By Scott Tre
Jay-Z’s rise to prominence as arguably the premiere rapper and hip-hop entrepreneur of his generation is perhaps hip-hops greatest rags to riches story. Raised by a single mom in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, he hustled in the streets during the gold rush of the crack era. He then applied and adapted the lessons he learned in those streets to the music industry. In the process he became millionaire hundreds of times over and married one of the most sought after women on the planet. One of his raps could not be anymore fantastical or complete. It is the ultimate hip-hop dream.
Jay-Z’s new hardcover book Decoded lays that story out in a rather unconventional way. It is not a straightforward autobiography, but a collection of thoughts and musings that precede intricate breakdowns of some of his most famous verses. Also included are pictures and artwork that help to tell the story. To say the tome is of the coffee table variety would not be too far from the truth, but it is considerably more substantial than that. This isn’t just a bit of fan service for Jay-Z devotees, but a conversation with one of raps most gifted songwriters.
Jay explains one of the most pervasive themes in his work, the many parallels between hustling/drug dealing and rapping. This is a well worn cliché that has become part of the shtick that rappers use whenever confronted about the profane and lurid images that saturate their work. It’s about as tired as the old adage that gangsta rappers are merely street reporters or Chuck D’s famous quote that rap music is the CNN of black America. In Decoded, Jay offers perhaps the most thought out and valid version of the rap game/crack game dynamic that I have ever seen. It is as clear and logical an explanation as any skeptic could hope for.
Jay talks of how Hip-Hop was birthed during the heroin soaked and cocaine sprinkled haze of the 1970’s and entered its much fabled golden era during the same period of time that crack cocaine was fostering a new kind of entrepreneurial spirit. To an extent, rap music has always been a product of this sentiment. Both the drug dealer and the rapper represent a way out of a desperate situation and change to fit the times. How could a rapper present a truly honest portrait of the surroundings that birthed him if he did not mention the dope peddler as one of his primary inspirations? The speak of the drug game from a purely cautionary stand point, or to ignore it altogether, is as disingenuous as the reckless glorification that rappers are often accused of.
The breakdowns of Jay-Z standards such us “Regrets”, “Meet The Parents” and “Can I live” reveal a side of the performer that has always been present but often ignored. There has always been a strong theme of regret and sadness that undercuts the tales of hood super stardom...the guilt that comes along with ill gotten gains, the nagging awareness of the lives one has helped to ruin. There is also the impending feeling that Satan is dogging your every move and eager to collect on his bounty. Jay has always noticed all of these things, and often incorporates them into his lurid Donald Goinesian tales. He never gets much credit for it, but the picture he paints of the hustler is perhaps more realistic and emotionally honest than any other rapper ever.
From another stand point, we are finally allowed to assess just how witty and crafty Jay has always been. He uses simple language and song construction to convey ideas, offering witty punchlines and couplets that have layered meanings that likely won’t be grasped by the causal listener upon first listen. This is through no fault of his own, as Jay has always eschewed the tendency to confuse his listeners with a needlessly elaborate vocabulary or baffling wordplay. His raps are deceptively complex and yet still not beyond the grasp of the layman. He wants everyone to “get it”, but he also wants them to listen.
The reader is also treated to Jay’s views on world events, as well as stories about conversations and meetings he has had with the likes of the Notorious B.I.G, Quincy Jones, Bono, Oprah, and President Obama. Some of these people have even become friendly acquaintances. Through these stories it becomes clear just how far Jay-Z, and by extension hip-hop, have come. In many cases these people were already aware of, and fans of Jay before they ever met him. President Obama arranged a meeting with Jay before he became president. That is the extension of Mr. Carter's reach. His lurid tales of cocaine dealing and the high life managed to touch the leader of the free world. Amazing.
If there is one complaint I have, it’s that Jay remains rather vague about his days as a drug dealer. We mostly see them through the prism of his music, and in that regard they remain broad and mythic. The true crime aficionado in me craved something a bit more detailed and epic...a large portrait narrative with a beginning, middle and end. While it is silly to expect that Jay would go into great deal about his criminal past, some specifics may have added a bit of validity to his observations. Hard as it is to believe, there are many people that doubt Jay’s criminal past. It would have been nice for Jay to finally provide the ammunition to shut them up, but that has never been Mr. Carter's style.
Decoded is a fun and inspirational (if sometimes lightweight) read. It doesn’t purport to be a tome of epic significance. Jay isn’t looking to change your life so much as he is giving you a glimpse into his. Like many of jay’s best songs, the deeper meanings hidden in the musings of Decoded kind of sneak up on the reader, even when they are presented in a plain and obvious way. After the final page is turned, you consciousness has been touched. Say what you will about Shawn Carter, call him materialistic, arrogant or shallow. The one thing you cannot call him is vapid. Like the generation he represents, he is more than he appears to be.