Standing in line for the restrooms at Jay-Z’s Made in America Festival last weekend, I noticed a two-level structure about 100 feet away, decked out with plush red chairs, clear views of the main stage and what appeared to be an open bar. Intrigued, I asked the yellow-shirted security guard nearby if journalists were permitted. No, she said, the area was reserved for VIPs—namely, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and their entourage; in fact, she said, they had just walked by the media tent an hour earlier. That was the only part of the day I wasn’t there (I was sitting on a gigantic plastic hammer interviewing The Hives).
This wasn’t the first time I’d narrowly missed Jay-Z since writingEmpire State of Mind (Penguin/Portfolio, 2011), an unauthorized biography of the rapper. On multiple occasions, I’ve found myself a dozen feet from him at concerts, separated only by a small barrier; I sat six seats down from him and Beyoncé at the Michael Jackson Immortal show in Vegas last December, but they arrived after the show started and left before it ended, taking with them my chance to hear his reaction to my book.
I figured it would happen eventually, and I wasn’t in any particular rush. After spending a year of my life researching the man, I felt I knew him as well as I could know someone I’d never met. But I was curious. More specifically, I wanted to introduce myself and observe what would happen, just to see, as a journalist, how he’d react—and give myself some perspective on the most significant professional project of my life thus far.
So on Sunday, when I walked out of the Porta-Potty into the muggy Philadelphia evening and saw Jay-Z standing with Beyoncé fifteen feet away, there was only one thing I could do (and it wasn’t belting the chorus to “Crazy in Love” in my best falsetto). It was to make that introduction and see what would happen.
I took a step forward, just as Jay-Z and his bodyguards turned in my direction. Beyoncé stayed behind, engrossed in some other conversation. As Jay-Z and I approached each other our eyes met, and his lingered for a split second before drifting away. Then, as I’d always planned, I offered a statement, not a question.
“Jay,” I said, as he strode past me, not turning his head, “I’m the guy who wrote the book about you.”
He kept walking, and for a moment, I thought he was pretending he hadn’t heard me. Then he tossed a glance over his shoulder and offered his thoughts.
“That book was horrible!” he said.
Then he laughed that high, rapidfire laugh that sometimes makes its way into the beginnings and ends of his tracks, and sauntered off around a corner.
So that was the moment. I’m not sure if he was trying to demoralize me, or joke with me, or if his comment was simply the only retort he could come up with in the moments spent walking away, pretending not to have heard my greeting. If his intent was the former, he certainly didn’t succeed—a heap of hip-hop tastemakers have praised my book, from Fab 5 Freddy to Dan Charnas, as have a slew of news outlets ranging from the Financial Times toBloomberg News.
But Jay-Z’s comment did something significant. It confirmed, as a few sources close to him had already told me, that he’d read the book—I didn’t even have to mention the title, or where I worked—and that something about it had hit him close to the core, close enough that he’d fire off a generic insult rather than walking along silently and keeping his trademark composure.
As far as I’m concerned, that means I’ve done my job as a journalist. I’m not in this business to make friends, nor am I interested in tearing people down needlessly. My book was by no means a case of the latter—in fact, some outlets accused me of being too kind to Jay-Z as I chronicled his impressive rise from street corner to corner office. But his reaction tells me that I managed to touch something essential about him, too close for his own comfort. And that’s more than enough for me.
Observing that reaction checked a box that I’d been meaning to check for the past three years of my life. Now, as Jay-Z and his frequent collaborator Swizz Beatz might say, I’m on to the next one: a business-focused biography of Michael Jackson.
Without a doubt, Jay-Z’s comment was the best negative review I’ve ever received. Still, I suspect I would have had an even more interesting story if I’d opened that Porta-Potty a few seconds earlier.
This post was originally published on Forbes.com. For more, check out Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office. You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook.