Thename of Jay-Z’s first book is Decoded,a curious title given that among the work of celebrated rappers his lyricsmight need perhaps the least decoding. Unlike the Wu-Tang Clan, for instance,whose arcane allusions, slang neologisms, and syncretic philosophies havespawned two books and counting, Jay-Z is decidedly plain spoken andconfessional. His most powerful lyrics—and there have been many since his 1996debut, Reasonable Doubt—reveal anxiety, uncertainty, and an uncannyawareness of human frailty to go along with the expected bluster and bravado ofthe rap idiom.
Despite Jay-Z’swillingness to bare his emotions in song, we know precious little about the manhimself, Shawn Carter. The general arc of his life’s narrative is clear: achild of Brooklyn’s Marcy projects transforms himself from aspiring rapper todrug hustler to global superstar to corporate mogul. He is the self-made man ofAmerican myth, remixed with a kick drum and a snare. Under the guise of hisinvented name, Jay-Z has become less person than persona. As he once rappedwith characteristic concision: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business,man.” Though he’s released a staggering eleven albums in fourteen years,the man behind the business still remains a mystery—often seen, but rarelyheard.
That is what makes Decoded such an unexpected and welcome gift. At over threehundred pages, it is a multimedia, multi-genre extravaganza: part memoir, partcoffee table book, part annotated compendium of lyrics, part polemic in thedefense of hip hop’s poesy. Jay-Z (with the aid of the respected hip-hopjournalist dream hampton) intersperses personal anecdotes, rhetoricalbroadsides, and deep reflections with rich images and typography. From AndyWarhol’s striking “Rorschach” on the book’s front cover to theinterior art, which ranges from Michelangelo’s “Pietà” to a vintageLittle Orphan Annie button, the book is a visual feast.
What the book isn’t—andwhat many hip-hop fans have long anticipated—is a tell-all memoir. Though richin anecdotes, the narrative is organized thematically rather thanchronologically, underscoring the continuities across Jay-Z’s career. Thethemes range from poverty to fame, from sports to politics. At times, thesesubject-driven sections leave one dissatisfied with the level of revelation andreflection, such as in his cursory treatment of race relations. Combined,though, they provide a penetrating glimpse into the mind of one of the greatestAmerican artist-celebrities.
As a collection of lyricsalone, Decoded is an essentialcontribution. It joins a growing bodyof works, such as Paul Edwards’s How toRap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC and Yale University Press’s The Anthology of Rap (which I co-edited with Andrew DuBois), that placethe rap lyric in its proper context within the American popular songbook andthe broader tradition of poetry through the ages.
Jay-Z is a rapper whofamously doesn’t write down his lyrics—or as he once termed it, “the onlyrapper to rewrite history without a pen”—and seeing his words on the pageis a revelation. Syllables and sounds bounce off one another; clever figures ofspeech unfold before our eyes. Throughout the book, he continually makes thecase for understanding rappers as poets, complex artists capable of renderingthe familiar unfamiliar, embodying paradox and tension in their lyrics, andmaking things beautiful—and ugly too—as artists at their best always do.
“Turning something ascommon as language into a puzzle makes the familiar feel strange;” hewrites, “it makes the language we take for granted feel fresh and excitingagain, like an old friend who just revealed a long-held secret. That’s why theMCs who really play with language [. . .] can be the most exciting for peoplewho listen closely enough, because they snatch the ground out from under you. .. .” Decoded will do just that,upending assumptions about hip-hop and leaving readers suspended in midair,staring down at a new and complex ground beneath their feet.