“decoded” doesn’t actually deal directly or in detail with several grim episodes in the author’s life, such as the reported shooting of his 12-year-old crack-addicted brother (who, according to one recent article in the Guardian, “he did not press charges and apologized to his little brother for his addiction”), or his own narrow escape from what an article on forbes.com has called “a failed attempt on his life” after of “a dispute with a rival distributors.” in fact, this book, which thanks dream hampton, former editor of hip-hop magazine the source, for her help, appears to be a variation on a simpler autobiography, written with mrs. hampton, which jay-z decided not to publish several years ago.
shawn carter’s past would provide the subject of jay-z’s best-known lyrics, noting here that when he began writing about his life and the lives of the people around him, “rhyming helped me figure out a little sense of those stories”: “flesh and blood became words, ideas, metaphors, fantasies and jokes”.
jay-z doesn’t romanticize or apologize for his days on the streets, and while it might seem presumptuous to provide detailed footnotes for a comedic party song like “big pimpin'”, his notations on other lyrics are revealing. . For example, of the now ubiquitous “empire mood”, he says that when he first heard the beautiful track his decision was to “muck it up”, “to tell stories of the rough side of the city, to use stories about the hustle and being pushed to add tension to the soaring beauty of the choir.” In doing so, he reminds us that this song, which all but replaced “new york, new york” as Gotham’s unofficial anthem, contains some remarkably crude references to the drug trade (“welcome to the melting pot, / corners where we sell rocks”). and promiscuous sex (“Sin City sucks on a whim,/Good girls go bad, the city is full of them”).
in the end, “decoded” leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked countless variations on a number of familiar themes (hustle, party, and “the most familiar theme in rap history: why m dope”) by putting a street spin on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes a unexpected flow, leaps of consciousness that rework old clichés and play witty aural jokes on the listener (“ruthless” and “homeless”, “tears” and “levels”, “sense” and “since”).
just as jay-z’s eclectic sampling on his records affirms his postmodernist fascination with musical DNA, this book attests to his love of music and respect for its history, and his debt to lps’ incredible collection of his parents, “stacked to the ceiling in metal milk crates”: soul and r&b, pop, motown and funk that he “smuggled” into his own records and breathed new life into them.
“We were kids without parents, so we found our parents on the wax, on the streets, and in history, and in a way, that was a gift,” he writes near the end of this provocative and evocative book. “We had to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. that was part of the ethics of that time and place, and it was incorporated into the culture we created. rap took the remains of a dying society and created something new. our parents were gone, usually because they just bounced around, but we took their old records and used them to build something new.”