Jay-Z’s Decoded is a game changer, and for all the right reasons. The meta-analysis begins with the book as object. In a time of plummeting book sales and industrywide distrust of experimentation, Decoded gives us something different, fresh. Start with a large trim size, sophisticated and expensive art direction, and the most explosive marketing campaign in recent history.
The team made good decisions. Chris Jackson, editor at Spiegel & Grau; Jay-Z himself; and Dream Hampton, the co-author and not-so-secret weapon, designed a book that’s heavy in the hand, something to hold, not Kindle. But it’s more bible than coffee table, more for the masses than the elite.
The images are carefully and sparingly chosen: photographs of Muhammad Ali; Russell Simmons; a group of Panthers under a heading that reads “Where Law Ends, There Tyranny Begins”; a bar of gold; the front page of the Nov. 5, 2008, New York Times, screaming Obama’s victory.
There is some white space, but the pages are filled with heartfelt writing about the trajectory, urgency and necessity of hip-hop, and punctuated by life lessons that every artist, every player trying to come up, should heed. It’s a workbook, a definitive history and a piece to study.
Oh, and the cover is genius: Warhol’s Rorschach inherently lends itself to many meanings. The reader is to do the decoding, to see what he or she wants to see in the work, and the buying public is to know, straight off, that this isn’t a book by a fronting semiliterate street thug. No, Rorschach says, Decoded is a book by someone who knows art and thus his own place in its history.
Like Jay-Z, Warhol was a master of mixing high and low art, a subversive critic of arbitrary capitalist approaches to the production and sale of art, and the magnet for a stellar posse (including the late, great Jean-Michel Basquiat, to whom Jay-Z refers several times in the book — he’s bought a few of his paintings), all attracted by one thing: the idea of making something out of nothing, of creating meaningful experience in the garage, by whatever means necessary.
So the book, as concept, works. Open it up and it doesn’t stop. We get a deconstruction of the lyrics of 36 songs — with notes so specific and literarily stated, the whole thing could be a doctoral thesis. The songs are displayed as texts, with footnotes describing references, giving insight into the artist’s choices.
For a track from Dynasty, Jay-Z explains a mention of Stevie Wonder: “I’m trying to create a parallel between me and Stevie Wonder. He’s blind, obviously, and relies on his other senses to navigate the world. That’s how it is on the streets, too, where you have to rely on your instincts to survive and anticipate what’s going to happen before you actually see it.”
On the same track, Bill Cosby’s murdered son, Ennis, gets a verse, and a decoding: “Ennis was the kind of kid that a lot of us were envious of: he came from a fortune and seemed to have it all, including his dad … while most of us came up with nothing and had never even met our fathers. But Ennis’s death was one of those things that sharpen your sight (which continues the blindness/sight metaphor I introduced with Stevie Wonder). It reminds us of life’s frailty even for people with money and status. Money can’t protect you from fate.”