Renee's Reviews > Decoded

Decoded by Jay-Z
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Mar 09, 11

bookshelves: randomchoice, music, memoir
Read from February 16 to March 07, 2011

That's right--five stars.
It's March, and it's possible this will be my favorite book of the year.
I have a few Jay-Z songs, but it's not like I'm a huge fan. I am, however, a huge fan of hip hop, and this book impressed me.
Jay-Z talks about his life experiences and his business and his music. He leaves his wife out of it entirely. But I didn't feel bothered by that.
Each chapter has several lyrics "decoded" as he explains what he meant, and I was extremely impressed. I loved analyzing poetry in high school, and this is the first time I've really enjoyed that since.
I really felt like he nailed many explanations of why I connect to hip hop and what it means to me. And I'm convinced he's brilliant.
Below are some of my favorite quotes...
Note that I read this book electronically, and the links between lyrics and footnote explanations worked but I think it would have been easier to see on the same page. Might be better on paper.

“If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it. The beat is everywhere, but every life has to find its own flow.”

“How distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?”

“When we take the most familiar subject in the history of rap—why I’m dope—and frame it within the sixteen-bar structure of a rap verse, synced to the specific rhythm and feel of the track, more than anything it’s a test of creativity and wit.”

“Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don’t necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it. Instead it plants dissonance in your head. You can enjoy a song that knocks in the club or has witty punch lines the first time you hear it. But great rap retains mystery. It leaves sh*t rattling around in your head that won’t make sense till the fifth or sixth time through. It challenges you.”

“It’s all white noise to them till they hear a b*tch or a n*gga and then they run off yelling “See!” and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about. But that would be like listening to Maya Angelou and ignoring everything until you heard her drop a line about drinking or sleeping with someone’s husband and then dismissing her as an alcoholic adulterer. “

“Sometimes the mask is to hide and sometimes it’s to play at being something you’re not so you can watch the reactions of people who believe the mask is real. Because that’s when they reveal themselves. So many people can’t see that every great rapper is not just a documentarian, but a trickster—that every great rapper has a little bit of Chuck and a little bit of Flav in them—but that’s not our problem, it’s their failure: the failure, or unwillingness, to treat rap like art, instead of acting like it’s just a bunch of n*ggas reading out of their diaries. Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just f*cks with you for the fun of it.”

“It’s hard to beat the entertainment value of people who deliberately misunderstand the world, people dying to be insulted, running around looking for a bullet to get in front of.”

“Everybody look at you strange, say you changed / Uh, like you work that hard to stay the same”

“The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden…. The sad sh*t is that you never really shake it all the way off, no matter how much money you get.”

“The seventh degree [of giving] is giving anonymously, so you don’t know who you’re giving to, and the person on the receiving end doesn’t know who gave. The value of that is that the person receiving doesn’t have to feel some kind of obligation to the giver and the person giving isn’t doing it with an ulterior motive. It’s a way of putting the giver and receiver on the same level. It’s a tough ideal to reach out for, but it does take away some of the patronizing and showboating that can go on with philanthropy in a capitalist system. The highest level of giving, the eighth, is giving in a way that makes the receiver self-sufficient.”

“This is food for thought, you do the dishes.”

“Rap is built to handle contradictions….It doesn’t force you to pretend to be only one thing or another, to be a saint or sinner. It recognizes that you can be true to yourself and still have unexpected dimensions and opposing ideas…The real bullsh*t is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you, that you’re so dull and unimaginative that your mind never changes or wanders into strange, unexpected places.”

“More than anything, I love sharp people; men or women, nothing makes me like someone more than intelligence.”

“The rapper’s character is essentially a conceit, a first-person literary creation.”

“And we change people through conversation, not through censorship.”

“Identity isn’t a prison you can never escape, but the way to redeem your past is not to run from it, but to try to understand it, and use it as a foundation to grow.”

“It’s always been most important for me to figure out “my space” rather than trying to check out what everyone else is up to, minute by minute. Technology is making it easier to connect to other people but maybe harder to keep connected to yourself—and that’s essential for any artist, I think.”

“The body of work you create is like the future of your past—it’s the thing that tells people who you were, even after you’re gone.”
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