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— by Shaheem Reid, with reporting by Matt Paco

As president of Def Jam and CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, more than ever, Jay-Z has to have his eye for talent open. So when he came across his newest singer, Rihanna, there was no way he was going to let her leave and potentially sign with another company. Not only was she drop-dead gorgeous, but she had one heck of a song up her sleeve.

"We signed her that night — three in the morning was when that contract got signed," recalled Jay, who was given Rihanna's demo by his A&R man, Jay Brown. "We wouldn't let her leave the office. From meeting her at four [p.m.] in the office till three in the morning, I was absolutely certain. That doesn't happen too often. To get lawyers to draft up a contract and the other side to agree to a contract in [a matter of] hours is retarded."

If you think Jay was surprised, you should hear Rihanna describe the day. She had no idea what she was in for.

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"That was interesting," the 17-year-old singer said. "When we first got there, I was shaking. I had never met a celebrity, and to have to audition for one and meet him at the same time ... I was hysterical. But the minute I went in the office, it was totally different. He was so welcoming; the environment was so warm and friendly. The jitters just went away immediately."

Truth be told, Jay was skeptical about Rihanna initially. Brown played him the record that's turned out to be her first single, "Pon De Replay," and Hova was nervous about it.

"I was like, that song is too big for her," he said. "When a song is that big, it's hard [for a new artist] to come back from. I don't sign songs, I sign artists. Some people chase the hot song for a minute. I want to sign an artist based on a swagger, the level of talent, the writing. I was a little reluctant."

But after meeting the Barbados-born singer, Jay had no qualms whatsoever about welcoming her into the Def Jam family.

"When she walked in the office, it was something about her," Jay said of the Bajan beauty. "She performed the song, and I was like, 'OK.' "

"He nodded and said, 'We're interested,' " Rihanna recalled.

Rihanna, whose Music of the Sun comes out August 30, is just one of three new acts Jay is trying to break in the next few months. He's already off to a running start with another 17 year old: Detroit-born Teairra Mari, who's been dubbed the Princess of the Roc.

Mari's "Make Her Feel Good" started off getting love on the mixtapes and now has segued into a radio hit. Mari is already so prevalent that Jay included her on the August 2005 cover of XXL magazine (see "Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Family Rocks A JFK Look For XXL Cover Shoot"). She's the only new act to be featured with Roc members Foxy Brown, Kanye West, DJ Clue, Memphis Bleek and the Young Gunz.

Mari went from singing in her cousin's Detroit basement as a preteen to being discovered by producer Darryl Simmons (Usher, Mariah Carey) last year. Simmons took her demo to L.A. Reid, and it was on: The newly appointed head of the Island/ Def Jam conglomeration signed her.

"I wasn't really nervous because I had done it plenty of times," Mari said of meeting and auditioning for Reid. "I went in the meeting with more of an attitude like, 'OK, what's the answer?' "

Mari — who lists influences such as Prince, Michael Jackson and her favorites, SWV — was shifted over to the Roc after she had a meeting with Jay. Both L.A. and Hov thought it was a great idea.

"She's a star," Jay said. "She's young, so the integrity and truth of what she's saying, mixed with how she's a sweet and innocent girl, but she's seen a lot — her take on the music is unique."

The lineup on her debut, Roc-A-Fella Records Presents Teiarra Mari, includes Track Boys, Kwamé, All-Star and songwriter Sean Garrett (Destiny's Child, Beyoncé), who is co-executive-producing the album with Jay-Z.

The final artist in Hova's trifecta of blue chippers is Ne-Yo, not to be confused with Ruff Ryder producer Neo the Matrix or Keanu Reeves. Ne-Yo hasn't been too shabby in the songwriting business himself. While he can boast Mary J. Blige, B2K, Faith Evans and Musiq among the people he's penned for, his biggest success has come via Mario. He wrote the crooner's goliath single "Let Me Love You."

"My proudest and happiest musical moment is when I heard that the Mario song, 'Let Me Love You,' was the most played song in radio history," said the singer born Shaffer C. Smith. "I really didn't see that coming at all. I knew it was a good song, but I didn't know it was that good of a song. That was running-around-in-the-middle-of-the-street big." Hov has placed Ne-Yo under the Def Jam umbrella, and his is actually the first project Jay's best friend Ty-Ty has his hands on.

The 22-year-old Las Vegas transplant (by way of Arkansas) was given his name because one of his producers said the singer saw music like the movie character Neo saw the Matrix. He hopes his first single, "Stay," has at least half the impact of the one he did for Mario.

"When people listen to this song, they automatically assume it's about a girl or a relationship with a woman," he said. "When in actuality, the song is about music — my love for music and how I want music to stay with me. People rarely catch that, but that's where the inspiration for that song came along."

Ne-Yo is set to debut in the fall with In My Own Words.






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