The tracking narrative accompanying the lyrics is awash with recognizable names and places that those of us coming up in New York in the early ’90s remember with an intimate fondness. There’s legendary Def Jam superstar-turned-Jay-Z mentor Lyor Cohen, and music-biz superstars Sylvia Rhone and Andre Harrell, who shot Jay-Z down like so many ducks in a gallery.
There’s stopping by the Tunnel to get Flex to spin a new track (remember that spot, y’all?), Latifah singing “U.N.I.T.Y.” and Lauryn Hill strumming our lives with her words. Puffy’s telling Jay to play every show like it’s the first; Russell’s showing Jay how to build an empire wearing Adidas shell toes.
B.I.G. is there, too, slipping Jay-Z a blunt before laying down a verse, messing with his head and teaching him a lesson about being on top of his sh– at the same time. “They call it the game,” Jay-Z writes, “but it’s not — you can want success all you want, but to get it you can’t falter. You can’t slip. You can’t sleep. One eye open, for real, and forever.”
Jay-Z gives respect to his greats — Big Daddy Kane, who taught him something about rocking the stage, and Rakim, the lyrical genius. We hear about hip-hop as anthem, reflection of life, the quick transformation from the shock of injustice to a banging verse on the track.
There are many references to Shawn Carter, Jay-Z’s early incarnation, the hustler slinging rocks, but Jay-Z has a perspective on his past. He remembers the misery of late nights selling in the freezing cold, the life doing “the work” of supplying the fiends, transporting product in the sunroof of his car across state lines. He remembers disappointing his mother, having problems with his girl, scrawling lyrics on every scrap of paper he could find and feeling nothing but distrust for a record industry that wouldn’t cut him a break.
But like a true memoirist, he uses his memories to say something, and that something is bigger than the Marcy Houses of his youth and the explosion of sound our generation birthed in the ’90s. Jay wants to teach the reader, the youngster looking up and out, some of the lessons he had to learn the hard way. How to live with an unsavory past, disallow injustices from shutting you down and forgive yourself while keeping your eye on the prize.
Of many, the threads that stick have to do with the importance of loyalty and self-acceptance; how to be an artist by telling the truth and working hard; and striving, always, to be a better person and leave no person behind — whether in New Orleans or your extended family. The gift of the book is that it isn’t about Jay-Z as much as it about the Jay-Zs to come. Decoded isn’t full of BS words of wisdom but, rather, hard-earned truths to share with the kids coming up — including, no doubt, the ones Jay-Z himself looks forward to having.
Rebecca Walker writes frequently for The Root.