Music Feature

Book Review: Jay-Z's 'Decoded'

by Bill Chenevert
Our resident hip-hop expert illuminates Jay's book-writing talents

Born in the poverty-stricken South Bronx under Plato’s idea that necessity is the mother of invention, hip-hop gave hope to a generation who went from rags to riches through its byproducts of rap music and the illegal drug trade. Perhaps the largest name to ever dabble in both of the aforementioned means of commerce is Jay-Z [born Shawn Carter]. Going from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects to the cover of Forbes magazine earlier this year, he has attained a status far beyond the reach of the commonplace rapper du jour. Decoded is Jay-Z’s first foray into the literary field as a memoir of his rise to fame, detailing the subtext of the lyrics from 36 of his songs interweaved with his life’s philosophies.  

Decoded walks you through the first-hand tale of a kid in Ronald Reagan’s crack era, who fearlessly reconciled risking his life as a drug dealer to leave poverty behind. Upon seeing rap ciphers in his neighborhood and attaining adulation for the likes of Rakim, Run-DMC and Public Enemy, he begun honing in on the skill that would one day make him a household name (seemingly unaware of its possibilities at the time). After approaching music with an air of skepticism, upon witnessing early comrade Jaz-O catch bad breaks, he finally chose to leave the street life behind him, setting into place his eventual meteoric ascension within hip-hop. From Rocafella Records’ humble beginnings to a self-appointed duty to kill the autotune recording trend, he gives us crucial morsels to explain his professional and personal growth over time: from the making of Jay’s classic debut LP, Reasonable Doubt, to his close relationship with the Notorious B.I.G, to a run-in with the law for assaulting a label executive, and a hindsight that finds him disgusted with his smash hit “Big Pimpin'.” 

More than an overview of Jay-Z’s career, the book extends a rare view into the deeper thoughts of a man considered shallow and superficial by stern detractors. Speaking on topics such as the alarming rate of incarceration for African-American men, George Bush’s war, Hurricane Katrina and the role he played in Barack Obama's election, it is apparent he takes social responsibility as serious as his career. Dually, he spends much of the tome fighting an uphill battle for the world to view his craft, and hip-hop at large, as a legitimate art form. Despite it being a multi-billion dollar culture that has shaped and influenced lives worldwide, Jay defensively speaks on how Cristal executive, Frederic Rouzaud, and Noel Gallagher of the rock band Oasis, have clashed with the mores he holds most dear. He recognizes and embraces his power as a business and artistic leader, while noting the dangers of falling prey to the pressures of handling success, drawing a parallel between himself and the artist Basquiat.

Decoded is a masterwork if only for the fact that few other emceess would be afforded the opportunity to speak at this length about their life’s progression. The tale of horrific street conditions, and hardened survival instincts, that ultimately gave way to boardroom triumphs is the latest testament to the ever-elusive balance Jay-Z has found between art and business. A minor drawback is that diehard fans aren’t given much they didn’t already know, as it seems the book was written more for casual observers. The artist looks back at his past with some shame, and a simultaneous lack of remorse, while celebrating the notion that he’s responsible for telling his truth alongside celebrating his success and impact. (Spiegel & Grau)

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