Jay-Z is arguably the most successful hip-hop artist in the world. He owns a sports team, created a clothing line, ran a record label and then started his own, and last year beat Elvis Presley as the solo act with the most Billboard 200 hits. This year, he decided to add “author” to his long list of titles. Decoded is part memoir, part argument in defense of hip-hop, part lyrical analysis of his work, both well-known and unknown, and part printed self-aggrandizement with expensive-looking art design to match—like a microcosm of hip-hop itself. (But with more avant-garde black-and-white photography.)
My fascination with this book started in November, when I heard Jay-Z on NPR’s Fresh Air. He was eloquent, for the most part, but also gave some cringe-worthy answers (although that was probably also due to Terry’s INCREDIBLY AWKWARD laughter at inappropriate times). The same goes for Decoded. Jay is at his best, I think, when he is discussing the merits of hip-hop as an art form:
“Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honor in rap… So many people can’t see that every great rapper is not just a documentarian, but a trickster…it’s their failure, or unwillingness, to treat rap like art, instead of acting like it’s just…reading out of our diaries. Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just fucks with you for the fun of it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, this argument works for me. Also, just thought I’d throw it out there, it works for Oprah too. Yes, Jay-Z mentions Oprah specifically in the book, which makes her choosing it for her “Ultimate Favorite Things” show a teensy bit self-important, but I do agree with her feelings on the “n-word issue,” as she calls it. And Jay-Z confronts them, saying:
“To me, it’s just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user and his or her intention. People give words power, so banning a word is futile, really… The key is to change the person. And we change people through conversation, not censorship.”
I buy that, too. BitchMedia is based on the same idea of claiming language, and creating space in which to claim, reclaim, and discuss the words we use. But then we come to the “bitch/ho” question, as Terry Gross calls it in the radio interview, which is also covered in the book. The song “99 Problems” is the song Jay chooses to illustrate his point.
“99 Problems” is a good song to use to talk about the difference between the art of rap and the artlessness of some of its critics. It’s a song that takes real events and reimagines them. It’s a narrative with a purposefully ambiguous ending. And the hook itself, “99 Problems but a bitch ain’t one,” is a joke, bait for lazy critics. At no point in that song am I talking about a girl.”
This is where the argument sort of falls apart in the “Fresh Air” interview, too. I will buy that you are talking about a K-9 unit in this context. I can handle that you chose a provocative word to spark debate. But Decoded is 336 pages long, and costs $35 hardcover. Filling that many pages, and asking for that much money for a book meant to demystify lyrics and defend rap as poetry, with a poet’s license to exercise confrontational language, I’m disappointed that so little attention was given to the ugliest of rap’s traditions. Jay-Z refers to Oprah, in his “epilogue” about their clash over his use of the n-word, as “in her own stratosphere” of power. But I would argue that he is also as close to the center of the hip-hop stratosphere as rappers working today can get. It’s heartening that this book was published. It is a valuable piece of pop culture history AND an impressive work of art, and it has changed the standard to which I hold rap, and how I will listen to it from now on. If anyone was going to write this book, and write it well, it was going to be Jay-Z. But it has done very little to decode the machismo and misogyny which are seemingly inherent to so much of hip hop culture, when the platform to do so was presented so nicely.