Feature

Book of the week: Decoded by Jay-Z

Jay-Z has put together a collage-like book on the history of hip-hop and its place in the broader culture. So many people,” he writes, “don’t even know how to listen to the music.”

(Spiegel and Grau, 336 pages, $35)

Anyone familiar with hip-hop knows the rough details of Jay-Z’s life story, said Adam Bradley in Salon.com. Born Shawn Carter, the future rapper and rap mogul grew up fatherless in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing project, took up crack-dealing in his early teens, and was 26 before his 1996 debut album launched a prolific, lucrative showbiz career. As Jay-Z, he is “the self-made man of American myth, remixed with a kick drum and a snare.” But the artist’s new book is not the no-holds-barred autobiography fans once hoped it would be: His wife, Beyoncé, is referred to only once, in passing, and the producer he stabbed in a 1999 nightclub scuffle isn’t even mentioned by name. The volume instead is a hybrid: part songbook, part art-laden coffee-table book, part charged “polemic in defense of hip-hop’s poesy.” It makes a fascinating read.

Jay-Z’s apparent mission is to teach, said François Marchand in the Montreal Gazette. Even when the text is jump-cutting from “vivid snapshots of his days hustling crack” to anecdotes about hanging with Bill Clinton or U2’s Bono, he’s giving us a history of hip-hop and its place in the broader culture. “So many people,” he writes at one point, “don’t even know how to listen to the music.” To address that problem more directly, he frequently reprints lyrics to his own songs and then deconstructs their allusions and meaning. These lessons heighten one’s appreciation of  “the richly layered, metaphoric nature of the author’s own rhymes,” said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Rappers often work just a handful of themes—guns, girls, hustling, and partying being mainstays. But by “putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices—hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration, and allusions”—the good ones ever renew the medium.

Readers who want Shawn Carter’s life story will have to wait for a different book, said Zach Baron in The Village Voice. More than anything, Decoded is a reminder to the many listeners who don’t yet get it that “Jay-Z” is a performance: As with other rappers before him, his project is “a kind of self-novelization.” He intends to develop and deepen a particular “first-person literary creation” song by song and—because he long ago branched out—with every business gambit he undertakes. So while Shawn Carter may still be shielding his own story from full scrutiny, Decoded gives us hip-hop’s story whole. In fact, this collage-like book might be “the most comprehensive account of the art ever written.”

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