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I am Living Large, I Contain Multitudes

February 27, 2011

Decoded by Jay Z
Recommended if you like Che Guevara with bling on
Status: Gotta get your own.

IN THE MID-1800S, AMERICA’S BEST-KNOWN POET Walt Whitman helped define a changing nation by asking: “Do I contradict myself?” A century and a half later, America’s best-known poet is an MC who showed how hard he was by rhyming over a Little Orphan Annie hook; an artist who put his mom on the opening track of his “last” album and managed to be both his persona, Jay-Z, and himself, Shawn Carter, all at once; a mogul who responded to the underground success of a mashup with one of the best bands in history by collaborating with Linkin Park, one of the worst – and then brought all three parties together to perform at the Grammys; a hustler who was slinging crack just outside of DC during the Clinton Administration and then, a little over a decade later, performed at an Inaugural Ball to kick off the Obama Administration.

Whitman answered, “Very well then, I contradict myself.” Jay-Z updated it to, “Allow me to reintroduce myself.”

The latest re-introduction is his first book “Decoded,” a gorgeously packaged collection of personal memoir and annotated lyrics from songs spanning Jay’s career. Add to the list of improbabilities: A rapper with a New York Times bestseller plugged by Oprah and two slots down the list from George W. Bush’s “Decisions Points.” The cover of “Decoded” is a painting from Andy Warhol’s “Rorschach” series, which was presumably chosen by the author, who is also credited for Art Direction, as another of his many defiant statements that people see what they want to see in his product. The writing inside, however, has an unambiguous aim “to make the case that hip-hop lyrics — not just my lyrics but those of every great MC — are poetry if you look at them closely enough…to tell a little bit of the story of my generation, to show the context for the choices we made at a violent and chaotic crossroads in recent history…[and] to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to.” After roughly 30-years of hip-hop in America, its leading figure is stepping up to justify his thug.

As you might expect, Jay-Z makes the strongest case by telling about his own experience. “Decoded” begins with nine-year-old Shawn Carter and a circle of people clapping a beat for a young man named Slate, “a kid I used to see around the neighborhood, an older kid who barely made an impression. In the circle, though, he was transformed…throwing out couplet after couplet like he was in a trance.” The opening paints both a rich and insular world for the young Jay-Z — “The street signs for Flushing, Marcy, Nostrand, and Myrtle avenues seemed like metal flags to me: Bed-Stuy was my country, Brooklyn my planet” — and a few quick pages wipe away some of the more pervasive misconceptions that entertainment and politics provide of housing projects. “When I got a little older, Marcy would show me its menace, but for a kid in the seventies, it was mostly an adventure, full of concrete corners to turn, dark hallways to explore, and everywhere other kids.” It was at this point that Jay-Z first began writing rhymes, and it is perhaps the one point in the book where his experiences are not defined by struggle or conflict against one force or another.

As predicted, Marcy, and the world, showed Jay its menace. It wasn’t too many years after seeing Slate in the rhyme circle that crack came to the community, and Jay-Z began working on the streets. Hip-hop became a coping mechanism, both by speaking about the experience of his neighborhood, and by giving him a way to make his own sense of it. And as Shawn Carter became Jay-Z, he felt an obligation for his rhymes to speak his truth. “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. To tell the story of the pain without telling the story of the rewards — the money, the girls, the excitement — is a different kind of evasion. To talk about killing niggas dead without talking about waking up in the middle of the night from a dream about the friend you watched die, or not getting to sleep in the first place because you’re so paranoid from the work you’re doing, is a lie so deep it’s criminal.”

Through his music and now with this book, Jay-Z has shed light on these complications and contradictions. The dynamic of poverty and sudden affluence (in both hip-hop and drug dealing) is explored; the tension between art and commerce and the maneuvering between “conscious” and commercial hip-hop is a recurring theme. Jay-Z struggles with being abandoned by his father, writes about the road to forgiving him, and even celebrates, in a way, how growing up without a dad pushed him and many people like him to find their own path. One of the best chapters breaks down the pressures around engagement in politics, as Jay-Z did during the 2008 presidential campaign. In each case, the struggles seem scalable from his current status to his street level origins, from getting grilled by strangers on the A express train to Noel Gallagher telling the world there’s “fucking no chance” for hip-hop at the Glastonbury Music Festival.  But triumph is triumph, whether it’s holding your own, or opening the set at Glastonbury with a cover of Wonderwall.

The actual decoding in “Decoded” is of Jay-Z’s lyrics, which are annotated at the end of each section. It’s interesting to read how he inhabits characters in his rhymes, and to realize that much of what he says is a fiction that gets at a truth — especially when considering the outrage over hip-hop lyrics. Taking the most hyperbolic pieces as literal “is just the kind of dumb shit that rap always gets subjected to…Entertainment Weekly isn’t outraged that Matt Damon isn’t really assassinating rogue CIA agents between movies.” It is also fun to catch some of the word play that comes through better while reading than listening: “Truthfully/ I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/ (But I did five mil)/ I ain’t been rhyming like Common since/ When your sense got that much in common/ And you been hustling since/ Your inception/ Fuck perception/ Go with what makes sense/ Since/ I know what I’m up against…” Ultimately, the essays are the heart of the effort and the lyrical annotations can become somewhat tedious. Still, they’re vital to Jay-Z’s aspirations for the book. If the lyrics are to be interpreted as poetry, then it’s valuable to present them in the same format. They also provide the clearest line between “the context” of “a violent and chaotic crossroads in recent history” and what hip-hop created with that experience.

For the reader, the inclusion of the songs is a reminder of what the whole thing is really about: the music. The New Yorker recommended “Decoded” as “one of the handful of books that just about any hip-hop fan should own.” I agree, but would expand the recommendation to include fans of any kind of music, all of whom should be able to connect to the compelling story Jay-Z tells about not just himself but the songs and influences that have both shaped and been shaped by him.

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