Decoded is a book about music that’s a work of art.
The inside cover describes it as “A collection of lyrics and their meanings that together tell the story of a culture, an art form, a moment in history, and one of the most provocative and successful artists of our time.”
The artist in question is Shawn Corey Carter, better know by his stage name Jay-Z, hip-hop artist and entrepreneur par excellence. By the time this reader turned the last page, there was a desire to pile up more nouns like philosopher, political scientist, spiritual seeker, communicator, and poet-in-universal residence.
Everything about Decoded is filled with intentionality. This includes its cover, layout, notes, and graphic art. The front jacket image, Rorschach, is by legendary pop artist, Andy Warhol, and the back cover by Jonathan Mannion who took pictures for Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt album, and who since then has made a career of photographing hip-hop artists.
Reading Decoded is a textural experience that alternates between Jay-Z’s lyrics appended with footnotes that are filled with explanations about poetic decision-making, to photographs and illustrations of people who are key to the overall story. Add illustrations, disc covers, and a typography that contributes to an overall rap feeling, borrowing from different places and art forms and piling them on in one place to a strong beat.
Like many of my generation (boomer), race (white), and gender (female), I have assiduously avoided rap for its misogyny, violence of language, and use of the n-word. As a friend of mine once asked, “Would you want your own child to listen to that language?” But the reality is that young people everywhere listen to rap. It is the music and poetry of what is now an international generation, which is why this book is important; it goes directly to rap’s emotional roots.
The opening pages of Decoded serve up a view of the Marcy Houses projects in Brookyn’s Bed-Sty area with pathways connecting twenty-seven six-story buildings. In this labyrinth of tunnels and benches, Jay-Z describes how the rapper and the hustler blend together and how the beat is everywhere.
“It’s been said that the thing that makes rap special, that makes it different both from pop music and from written poetry, is that it’s built around two kinds of rhythm. The first kind of rhythm is the meter. In poetry, the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat.”
Reading Decoded, I understood how some rap, called by Chuck D, “the CNN of the ghetto,” could be understood as work songs. By that I mean stories of making a living through hustling, selling crack and walking the tightrope of police and dealers and drive-by shootings without.
Jay-Z writes, “This is why the hustler’s story—through hip-hop—has connected with a global audience. The deeper we get into those sidewalk cracks and into the mind of the young hustler trying to find his fortune there, the closer we get to the ultimate human story, the story of struggle, which is what defines us all.”
Through Jay-Z’s songs, we follow his metamorphosis from street hustler to rap artist who wants to win at the game. And not only do we get to read his story. The book provides us with a snapshot history of rap in the eighties and nineties. Reading these lyrics is to see how rhymes flow and connect and change. It’s an appreciation of rap’s artistry. Jay-Z’s footnotes, which explain specific references and street lingo, also illustrate his awareness as a poet who layers meanings with deliberate word choices, using line breaks, repetition, and references to cultural icons, and relating stories embedded within other stories that reverberate inside the beat.
In “This Can’t Be Life” with Beanie Sigel and Scarface on the Dynasty album, Jay-Z explains how Scarface received a call in the recording studio telling him that a friend had just lost one of his kids in a fire. But art is survival. Scarface continued the recording session and the end of the song reads like this:
“Lovin your kids just like you was ours / And I’m hurtin for you dog; but ain’t nobody pain is like yours / I just know that heaven’ll open these doors / and Ain’t no bright side to losin life; but you can view it like this / God’s got open hands homey, he in the midst of good company / Who loves all and hates not one / And one day you gon’ be wit your son…”
The Epilogue is unexpected. Jay-Z recounts his meeting with Oprah Winfrey who had voiced her skepticism in the past about hip-hop “particularly the use of what she’d call the ‘n-word.’”
While Jay-Z muses upon the fact that Oprah has championed Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison who also use violent and raw images, he writes ,“To her, it’s a matter of acknowledging the deep and painful history of the word. To me, it’s just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user and his or her intention…The key is to change the person. And we change people through conversation, not through censorship.”
Jay-Z, you’ve made a new convert.
Decoded by Jay-Z, Spielgel & Grau (a division of Random House), New York, 2010, 308 pgs, $35.00