emerge as one of the heirs to the hip-hop throne left empty by the deaths of Tupac and Biggie.