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."
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.