22 April 2011

My Thoughts on Jay-Z, Decoded: A Review

Title: Decoded
Author: Jay-Z
Publisher: Speigel & Grau
Date: 2010
Genre: Memoir, Art, Music

308 pages.
Where I got it: Public Library
Challenges: 2011 Non-Fiction Challenge

"When I first started working on this book, I told my editor that I wanted it to do three important things.  The first thing was to make the case that hip-hop lyrics -- not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC-- are poetry if you look at them closely enough.  The second was I wanted the book to tell a little bit of the story of my generation, to show the context for the choices we made at a violent and chaotic crossroads in recent history. And the third piece was that I wanted the book to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to."

Jay-Z certainly set out to do a lot in his coffee-table book/ illustrated memoir, Decoded.  First off, the book is beautiful, from the the Andy Warhol print on the cover, and all the way through.  It is a unique piece of art in itself.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the book, and how much it was able to accomplish.

1. I didn't really need convincing that lyrics are poetry.  However, what the book did for me was convince me that rappers are powerful abstract thinkers and use language adroitly.  As an English teacher, this is something I certainly can appreciate.  I think sometimes hip-hop is blamed for denigrating language, however MCs use language playfully and show a real control of multiple meanings.  I realized while reading this book, that hip-hop lyrics are a potentially powerful teaching tool for lessons on figurative language.

2. Jay-Z says he wants to tell the story of his generation, and I would say that he tells a story of his- and my- generation, although it isn't everyone's story.  He tells a powerful personal story, and does a good job of universalizing some of the issues that he faces.  I also think that he does a good job of telling the story of his generation of hip-hop.  In 2000, Dr. Dre wrote an epitaph for rap in his album The Chronic 2001. Rap received a lot of bad press in the 1990s from anti-defamation leagues and after the deaths of some of its youngest, brightest stars: Tupac and Biggie.  However, if we look at the current Billboard charts, it is pretty obvious that hip-hop has survived.  This book humanizes the story of the rise of a new generation of stars.

3. I saw Jay-Z on Oprah's Masterclass talking about how hip-hop had done more for race relations than anything since the Civil Rights Movement (that's quoted to the best of my memory).  That is one of the things that got me interested in reading Decoded.  The book is a powerful examination of race.  Jay-Z uses lyrics as a way of showing how a "specific, personal" experience, based on his life in his neighborhood, can be turned into a song that everyone dances to together.  I think this book also does a wonderful job of making those links from the private to the public, the personal to the universal.

I would recommend  Decoded for anyone interested in the evolution of hip-hop, or in Jay-Z as an artist.  I also think that the book transcends that limited audience and provides interesting sociological and occasionally philosophical insights into America today.  I think that, in the end, the book does accomplish quite a lot.

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