From savvy investments in tech to luxury alcohol to, of course, music, Jay Z has built his billion-dollar empire across a wide range of business endeavors and career moves—and for one brief, shining moment, it looked like “actor” could’ve been yet another line on his gilded résumé.
Back in 2002, Jay Z starred in his first and only feature film, State Property.
Well, “starred” is a bit of a stretch.
“It was more of a cameo,” says director Abdul Malik Abbott. “It wasn’t the ideal situation.”
Produced by the film arm of Jay Z’s label Roc-A-Fella and distributed by Lionsgate, State Property follows the standard rags-to-riches-to-ruin arc, a Scarface for the hood, if you will. Beans (Beanie Sigel) is a small-time hustler in Philadelphia who yearns to go big time. So he ruthlessly expands his drug-selling empire. But with great fortune (especially one accrued via a sizable kill count) comes great foes. When Beans tries to step on kingpin Untouchable J’s (Jay Z) territory, things get personal. Beans soon finds himself in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with Untouchable J’s gang, including his right-hand man Boss Dame (Roc-A-Fella cofounder Damon Dash).
Abbott’s work directing music videos for Original Flavor, Lord Finesse, and Jay Z was a good enough bargaining chip for his petition to Dash, a producer on the film, to direct what would become his feature debut. State Property also featured Roc-A-Fella’s roster of talent (mainly decked out in Roc-A-Fella’s streetwear brand Rocawear, no less), in a bit of cross promotion—and in their acting debuts, as well.
Beanie Sigel is certainly believable as a power-hungry hustler. Memphis Bleek pulls off Beans’s loose-cannon flunky Blizz.
And then there’s Jay Z.
Untouchable Jay was supposed to be the boss to rule them all. He was supposed to be the Tony Soprano orchestrating the film’s main conflict.
He was also supposed to be in the film for more than two minutes total.
Production for State Property started in 2001, the same year that Jay Z released his chart-topping album The Blueprint, which he followed the next year with the double album The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. At this time, Roc-A-Fella Records, which was founded in 1995, was seeing notable success with its other artists: In 2000, Beanie Sigel’s The Truth hit No. 5 on the Billboard charts. Cam’ron’s 2002 Come Home with Me peaked at No. 2. Memphis Bleek and DJ Clue’s albums The Understanding and The Professional 2, respectively, were certified gold. Not to mention, Rocawear had just launched in 1999 and was rapidly becoming the go-to streetwear brand.
Suffice it to say, Jay Z was a busy mogul in the making. “He was supposed to have a bigger role, but he was Jay Z,” Abbott says. “Jay Z was an artist. Jay Z was an executive. So we ended up splitting that role with Damon.”
Jay Z’s character in State Property ended up becoming both the cool-as-ice kingpin Untouchable J and his slightly goofy number-two Boss Dame.
“[Jay has] always been easy to direct. He’s a very smart guy, and he’s very witty. He sets his persona based off of whatever the scene is. But we weren’t really sure when he was coming,” Abbott says. “So it would be like a rumor like that Jay is going to come to set and then I have to sort of make up a scene. We weren’t 100% sure.”
Boss Dame’s comic relief does lighten an otherwise dramatic, hyper-violent plot—but that levity seems out of place in many ways. Dash apparently ran with that vibe, directing the sequel, State Property 2, which Abbott, who wasn’t asked back to direct, describes as a riff on Guy Ritchie’s crime comedy Snatch.
“I would love to have done it, but I think at that point Damon was really focused on becoming a filmmaker himself. I always wonder why he picked that particular title to do the sequel when there were other projects that he could have directed himself,” Abbott says. “I think he changed the tone of the project on the sequel.”
There’s enough gravitas to hold the first State Property down. But for Abbott, having more of Jay Z would’ve probably lent the film a vibe even closer to its core.
“If Jay would have done all the lines that were written for Dame, then he would have done them in a very nonchalant and straight-to-the-point way, which is how he pretty much is,” Abbott says. “That’s the best way to describe him, is just cool. So he would’ve played it as the cool don.”
But audiences didn’t seem to mind. Despite mixed reviews from critics, State Property was a commercial success. Its limited-theater run pulled in $2.1 million at the box office against a reported budget of $600,000. It found even more success when it was released on home video and DVD, pulling in approximately $11 million on top of its box office earnings.
“The actors were actually doing their best. Even though it was a hood flick, they actually tried their best. They weren’t goofing off—they were really trying, including Jay Z,” Abbott says. “He loaned his image to this project to help push it forward. So everybody involved should have appreciated that. I certainly did.”