Two hundred and thirty five pages into Decoded, Jay-Z’s book of rhymes and life experiences, Jay-Z explicitly states his goals for writing the book. One, he wants us to know that rap lyrics should be viewed as poetry. Two, he wants to contextualize his generation at an important period in history. Three, he wants to give us a glimpse of hip-hop’s power to transform the personal into the universal. Decoded is therefore multilayered. For our purposes, let’s take Jay-Z at his word that he, as he says in the book, loves metaphors, and discuss Decoded in metaphorical terms.
Metaphor One: The Mixtape
“I’ve rapped over bhangra, electronica, soul samples, classic rock, alternative rock, indie rock, the blues, doo-wop, bolero, jazz, Afrobeat, gypsy ballads, Luciano Pavarotti, and the theme song of a Broadway musical…Hip-hop created a space where all kinds of music could meet, without contradiction.”
—Decoded, p. 240
There’s a scene in Michael Mann’s cops-and-robbers flick Heat (1995) that captures the feeling of reading parts of Jay-Z’s Decoded. In the film, Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his officers pursue a well-oiled crew of bandits, led by Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro), who pull off lucrative heists. Hanna and company follow their adversaries to an open area amid a container facility, an oil refinery, and a scrap yard. Careful to avoid detection, Hanna and his men keep audio and visual tabs on the criminals from a distance. McCauley and his gang briefly survey the area, with McCauley gesturing in different directions as he talks, and then they hop in their cars and drive away.
Curious, the police venture to the open area, wondering which part of the landscape held significance to the crooks. Vincent Hanna, eyeing the environment for a sign that would reveal the crew’s next big move, has one of those epiphanies the good guys always have at just the right moment. Hanna realizes what’s going on. “Want to know what they’re looking at?” Hanna says in Pacina’s gravel-gargling voice. “I mean, is this guy something, or is he something? This. Crew. Is. Good.”
McCauley, knowing the cops were investigating his crew, lured them to this open area where he could position himself to watch them. “We just got made,” says Hanna, partly resigned to the fact, and partly with admiration. We see McCauley, in a spot high above his quarry, snapping photos while an animated Hanna waves his arms and poses for the camera he knows is out there somewhere. McCauley smirks back.
I mention this movie because it features two great actors, Pacino and DeNiro, whose movies (Scarface, The Godfather, Goodfellas, and so forth) occupy an almost obsessive portion of hip-hop’s imagery and lyricism. Jay-Z admits as much in Decoded about his own lyrics. But, like Neil McCauley briefly turning the tables on Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, there are recollections in the book that make you feel as if Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has been quietly watching us when we thought we were watching him. Jay-Z’s account of a reporter asking him about his wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt with a “Jesus piece” chain is fascinating because Jay-Z frames it within his discussion about flaws and contradictions. It is also fascinating because while the reporter thought she was sizing him up, he was sizing her up too. “Wow,” was his response to an essay she’d written that included commentary on three of his albums. “I could’ve just dismissed her as a hater.”
It’s not that anyone should be surprised by Jay-Z’s reactions to critics, or by his interactions with celebrities and big shots (the dude hangs out with Bono, Quincy Jones, and Bill Clinton, for cryin’ out loud), or by his conversations with Oprah Winfrey (she’s a little wary of rap music—well, duh). What’s cool about Decoded is how sharp his observations are, how he absorbs the tiniest bits of his exchanges with people and connects them to larger, more abstract issues. He has a song called “Streets Is Watching”. Jay-Z is watching too.
Originally, the book’s allure was that Jay-Z would be explaining the lyrics to a personally selected batch of his songs, in effect decoding them. And he does this, by reprinting 36 song lyrics with annotations while framing them with anecdotes, plus artwork and photography by visual artists. Andy Warhol’s Rorschach graces the cover.
The 300-plus page hardback memoir eschews the birth-to-present narration of a traditional autobiography. Instead, Decoded presents Jay-Z’s views on his life and music in a decidedly nonlinear fashion. No wonder, then, that the book’s promotional campaign went interactive in advance of the release date. In partnership with Bing, fans were treated to a multi-platform scavenger hunt. Pages from the book were stashed in secret locations around the globe, and online through Bing Maps. Fans would win prizes by cracking clues to find the pages in locations related to Jay-Z’s life experience. It sounds like fans were playing the real life, rap version of Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego.
As you’ll discover from the reading and the promotional pitch, Jay-Z is a big fan of metaphor, and he’s not afraid to say so. What Decoded really turns out to be is an elaborate book of liner notes, spawning a mammoth 36-song mixtape of his pet pleasures. Think of it as a fancy, expanded version of Jay-Z’s booklet for Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life. That album included pictures and brief commentary about the songs, similar to the packaging for Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth. For Ali’s album, though, the commentary came from fellow artists. Here, the charisma Jay-Z exhibits in his live show translates surprisingly well to the page, something like the written equivalent of his 2001MTV Unplugged set or his 2007 VH1 Storytellers performance in support of the American Gangster LP.
The latter, in particular, contextualized the music, making the songs more memorable and all the more cohesive as a body of work. The same thing happens with Decoded, so that the songs he covers are infused with his narrative and back story. When, for instance, he analogizes the mentoring process in rap to the way older hustlers recruit younger ones, it makes his songs with young rap upstart Memphis Bleek all the more potent.
For the most part, he avoids explaining the lyrics to his biggest hits, such as “Hard Knock Life”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”. But, then, seriously—do you need Jay-Z to break down the lyrics to Dirt Off Your Shoulder? A few of the big ones, like “Empire State of Mind”, get mentioned in passing, and his stories about them—like the one about how he obtained the Annie sample clearance for “Hard Knock Life”—are worth reading. His song choices fit the narration, nonlinear though it may be, and there’s a sense that some songs, as intriguing to have him decode as they may be, simply wouldn’t match up. Besides, once you’ve walked through the lyrics in this book alongside his annotations, you start to see his patterns, favorite devices, and frequent references. You can do some decoding on your own.
So, despite sharing “Public Service Announcement”, “99 Problems”, and “Big Pimpin’”, this is not the book version of his Greatest Hits, Volume One collection. There, he’s devoted a website to his personage and time line of achievements (you can click on his face to make stuff happen, if you want). That project is both parallel to Decoded as well as its antithesis. With the Greatest Hits and its deluxe packaging, Jay-Z is looking to create a collector’s item, a treasure of images and popular songs. With Decoded, his aim is equally refined, except with an intense focus on the intersection between life (namely, his); art, poetry and hip-hop (mainly, his); and reality and mythmaking (mostly his, on both accounts).
Often, it seems Jay-Z has a keen understanding of what he’s doing, as if he’s considered the effect of what he’s offering. It’s not the raw and uncut outpouring one might anticipate from an artist such as Kanye West. Sometimes names are changed or deliberately omitted. If you’re looking for juicy celebrity gossip, this probably isn’t the book for that. If you’re interested in Beyonce, you’re going to be disappointed. Tidbits like that—about Michael Jackson or MC Hammer—are few and rarely illuminating. About those things, he doesn’t tell us anything we wouldn’t already figure out on our own. Some accounts he actually handles better in his songs.
Here’s something for the music geeks and the anti-Jay-Z crew: on page 26, he says he “wrote” his second verse to “Public Service Announcement” as a response to the Che Guevara T-shirt incident and the reporter pestering him about it. But, wait, wait, what was that? Did he say he “wrote” that verse? Aha! I thought Jay-Z was known for not writing anything down, as if the lyrics just sprang into his mind fully formed like the Greek goddess Athena from her father’s forehead in full battle armor. He’s the “only rapper to rewrite history without a pen”, as he says in “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”. That’s the ironic thing about his having a book of rhymes in the first place. On the other hand, it could be a typo, as there are a few in the text.
Still, Jay-Z comes across as a sharp guy, equipped with a photographic memory and a love for performing rhymes. The prose, like his rap style, contains enough wit and detail, even if it’s not a tell-all confession, to give us the feeling we’ve gotten to know the Shawn Carter behind the Jay-Z brand just a little better. We haven’t, really, and he knows it. He’s been watching his audience for a long time now.
As for my mixtape analogy, it’s not a joke. Take the songs analyzed in the book and add them to your playlist, in their order of appearance in the book, and you’ll find that they flow together quite nicely, beginning with The Black Album‘s “Public Service Announcement”, and then forward through “99 Problems”, “Moment of Clarity”, “Meet the Parents”, “Regrets”, and “Lucifer”. The mix would include songs not released on any of Jay-Z’s official albums: “Early This Morning”, “Most Kings”, “Operation Corporate Takeover”, his guest spot on dead prez’s “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System)”, “Beware (Jay-Z Remix)”, Jay-Z’s take on Young Jeezy’s “My President is Black”, and “History”. If I’m being honest, I’ve been something of a lukewarm Jay-Z observer for most of his tenure (see also: hater), so this mixtape, for me, goes over a little easier for me than his albums do.