Recently, The New York Public Library hosted JAY-Z in conversation with Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber where the rapper spoke about his newly released book Decoded. Now, this is my feedback as both a librarian and a fan.
Rapper Jay-Z is known by many as being a living legend. The truth is, with some of the best rap lyricists such as Biggie Smalls, Tupac, and Big Pun succumbing to tragedy, Jay-Z is a reminder not only of hope but of a particular generation of evolved rap music makers and their ability to artistically express their visions and perspective on life to their audience using wit, street knowledge, and a deep desire to share the world they came from.
Judging the book by its cover...
When my co-worker said that one of my reserved books arrived for me I looked at it and thought, "...are you sure?" I knew that the only book I had ordered was Jay-Z's autobiography and clearly this wasn't it... I mean, there was an intriguingly huge, gold "Rorschach blot" looking print against a white background and it looked more like a psychology textbook than anything else. Sure enough, it was Decoded.
So why would he pick this simple, one-word title? Well, look up the definition of "decode" and you will see something to like, "to translate one thing into something that may be easier to understand." As you read on, this concept of decoding ends up pertaining to all types of things. Decoding may refer to Jay-Z presenting us with information that may help us the reader to get a better sense of who he is and what makes him tick. Perhaps it stands for the fact that he literally presents lyrics from some of his deepest songs and then goes on to break down for us what his intentions were when writing the verse, his use of metaphors, his influences, and even "urban" terminology for those who may not quite understand his rhymes.
What's so special?
The best thing about this book is the rather unique approach. When you think of a biography, you often think of a book filled with black and white small text with a few pages of pictures in the middle of the book... followed by even more text. However, Decoded is nothing like that. From images of colorful, classic vinyl records to newspaper headlines of Biggie and Tupac's deaths, this book is basically an adult version of a picture book; a coffee table conversation piece. (Even while typing this, a patron recognized a Stevie Wonder album cover as I flipped through pages.) It is filled with stories starting from his childhood in Brooklyn, to becoming a world famous hip-hop star and multi-million dollar mogul. Sometimes the depth of both Jay-Z's thoughts in his text and lyrics tend to be very deep and insightful and may lose the reader for a second, but he also has a way of gaining the readers understanding and recapturing their attention. A true artist, whether a musician, painter, writer etc., recognizes the power of all forms of art and this idea shines through the pages of this book.
Jay-Z plays up the power of art by providing photographic images to compliment his stories in what seems to be an effort to give the reader a glimpse of his world and the things and people who are of significance to him. For example, when you first open the book, there is a black and white picture of project buildings (likely the Marcy projects where he grew up) with the Empire State Building and the rest of the Manhattan skyline in the distance as if to represent "American Dreamin." So close yet so far.
He also introduces the art and history of music with a particular emphasis on hip-hop. Jay-Z proves that rapping to him is not just about putting words to a beat; he speaks of "the aesthetics of the rhyme itself—the challenge of moving around couplets and triplets, stacking double entendres, speed rapping." This is a man is who is obviously a very passionate and knowledgable writer and he gains respect from the reader by actually knowing his craft inside and out.
Morals of the story:
The biggest lesson from Decoded is that one can learn a lot through mere observation. If you know someone whose success you admire, take a look at their approach to situations, their ideas, how they carry themselves and what it is that makes you want to be what they are (you see this when he speaks about Russell Simmons' influence on him.) On the other hand, if you see someone who is making or has made mistakes, learn from their mistakes so that you won't end up making the very same ones (you see this when he speaks of his friend being used by rich top dogs then tossed away kind of like Eddie Murphy's character in Trading Places.)
Tips for Reading Decoded:
- If you can, take a look at the pages with Jay-Z's lyrics and listen to the songs as you read and you will see his lyrics in a different light, as well as get a great sense of his energy and passion in his music. Music vibes are contagious.
- I found that the layout of the book can seem confusing because one page may have lyrics in large italicized letters and the next page may have a 12 pt. text in Times New Roman but my advice is to simply read it the way you would read any other book. Left to right and one page at a time. As for the break down of Jay's lyrics, it was easier for me to read the lyrics first, try to see if I could intepret or "decode" them and then compare my interpretation to Jay-Z's explanation. See it as a puzzle.
- There is a lot of name dropping from Bono to Basquiat... Kurt Cobain to Quincy Jones. Take the time out to learn about their works and influence as artists as well.
- For anyone who may think there is glorification of the hustling game, read between the lines and you'll see that Jay-Z is clearly not an advocate and even mentions the horrible downside of street hustling hence his reason for becoming a rapper and getting the opportunity to write this book to begin with.
If you grew up in the 1980s, saw the awesome VH1 documentary, And You Don't Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop, or even peeped the beginning of Brown Sugar, you'll know that the creation of hip-hop was really a movement. The old school rappers such as KRS-One, Slick Rick, Run DMC, and Rakim shaped and affected the lives of millions all over the world and in essence served as life savers for some, including Jay-Z. The first generation of rap artists provided inspiration and the idea that there is another way to live well aside from the drug game. Hip-hop as a musical style brought out the cleverness of the average kid, giving him something extremely powerful that cost nothing: a voice, a way to express himself in a creative and intelligent manner, especially in "free-style" battling. To be able to think on one's feet and come up with words and the flow of poetry at the drop of a hat is a talent that was and still is often overlooked. However, hip-hop has evolved from what was once an innocent hobby to a cut throat mentality that includes shadiness in the music industry, back-stabbers and 'deal with the devil' type scenarios, all of which Jay-Z definitely touches upon. Tributes, politics, respect, insults and so much more. You name it, it's probably in the book.
For an art lover, this book, Decoded, is amazing and a breath of fresh air literary-wise. I think everyone should read it because no matter who you are, there's going to be something positive to take from it. Not to mention, if I ever become an art or music professor, I would use this as required reading without a doubt.
Check out some of Jay-Z's songs, performances and music videos from albums as well as other artists mentioned in Decoded.
For Ages 18+
- "Fallin'" About self-destruction and making bad decisions.
- "I Know" starring Zoe Kravitz (singer Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet's daughter); about battling addiction.
- "Ignorant S***" Poking fun at expectations and the desire for rap music to be filled with ignorance instead of substance.
- "December 4th" Basically a lyrical autobiogaphy with inserts of his mom talking about him and their relationship.
- "My 1st Song" The struggle for success.
- "Beach Chair" Jay-Z's reflection on life, fears of the past catching up to the present, redemption, and being at peace with mortality.
- "Empire State of Mind" An ode to New York featuring Alicia Keys, this has been an NYC anthem especially for the Yankees and was featured at the beginning of Sex and the City 2.
Other great hip-hop music from through the years
- Sugarhill Gang - Rapper's Delight
- Slick Rick - Children's Story
- Nice N' Smooth - Sometimes I Rhyme Slow
- Pete Rock & C. L. Smooth - They Reminisce Over You