I never thought a book written by Jay-Z would make me think, see hip hop culture in a completely different way and listen to hip hop lyrics more closely, but that’s what happened when I read Decoded. The only way I can describe this book that’s part autobiography, part critique of his own lyrics and hip hop culture as a whole, is profound. Decoded takes you inside the mind of Jay-Z, and made me see him in a different way. Now he’s no longer just that rapper who’s married to Beyonce, he’s an artist – a genius.
It took me a while to actually pick up the book because I didn’t understand the concept. I had heard that it was a biography, but he didn’t talk about his relationship with his wife, and that his lyrics were discussed, but I’m not the biggest fan of his music. It turns out that to really appreciate the book, you don’t have to be a fan of Jay-Z himself, but a lover of hip hop.
Jay, along with co writer dream hampton, cover a wide range of issues from his life as a drug dealer, how he got his start in music, and how he feels hip hop culture has affected society. I really enjoyed reading about his drug dealing days, because it’s the story about Jay-Z that everyone knows, but he goes in to a bit more detail, describing what it was like to stand in the cold, selling drugs to strung out addicts. He describes how the smell of crack would hang off his clothes, and how he knew that he had to stop, but the money and lack of other opportunities kept him hooked. But he doesn’t complain about living the life. He talks a lot about the mentality he had growing up in poverty, and that living in the ghetto is a fight for survival.
What I took away from the book was respect for Jay-Z as an artist. He talks about having this urge to write rhymes all the time, even when he wanted to stop and focus on hustling, the words kept coming. He would write them down anywhere he could and when there was nowhere to write, he’d memorize his lines. To this day he doesn’t write his rhymes down. He describes hip hop as always being a competition of who’s the hottest, who can sell more albums in a week, and how he constantly has to evolve in order to stay relevant. In many passages in the book, Jay gives respect to many other rappers like Eminem, Scarface, Biggie and Lauryn Hill and describes their music as art.
The book made me see hip hop in a different way, as Jay talks about hip hop’s impact on the Cristal brand, language, and society. He says that when hip hop started, it was a way for young, black kids living in the ghettos to tell their stories, even if they were stories that mainstream America didn’t want to hear. His feelings on the police are brought up a lot, he even mentions the hip hop division of the NYPD, wondering why the police have such an interest in rappers. To him, the lyrics he writes are not about him, but he takes on a persona and says things that he wouldn’t really do in real life. For example in a lot of the lyric critiques in the book he talks about “the narrator” or “the characters” instead of himself.
There’s a whole chapter on his religious beliefs, probably to dispel the Illuminati rumors. He talks about his belief in Obama, and what his presidency has done for millions of black kids all over the world, and his discussion with Oprah about the N-word. I found that reading the book I got an insight in to who Jay-Z is and his past, but very select stories about his past. There are things he touches on from his drug dealing days, sometimes he just says he was doing “bad things.” He doesn’t go in to a lot of detail about his 1999 assault case, only saying it was a mistake, and of course says nothing about his current relationship. I felt like I got a tiny feel for Jay-Z’s past, with a lot he decided to keep to himself.
I definitely recommend this book for anyone who loves hip hop. I no longer listen to it as a bunch of mindless lyrics, now I try to hear the poetry in the words. I respect Jay-Z as an artist and a business man. He talks a lot about the struggle of finding a record label and finally decided to create his own, which of course turned out to be very successful for him. He has truly lived the American dream, coming from the bottom and making his way to the top based on talent and hard work. It’s an inspiring story, and a thought-provoking, well written book.