I don’t read very many books about musicians and music, but even if I did, I’m sure Jay-Z’s Decoded would still rank among the best of the genre. Whether you’re a big fan of, mildly interested in, or completely turned off by rap, you should read this book. Not only is Jay-Z one of rap’s biggest stars, he’s now become one of its greatest apologists.Decoded is a beautiful mix of the written word, the “rapped” word, art, and photography. The immediate draw of the book is its stunning design and layout. You can judge this one by its cover, a Warhol print that speaks volumes for what’s inside. The images populated throughout provide not only a deeper glimpse into the worlds from which Jay-Z came and in which he moves but to his thought processes as well.
The book is a combination of autobiography and “self-exegesis.” Jay-Z takes us on his journey from the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn to the corporate offices of rap, some of which he helped build. Along the way, we learn about his time spent as a drug dealer and an up-and-coming artist. While he reflects on his personal growth, he also reflects on the maturation of rap, both as an industry and as an art form. We have, essentially, two histories here and both are equally fascinating. At the end of each chapter, Jay-Z deconstructs two or three of his songs, footnoting key lines with information on extended meanings or events to which they refer. However, if you’ve been paying close enough attention to text that precedes those songs then you’ll most likely have a sense of those meanings already.
As I mentioned above, Decoded is perhaps the greatest defense for rap…if it needs one. Jay-Z speaks insightfully and poetically about not only his lyrics but those of his predecessors too and the socio-economic conditions that birth(ed) some of rap’s greatest artists. In fact, it’s often difficult to tell where his lyrics end and his reflections on them begin. Along the way, he shows that rap might just be the most misunderstood art form today and that blind attacks on it are often socio-politically motivated or come from a place of deep fear. True, there are aspects of rap that cannot be explained away, like its rampant misogyny and violence. Unfortunately, while Jay-Z speaks to the latter, he barely touches the former. Nevertheless, Jay-Z shows that for many rappers, these troublesome lyrics are simply a way of working out deep seated emotions that we all experience…fear, hopelessness, hopefulness, anger, etc. Yet the contexts in which many rappers experience these emotions are drastically different from the cultural contexts of rap’s, largely, white, upper-middle class critics.
Decoded also reveals the lengths to which rap has influenced the broader culture, artistically, economically, and even politically. Jay-Z recognizes, however, that all rap is not created equal…that some artists and lyrics appeal to baser instincts while other artists create lyrics that demand disciplined and attentive listening. The best rappers lace each line with multiple meanings while lesser talents keep everything on the surface. Reading about Jay-Z’s creative process, his lyrics, and his explanations of them should forever change the way we listen to any lyric-based music…rap or not. It’s certainly easier to spot the artists who take the easy way out now.
It might be a bold claim open to vehement criticism, but Jay-Z’s Decoded reveals that, at its heart, great rap, like all great art, is deeply theological and spiritual, giving voice to fears, aspirations, joys, and pain. But like all human creations, it is flawed too. I think, though he never expresses this explicitly, that Jay-Z is encouraging listeners and readers to look seriously at these flaws but not to be blinded, or deafened, by them.
Towards the end of his book, Jay-Z reveals the three reasons he had for writing this book: to make the case that hip-hop lyrics are poetry, to tell the story of his generation and the contexts of the violence that characterizes it, and to show that hip-hop could take powerful, specific experiences and present them in ways to which everyone could relate (235-236). As with almost everything else Jay-Z does, Decoded is a massive success.