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.
Metaphor Two: Verbal Acts
“Turning something as common as language into a puzzle makes the familiar feel strange; it makes the language we take for granted feel fresh and exciting again, like an old friend who just revealed a long-held secret.”
—Decoded, p. 56
If you watch legal dramas in the United States, there’s a term of art you’ve probably heard before—hearsay. In the U.S. Federal Rules of Evidence, hearsay is defined as an out-of-court statement “offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Basically, if a witness at trial testifies to a statement previously made outside of the courtroom, the statement is considered hearsay if the purpose of the statement is to prove what it literally says. If, for example, the witness testifies that Bob said, “Yo, son, I am the Notorious B.I.G.,” the declaration constitutes hearsay if its purpose is to prove Bob is really the Notorious B.I.G. Unless there’s an exception that allows it, such a literal statement would be inadmissible at trial. If, on the other hand, the statement is being used to show Bob’s mental state, that the dude is out of his mind and has gone insane thinking he’s the Notorious B.I.G., then the statement might be admissible for that purpose.
Under the evidence rules, there are many exceptions (it’s “hearsay”, but it’s admissible) and exemptions (it’s not even considered “hearsay”) for which out-of-court statements, written and oral, may be permitted as evidence. That’s where “verbal acts” come in. A “verbal act” is a word or phrase that has legal significance outside of what the word or phrase literally means. A statement showing consent, constituting a threat, or indicating acceptance or rejection of an offer for a contract are all examples of verbal acts. The words literally say one thing, but the significance goes beyond the literal, and can be indicative of a person’s apprehension of imminent bodily harm or their assent or dissent to an agreement.
In the past, rappers have compared the “rap game” to the “crack game” (drug game), and perhaps there is something to be said for that. But I think rap is often misunderstood in the same way that the legal profession is misunderstood. Lawyers, like rappers, are often compelled to say things for purposes other than “telling the truth”. When controversy arises, this fact makes people angry and confused.
Emceeing is a lyrical exercise comprised of verbal acts. Decoded speaks to this “not for truth” element in rap, although Jay-Z doesn’t equate the art of emceeing with the rules of evidence. That’s my own dorky spin on things. But he does make a point that we—politicians, rap fans, and music critics included—seem to forget: rap lyrics are not always offered for the truth of what they assert. In fact, simply pointing out the truth would often be dull and unimaginative. A line in a rap song will be offered for other purposes. In “I’m Bad”, when LL Cool J says nobody can rap like him and he’ll “take a muscle bound man and put his face in the sand”, he might actually mean he’ll bury a muscle bound man in the sand. Alternatively, he might be trying to show how mighty his wordplay is. Or both, who knows.
In Decoded, Jay-Z is intent on illuminating the nuances of his own lyrics while pointing out that emceeing isn’t nearly as linear and straightforward as we’d like to assume. Sure, there are some duds out there, and we can find examples of uninspired rap lyrics. But when rap is good, it’s very good, and deciphering a masterful verse—its layers of meaning, allusions, symbols, poetic devices, imagery, and so forth—can be surprisingly daunting. Rappers build on cultural references, punch lines, lyrics by other rappers and songwriters, even inside jokes. It just dawned on me this year that a song Ice Cube released in 1991 might contain a To Kill a Mockingbird reference. And I actually like rap! An unfamiliar listener might find rap lyrics completely impenetrable, a bunch of gibberish. Listening to rap can be like unraveling a code.
Two examples from Decoded are instructive. In the first, Jay-Z notes that rappers sometimes deliver their lines with a rhythm that is separate from the underlying “beat”. Over the song’s usual “four-beat measure by four-beat measure”, the rapper “adds his own rhythm”, either staying with the beat or chopping the beat into smaller parts. The beat, Jay-Z suggests, is like time. The flow, he says, is like life. “Flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it,” he says. In this way, a rapper’s purpose for a line might be rhythmic, focused more on flow and mood than on literal meaning.
The other example involves the track “Public Service Announcement” and how his first verse in the song “wasn’t blazingly unique”. That verse finds Jay-Z talking about the subject everyone claims is his favorite—how awesome he is. And he could have left it at that, since, after all, there are truckloads of songs with rappers telling us how dope they are. Nothing earth shattering there. But then he goes further to compare the16-bar structure of the typical rap verse to the set structure of a sonnet. Just as the sonnet’s subject matter is generally limited to love, there’s almost a whole category of rap verses that are limited to expounding on the rapper’s greatness, or dopeness. Since sonnet writers have to be inventive to tackle a well-worn subject within a confining structure, Jay-Z argues that rappers are doing the same. “It’s a test of creativity and wit,” he declares. Passing that test “becomes proof of the boast’s truth” (not to be confused with the literal truth of the boasts themselves; I’m not going to let him mess up my metaphor). Rappers have to make language fresh in order to captivate their listeners.
And then there is Jay-Z’s own lyrical acumen, which is also enlightening, whether he’s pointing out the alliteration in his verses, or making us aware of the cultural touchstones and inside jokes he employs. Jay-Z is especially fond of irony and multiple meanings. In “99 Problems”, he tosses off a seemingly offensive chorus (“I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”) to humorous effect. The first verse admonishes critics for reducing his work to the formula of “money, cash, hoes”. The rest of the song plays on various shades of the b-word, but excluding those that pertain to women.
The second verse pits a driver “with a trunk full of trouble” against a biased, prejudiced police officer. Their standoff goes back and forth, with the officer trying to search the driver’s car, and the driver demanding a warrant, until at last the officer mentions that the K-9 unit is on the way. It is open ended, this saga, and the listener is left wondering about the outcome. Does the driver get away? Does the police dog sniff out contraband in the car? Who’s “right” in this scenario, and who gets to take the high ground—a driver with contraband who doesn’t want to be racially profiled, or a police officer whose racial profiling might help him to seize contraband? Jay-Z leaves it open for interpretation, and goes back into the chorus. If you don’t pay attention, though, you might miss that the driver even had the contraband. The only clue comes in the opening line of that verse, “The year is ‘94 and in my trunk is raw.” Missing that part undermines the tension and layering of the standoff.
Remember the movie Heat? The film cycled the word “heat” through a number of meanings. “Heat” signified “guns”, “pressure”, “police presence”, friction”, and several forms of “passion”. Words are so important, and in the movie, the police caught a break in tracking the bad guys because of the word “slick”. One of the bad guys liked to call people “slick”, and he did so during a heist at the beginning of the movie. “I got connections,” Method Man declared in Notorious B.I.G.‘s “The What”. So do all good rappers.
Metaphor Three: The Hustler
“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.