I am a huge fan of Jay-Z. I don’t listen to a ton of hip-hop, but what I do listen to (mostly Tribe Called Quest, Jurassic 5, The Roots), I listen to fervently, and the Jigga is right at the top of my list. I can’t get enough of his flow, his layered point of view, or his effortless cool. Whether or not you’re a fan, you’re reading this, which means you’re drawing breath, which means you’ve heard some Jay-Z. His music is ubiquitous, as omni present as Michael Jackson’s was a generation ago. What you may not know is that Jay-Z is also an author and that two years ago he published a book called Decoded. I read it. It’s wonderful. Part memoir. Part social history. Part musicology. Part celebrity gossip. At its essence, it’s an exploration of Jay-Z’s life and evolution into the king of hip-hop, but he doesn’t stop there, and takes on a broad and multi-layered approach to explaining, and justifying, hip-hop as a legitimate art form. As poetry. He does this through inviting us into his world, into Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects where he grew up and cut his teeth as a fatherless drug dealer and hip-hop dreamer, writing rhymes and song lyrics on paper bags from the corner bodega, recording basement demos, trying to get a deal, playing the occasional show, battling other MCs at the center of cheering circles. He invites us into the world of the hustler, into the life he lived and the persona he adopted as he morphed from Shawn Carter into Jay Z. It’s a pulling back of the curtain so naked, and so academic, that I was shocked by the patient way he tells all, the lack of irony as he explains inside jokes, right down to the most cryptic hip-hop slang. Part of the time he does this through stories and riffing, and photos, and part of the time through lyric deconstruction, annotating the words to many of his songs to explain the stories and inside references necessary to bring the complexity of his vision to life. You don’t often find great artists taking the time to explain their work to the audience; most often a great artist lets the work speak for itself. But hip hop, Jay shows us, is an art form worthy of and needing defense. Obviously Jay Z knows how popular and lucrative rap is, but how seriously do fans and critics really take it? How about the average citizen?
One of my favorite moments in the book is a story Jay Z tells about his song “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” which famously borrows the chorus from the Annie song with (roughly) the same name. You know this song; you can picture the scene from the movie right now, can’t you? Jay talks about how the symmetry felt right to him, how the black men of his generation, while not all orphans per se, felt abandoned and overlocked. Kicked instead of kissed, as the song goes. If you don’t know Jay Z’s song, here’s a refresher.
But problems arose. Apparently, the parent corporation that owned the rights to the songs from Annie didn’t like the idea of Jay Z putting it in a rap song about young black kids in the ghetto. I can hardly blame them, even if they were missing the point, and probably not listening very closely to the words in the song. So what did the Jigga do? Like a true hustler, he told them the story they needed to hear. It was in the form of a letter. In it he told the heartless record execs the story of when he was in seventh grade and how he entered an essay contest at his middle school, the winner of which won tickets to see Annie on Broadway. He wrote his heart out and won the contest and tickets and the trip to the Great White Way and now he’d really appreciate being able to use the chorus of “It’s a Hard Knock Life” as a way to complete the circle, not to mention bolster a kick ass song he already had in the can. The parent corporation, touched by the story, assented and the rest is history. The single went gold and was recently ranked #11 on VHI’s 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop. The funny thing, though, is that he made it up. The whole story. There was no essay contest. There was no trip to Broadway. He sold them a bill of goods and they happily bought it. Or so he tells us in Decoded.
It’s a great story, right? But as much as I love Jay Z, I’m calling bullshit. I think he’s doing the same thing to us he did to them. I don’t think he ever said any such thing to earn the rights to the song. I’m guessing the matter was handled the old fashioned way. With lawyers and cash.
Decoded is a book to check out, especially if you’re into or curious about hip hop culture. You may not think its content will hold a lot of appeal if you’re not a fan of hip hop, but I would say it’s the hip hop critic and those who think it’s all just thugs and idiots who rap that would really get something out of this book. That might be surprised by how crazy intelligent, insightful, and totally in control Shawn Carter really is. I highly doubt Jay Z wrote every word of it. Few celebrity autobiographers do. Just ask Andre Agassi. Or Miles Davis. Jay Z is one of the most gifted of modern musical poets, but the prose here is lush and seasoned, that of someone who’s been writing prose his whole life. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. It hardly matters. The point of view is legit, the persona is all HOVA, and the defense of this modern art form is thoughtful, unapologetic, and very personal.