Jay-Z’s life ‘Decoded’

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"Decoded," Jay-Z's first book, is part-memoir, part-lyric analysis. Photo via Spiegal & Gran.

Jay-Z is a poet, and he wants you to know it.

Last month, the eminent rapper released a memoir/collection of lyrics dubbed “Decoded” — a work of the written word rather than the spoken raps he’s best known for — which aims to reveal the art behind his hip-hop lyrics through his personal narrative and the struggles of his generation.

This is not your archetypal rags-to-riches autobiography. Jay-Z constructs his story around the lyrics of 36 songs from his discography without adhering to a traditional chronological progression.

Each chapter follows the same pattern. First, Jay-Z provides the social backdrop and personal memories that inspired the song lyrics, and then the lyrics themselves, replete with red numbers after select verses.

These red numbers correspond to footnotes on the subsequent pages where Jay-Z strips his songs down to the verses to provide detailed written explanations of their significance and covert meanings.

For example, take this excerpt of “Public Service Announcement” from “The Black Album”: “My homey Strict told me, ‘Dude, finish your breakfast.’”

Most would interpret this to mean that someone wants Jay-Z to eat the rest of his bacon and eggs, but the literal meaning behind this verse is something totally different: a personal reference to Jay-Z’s friend Strict. According to the accompanying footnote, Strict “uses the phrase ‘finish your breakfast’ as a way of saying that you need to finish up strong.”

But why the ambiguity? Jay-Z explains that, “Being misunderstood is a badge of honor in rap. Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood. … It’s about perceptions people had long before you ever walked onto the scene. The joke’s on them because they’re really just fighting phantoms of their own creation.”

Jay-Z frequently delves into heavy topics such as racism and crime in “Decoded,” but does not buckle under their bulk and breadth. Instead, he effectively addresses the controversial issues in a way that is relatable and believable.

This is also what hip-hop does for Jay-Z’s generation, according to “Decoded,” acting as a vehicle to express their attitudes and stories in the digestible, universal format of music.

However, hip-hop’s lyrical messages are often misinterpreted by the untrained ear. Many balk at hip-hop’s rampant use of obscenity and controversial topics, but Jay-Z attributes this to a lack of understanding.

“People don’t bother trying to get it. The problem isn’t in the rap or the rapper or the culture. The problem is that so many people don’t even know how to listen to the music.”

He explains that, to him, rap and poetry are one and the same, and retain layers of meaning that may require several listens to fully comprehend.

“The art of rap is deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography.”

Jay-Z comments on this in his song “Renegade,” where he raps, “Say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels (bling bling) / Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”

Throughout the memoir, Jay-Z makes it clear he wants readers to know his roots and understand the culture infused in his art, since his life is such a strong influence on his music.

The book begins where it all started for Jay-Z: his first taste of hip-hop music in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, a neighborhood overrun with crime, poverty and the drug “hustler” lifestyle that consumed his teenage years.

“It wasn’t a rare thing to have to fight your way home. Something as meaningless as a glance often ended up in a scuffle – and worse. You could get killed just for riding in the wrong train at the wrong time. I started to think that since I was risking my life anyway, I might as well get paid for it. It was that simple.”

Vivid illustrations and photos of the Marcy Projects, elements of Jay-Z’s songs, and various other visual attractions such as varied fonts and colorful page backgrounds supplement his writing and reinforce the idea that hip-hop is as legitimate as any other form of artistic expression.

Those looking for tawdry celebrity gossip in this book won’t find it. “Decoded” earnestly catalogues not only Jay-Z’s ascent to fame and success, but also hip-hop’s evolution as an art form enabling his generation to vocalize their struggles and state their opinions while unearthing the meanings behind some of his most notable lyrics.

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