BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD One thing is clear about Jay-Z’s new book, the memoir-cum-rap-treatise Decoded: He didn’t write it for the money. There are two “cash cow” stories he completely left out of the book. In the 334 pages documenting his life experiences, the names Nas and Beyoncé appear no more than once each. He never discusses his marriage with the R&B superstar and doesn’t even allude to his well-publicized and oft discussed feud with his Illmatic New York foil.
So, if you are looking for a gossip-filled book of big-booty sexploits and MC pissing contests, you’ll be fully disappointed with this book. Jay-Z’s memoir is pumped full of his entrepreneurial spirit and an examination of the hybridization of art and brand that is the modern hip-hop-industrial complex. Jay-Z wants to legitimize hip-hop. Not only as viable music form, but also as poetry with real literary value. He tackles this problem head-on with line-by-line deconstructions of lyrics from his songs. He provides tons of examples from popular songs like “99 Problems” to obscure tracks like “Beware of the Boys.” Ironically, his granular line readings provide some insight to the biographical back stories that inspired them, but are less effective at explaining the mechanics of his art.
This approach is more successful when he examines lines by rappers he most admires. For example, he takes rhyming words in Rakim’s “In the Ghetto” showcasing the powerful correlation these words have even when isolated. “Earth, birth, universe / Soul, controller / First, worst / Going, Flowing / Rough bust / State, shake, generate, earthquakes / Hard, boulevard, God, scarred…” It’s a convincing argument for hip-hop’s literary cred. Perhaps most potent is Jay-Z’s examination of his favorite storytellers — Slick Rick and Scarface. His comparison of the two story-telling MCs reminds me of an essay documenting the vast differences between Joyce and Yeats. The argument reveals a complexity to hip-hop that often eludes casual listeners.
On page 248 he declares, “The realness comes from how an MC shapes whatever their experience is into a rhyme … and the commitment to getting even the smallest details right.” Yet elsewhere in the book, he doesn’t seem to follow his own guidelines. He tells a story about being accosted by a group of thugs on a train. The whole thing seems dry and fabricated. In fact, all of his stories about his “hustler’s life” are riddled with ambiguity. They hardly contain as much vibrant detail as his stories about introduction to hip-hop and famous encounters with Bill Clinton, Bono, Quincy Jones and Michael Jordan. That’s not really a bad thing. Stories about getting stoned with The Notorious B.I.G. are more entertaining than any street story I’ve ever heard.
He spends numerable chapters dissecting the dualities that inform the hip-hop state of mind, namely the symbiosis between the drug trade and law enforcement. Both provide a means of sustainability but come with a heavy price tag in the form of addiction, violence, injustice and corruption. He considers: “In some ways, rap was the ideal way for me to make sense of a life that was doubled…. How can a song about the election of a black president and the dreams of Martin Luther King have a chorus about the color of his Maybach?”
Though Jay-Z never implicitly states that this examination is a goal of writing his book. His point colludes with theories set forth by Charles H. Long, Egyptian mythologist, who suggests that all myth and folktale derive from society’s interpretation of opposites. Still, Decoded is not academia. It’s larded with juicy but ultimately banal commentary and written in the vernacular of the street. While he makes a strong case for the literary value of hip-hop, but he falls short at legitimizing hip-hop as a musical art form— completely disregarding the connections between a sample-based music and Cubism. Yet, despite all this, Decoded is a fascinating peephole into the inner life of hip-hop’s poet emeritus.