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Rags to Riches

ae_decodedJay-Z’s ‘Decoded’ tops our January must-read list
You’ve seen him kickin’ it on the Lakers sideline, holding Beyonce’s hand (he liked it, then he put a ring on it), accepting Grammys and sporting blinding bling purchased with his $450 million net worth—but who is Jay-Z, really?

Born Shawn Corey Carter, the 41-year-old rapper, entrepreneur and partial owner of the New Jersey Nets, seems to have it all: 50 million albums sold, a clothing line (Rocawear), an entertainment company (Roc Nation), a record label (Roc-A-Fella Records) and a smoking hot—not to mention, talented—wife.

Last month, Jay-Z added author to his seemingly endless list of endeavors.

Whether or not you believe his recent stint in literature is just another money-grubbing tactic to expand his empire, Jay-Z’s “Decoded” is a surprisingly contemplative examination of rap’s evolution in America, the rags to riches narrative shared by so many of its players, and the ways in which music serves as oral history.

Sure, he has his self-aggrandizing moments—after all, his nickname is “Jayhova,” a pseudonym for his self-proclaimed status as the god M.C. (remember “H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A”)—but the Jay-Z dissected in his memoir could not be further from the icon splashed across the tabloids.

Growing up in the Marcy Houses project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn during the ’70s, young Shawn was forced to grow up fast. When most of us were playing on the playground and reading bedtime stories with our parents, he was taught how to flow like the big kids, jotting down rhymes in notebooks to practice later in his bedroom, dodging gun-toting teens on the train and learning the ins and outs of the coke dealing game.

“I was part of a generation of kids who saw something special about what it means to be human—something bloody and dramatic and scandalous happened right here in America—and hip-hop was our way of reporting that story, telling it to ourselves and the world,” he says.

At the time of Jay-Z’s rap schooling, acts like Big Daddy Kane and Run-DMC were fighting to gain recognition on black radio stations that assured listeners they were “rap free.”  The genre had yet to gain its legs and was undergoing a major identity crisis.

Before Run-DMC entered the scene looking “like the streets” in denim, leather and sneakers, rappers dressed in costume as if they were, as Jay-Z remembers, “headed to supper clubs for after-dinner drinks.” And identity is as much a part of rap today, as it was then. While recording 2003’s The Black Album, a reporter from The Village Voice bashed Jay-Z for wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and a platinum chain around his neck—according to the reporter, when you squint, Jay-Z is a revolutionary, when you open your eyes, he is just a hustler.

But to Jay-Z, “the story of the rapper and the story of the hustler are like rap itself, two kinds of rhythm working together, having a conversation with each other, doing more together than they could apart.” In the same way that beats and flows collaborate in the rhythm; rapping and hustling are intertwined. Rap made youth living in the projects feel represented for the first time, although the swagger and partying lifestyle in the lyrical content didn’t always reflect the lives the people were leading.

As a result, Jay-Z decided that substance and truth—no matter how stark and depressing—would be the foundation to his music. “Hip-hop had described poverty in the ghetto and painted pictures of violence and thug life, but I was interested in something a little different: the interior space of a young kid’s head, his psychology,” he says. “To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of lie.”

In order to give readers insight into his lyrics, segments of “Decoded” are dedicated to the meticulous breakdown of songs like “Public Service Announcement,” “Minority Report” (his response to Hurricane Katrina) and “99 Problems.” Using scholarly footnotes as if he were writing his thesis, Jay-Z explicates the use of certain words and phrases that reference, say, a Malcolm X quote, drug dealing slang, the St. Louis Cardinals, a Marvin Gaye lyric, or a pun.

Written with the philosophy that great rap is all about the “unresolved layers” that you discover with each listen, Jay-Z’s songs are poetry above all else—compare his lyrics to Lil’ Jon’s club hit “Snap Yo Fingers” and you’ll know. In fact, Jay-Z has learned from the connection between the 16 bar rap structure and sonnets, with their limited subject matter, set structures and reliance on creativity and wit.

Finding out what the rapper meant in songs like “Public Service Announcement” when he said, “Hov, OH—not D.O.C./ But similar to them letters, ‘No One Can Do It Better’/ I check cheddar like a food inspector/ My homey Strict told me, ‘Dude finish your breakfast,’” is half the fun.

And fun really is what “Decoded” is all about. Made for a coffee table rather than a library, the book is meant to be shared, as it is filled to the brim with stunning photography of Jay-Z’s childhood neighborhood, album designs, portraits of his peers and heroes, depictions of Hurricane Katrina and the Obama campaign, as well as artwork that captures the world through his eyes.

Jay-Z’s musings on cocaine’s role in the ghetto, music’s ability to give voice to untold stories of American life, the dangers of getting consumed by “the game” and where the Black community is

situated in society today, are even more impressive. To judge this book by its author would be a grave error. 

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