“The story of the rapper and the story of the hustler are like rap itself, two kinds of rhythm working together, having a conversation with each other, doing more together than they could do apart.”
While Jay-Z succeeds in spotlighting the personal nature of his lyrics, and of rap lyrics in general, there are many characters and personas for hip-hop artists to inhabit. There’s the intelligent thug, an outlaw of sorts whose worldview sits between legal realism and ruthless logic. There’s the street poet, a keen observer who, in the tradition of Rakim, acts as a skilled troubadour who highlights the urban struggle. There’s the science fiction and fantasy motif often displayed in the rhymes of Kool Keith and Del the Funky Homosapien. Wu-Tang Clan pioneered the aesthetic of hip-hop’s Shaolin monk. Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J brought the player image to the fore, coupled with love songs and a bit of social commentary.
Jay-Z’s work embodies the hustler, and in Decoded he indicates that he views much of the world through a streetwise lens. For Jay-Z, the hustler symbolizes potential survival, as well as potential self-destruction, and involves “work”, as in the long hours and competitive hurdles necessary for climbing the ranks, but also in terms of illegal product (i.e. drugs). Jay-Z’s work (his music, this time) is populated with such jargon, and he puts them to work in as many gradations of meaning as he can develop. To his credit, he has a tendency to use such words in opposing contexts, balancing one shade of meaning against the other. The word “whip”, for instance, references a handheld weapon but might also refer to a car. In his real life, hustling was dangerous “work” that Jay-Z experienced as both a potentially life threatening venture and a way to contribute funds to a household headed by his mother.
Internalizing this duality informs the slightest divisions between “Shawn Carter, the man” and “Jay-Z, the rapper”. It colors his view of the music industry, politics, charities, and critics. Hustling breeds paranoia, and maybe it seems like there’s a hustler lurking everywhere, approaching with a scheme. Jay-Z is observant and hesitant, even while he strives to satisfy his ambition. Not only does the hustler mentality characterize Jay-Z’s interpretations of life and music making, Decoded positions the hustler as a symbol of hip-hop itself.
The discerning listener finds duality in Jay-Z’s lyrics, as in his “gift and curse” motif, and his ability to tell more than one side of a story. There’s rarely a rise without a fall in Jay-Z’s work, never a yin without a yang. He sees having one without the other as being intellectually dishonest. He says, “To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of lie.”
Real life figures like artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and U.S. President Barack Obama operate as symbols in his music. Basquiat, and one of the Basquiat print Jay-Z owns (Charles the First), represent a warning against succumbing to the spoils of success. Obama, of course, symbolizes hope (surprise!) and the potential for new and unprecedented achievements. More intriguing, to me, is Obama’s worth as a symbol of visibility, a man who represents not only a base of political constituents but also, apparently, the aspirations of an entire racial group (that is, “Black” people, “people of color”, and so on). That “race” itself is at least partly a social construct speaks to the psychological significance of Obama’s campaign and election. It’s like a symptom of relief amid severe societal trauma.
For Jay-Z, hip-hoppers tend to get short shrift in popular culture, like when the managing director of a company that makes champagne shrugs off the patronage of its hip-hop consumers or when a supposedly prestigious music awards show doesn’t air the rap awards. Hip-hop in this context becomes invisible, and its participants are told to go away.
To a lesser degree, surveying a large number of Jay-Z tunes with the mission of picking them apart reveals the rapper’s attention to symbolism. In his rhymes, Jay-Z’s allusions to Malcolm X and Stevie Wonder acquire secondary meanings, and when you link references across a variety of songs, it speaks to the type of character he is constructing under the “Jay-Z” brand. Hip-hop as a whole revels in what outsiders see as contradictions. Rappers see “contradictions” as signs of being human, and use symbolism as reminders, guideposts, and omens.
It is this level of symbolism, and the stakes involved, that propels Jay-Z to take seriously his stance on how hip-hop is viewed by outsiders. A company doesn’t want rappers drinking its champagne? Fine, Jay-Z promises never to serve or reference that brand. An awards show won’t air the rap awards? Jay-Z won’t attend. A member of a rock band doesn’t want Jay-Z to headline a prominent music and performing arts festival? Jay-Z will show up, take a run at a song by that rock band, and get rave reviews. That’s right, one small step for Jay-Z equals one giant leap for the culture. Hip-hop wins again.