Deciphering the Jay-Z Code

He's got 99 problems but a book ain't one. Jay-Z's nonlinear memoir illuminates rap as personal narrative, lyric poetry, and transformative medium.

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.

Book: Decoded

Author: Jay-Z

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Publication Date: 2010-11

Format: Hardcover

Length: 336 pages

Price: $35.00

ISBN: 9781400068920

Image: 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.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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