Luke's Reviews > Decoded

Decoded by Jay-Z
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's review
Feb 24, 2011

really liked it
Read on February 24, 2011

Wrote this for the teen blog at work:

Decoded, the lavishly printed new book by rapper Jay-Z, features the lyrics to a few dozen songs, annotations by Jay-Z to explain the lyrics, lots of beautifully bleak photographs, and many pages of the rapper’s autobiographical musings. Visually there’s a lot to look at: photos of ashen high rises in NYC housing projects and artful collages of the people, places, and happenings that inspired the words on the page.

But once you start reading, things really get interesting.

Here are the thoughts and memories of a powerful artist and widely known celebrity, yet there don’t seem to be any pulled punches or retreats behind rhetoric. Jay-Z is telling his story, plain and simple. Just like the lyrics which appear throughout Decoded, Jay-Z’s personal memoirs mix personal history with cultural and musical history. He writes about being a kid in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, dealing crack on the streets as a teenager, and watching the birth of rap music as an art form. Chronology is pretty much shoved aside, and the reader is thrown into a world where the Marcy neighborhood, drug-dealing and rhyme-making are completely intertwined. He writes powerfully about the tragedy heaped on his neighborhood by the appearance of crack on the streets: “it was an irreversible new reality. What had been was gone, and in its place was a new way of life that was suddenly everywhere and seemed like it had been there forever.”

It is a way of life Jay-Z only narrowly escapes, thanks to prodigious rhyming talent, quite a bit of luck, and what sounds like incessant practice as an MC. Jay-Z has a lot to say about the power and complexity of rap, and he argues convincingly that rappers are poets, first and foremost: “great MCing is not just about filling in the meter of the song with rhythm and melody. The other ways that poets make words work is by giving them layers of meaning, so you can use them to get at complicated truths in a way that straightforward storytelling fails to do.” Like poetry, the best rap aims to provoke, or, in Jay-Z’s words, “It leaves sh** rattling around in your head that won’t make sense till the fifth or sixth time through. It challenges you.” Jay-Z’s explanations of his own lyrics, printed here with footnotes galore, show just how complex rap can be. Metaphor, symbolism, wordplay, and allusions to music, culture, art, history, film, and urban life flash in every line.

Other sections of the book focus on Jay-Z’s recording career and life as a celebrity, and the surprising final section details his officially unofficial role in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, as well as an angry but well-argued critique of the media and government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Other highlights, for me, included a hilarious tale of the rapper’s triumph as the first hip hop star to play England’s “rock only” Glastonbury music festival, the story of his friendship with U2’s Bono, and Jay-Z’s hands-on, “I need to know exactly where my money is going” style of philanthropy.

Decoded has a lot to offer. Fans of Jay-Z, as well as readers who are more or less terrified of hip hop, should check this out and discover the life, the words, and the brains behind the beats.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Kim (new)

Kim "currently reading" doesn't really describe the obsessive way you're devouring this book... ;)

Luke hey, it's a good book. and I'd already finished it by the time you wrote that comment, I think.

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