Mark's Reviews > Decoded
Jan 12, 2011
Read in January, 2011
In my reading experience, books by or about popular musicians fall into three categories: 1) decadent tales of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle (of which Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards is an excellent unconventional example); 2) personal yet somehow mystifying memoirs of “where I’m from” (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One is my favorite of these); and 3) critical examinations of an artist’s body of work (Eric Nisensen’s Ascension, about the search for meaning at the core of John Coltrane’s music, fits here). Containing elements of all three categories, Jay-Z’s Decoded largely tackles the latter two. Addressing memories and critiques suggests a reflective disposition on the part of the author, and Jay-Z does sincerely examine both himself and his work throughout the volume. He manages to be personal without being too private, and though the focus is on his life and music, Decoded makes the broader case for hip-hop as both an art and as a powerful cultural force. In these pages – divided among anecdotes, illustrations, musings, and annotated lyrics – Jay-Z consistently returns to the importance of storytelling and finding a voice as ways to humanize struggles and clear up misunderstandings. He writes of the rappers’ call to “impose themselves on the world through their art, with their voices” and reminds us how “art elevates and refines and transforms experience." Interwoven with these big ideas are passages that uncover the power of rhyme and metaphor in hip-hop lyrics. Jay-Z doesn’t only mine his own work for these lessons, but looks to greats like Rakim as well. After pointing out, “Rhymes can make sense of the world in a way that regular speech can’t,” he cites how Rakim rhymes earth/birth/universe to express a “creation epic in three words." Elsewhere, Jay-Z uncovers the reasoning behind choosing particular metaphors in his lyrics to convey deeper meaning or to force the listener into cognitive dissonance. Decoded is an accessible guide for newcomers to hip-hop and an insightful treasure for fans.
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