I cannot think of a better title for this book than “Decoded.” In over 300 beautifully-designed, eloquently-written pages, Jay-Z literally de-codes his work. He picks apart his lyrics, he parses his rhymes, he explains the context of his career and his hits and his childhood, he does all of these things for the good of the art of rap. And yet, while this tome seems almost like a textbook to educate the masses of rap-ignorant out there (like me), I can’t help but think that it was written with rap’s long-time students in mind, too. In short, it’s a comprehensive, fascinating read.
Of course, it’s not without its omissions. Jay-Z is famously quiet about his relationship with Beyonce, which thus makes information about it all the more juicy and sought-after. But this book has nothing to do with that romance, because that romance is basically independent of his career. And while the book also delves into his relationship (or lack thereof) with his parents, it doesn’t actually talk about them; I do wish that I had learned more about his childhood from their perspective, instead of just from his. But Decoded is all his, and that’s pretty fantastic. He takes the opportunity to focus on what really matters to him: the deep, intricate meanings behind a great selection of the songs he wrote. Through these descriptions, we’re able to see just how much of a genius Hov really is.
Jay-Z doesn’t talk about the obvious songs as much as you think, either. He includes anecdotes about Izzo and Empire State of Mind, sure, but those songs have less depth to them than his other songs, like D’Evils, Renegade, Meet the Parents, and Lucifer. Tracks like those really benefit from his extensive footnotes and explanations, because rap is written in a complex, almost cryptic language that varies from artist to artist. Through his writing, I learned about his dry, ironic sense of humor; his constant battle with religion; how profoundly the death of Biggie Smalls affected his life; and how constantly he thinks about his father. Jay-Z is a man who recognizes the “wrongs” in his life and doesn’t necessarily “atone” for them, but rather uses his personal stories to make others in similar situations feel better. He writes about himself, about fictional characters, about other people he knows, and even about mythological characters that represent larger themes and controversies. Without reading the book, my explanations might sound kind of vague, but it really is worth reading just to see how an artist interprets himself, especially after several years in the business.
With all of his success and fame and fortune, Jay-Z still seems to have a tiny chip on his shoulder, and I think he does a great job of explaining why. To him, rap has a bad rep. He knows that the general public views it as a vulgar art form, about pumps and hos and guns and drugs and fuck tha police, but that’s only because the general public literally hears those words and tunes out the others. It’s hard for people to see the poetry in the lyrics when the language is offensive or unfamiliar. In this book, Jay-Z was trying to familiarize it. In his prose in the book, he used words like “niggaz” instead of “guys” and “fuck that shit” instead of “I’m not a fan.” If he had said it any other way, it wouldn’t have been true to his vocabulary, his dialect, his way of expressing himself. That’s just the way he is. But the book isn’t full of language like that. It also contains profoundly sad stories, deeply regretful passages, and triumphant anecdotes. He’s not talking about being a violent person, he’s talking about the experience of being violent and what it does to you. He’s relating an experience that most people will never have in rhythmic, understandable terms. To attempt to convey those messages to a mass of mostly uninformed people is an incredible feat, and he basically did it with this book. I hope many people read and abandon the stereotypes they’ve formed. And even better, I hope that those readers enhance their iPods with a few Jay-Z tracks they might not have otherwise listened to.