December 7, 2010

"Art with No Easel" -- Jay-Z Paints a Vivid Picture with 'Decoded'

By Sherri Breitigan, Contributing Writer

"It [hip-hop] was going to be raw and aggressive, but also witty and slick. It was going to boast and compete and exaggerate. But it was also going to care enough to get the details right about our aspirations and our crumb-snatching struggles, our specific, small realities...and our living-color dreamscapes." - Jay-Z in Decoded

Jay-Z was recently on the The Daily Show promoting his book Decoded, which balances autobiography and commentary on the evolution of rap and hip-hop as an art form. Jon Stewart was joking during the interview about finally understanding rap lyrics because Jay-Z decodes a number of his songs in the the book. He fleshes out his thought process about the rhyming couplets and double entendres and explains the various nuances and terminology the average person doesn't always get, like with using "precipitation" in terms of a drought with hustling. But don’t get excited that you are going to be a rapper or street smart after reading, because even with the explanations, you can’t understand the lyrics if you don’t understand the music as an expression of art, and as a representation of a cultural and historical movement. And that's what Jay-Z writes for: to make us understand that much of hip-hop and rap moves beyond the stereotypical rhyming about pimping and drugs. Even the seemingly superficial rhymes deceive us upon closer examination, and we realize that we’ve been duped.

On sight alone, this book hints that there is more to Jay than at first glance. The cover is an image courtesy of Andy Warhol, and within the pages are various images ranging from pop art to the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. The subheadings are clever, and the decoded lyrics are presented in a fashionable and intriguing format. Every aspect of the book, from cover to the last acknowledgement, is done with careful thought and artistic vision. As a narrator, Jay has an engaging and unique voice, and just a forewarning to those with delicate sensibilities, some of that voice is filled with explicit language.

As for the story, it’s not a linear telling of his life, which fits with his thought process that he says is more like "mixing and matching ideas than marching in a straight line." We start in the beginning, with his story rooted in the Marcy projects and his days spent hustling in Trenton, New Jersey, with him writing down rhymes on brown paper bags while working the streets in the freezing cold. No one was telling the story of the hustler, or of the generation of African-Americans who grew up without fathers and hope. Jay-Z takes the time to explain to us that rap and hip-hop evolved in the 1980s as a way for this group to tell their story, and that’s how it grew from rapping rhymes in the projects to the multi-million dollar industry it is today. His "hard-knock life" shaped his creative genius and built the mentality that would make him a successful businessman and gifted musician.

Many hear rap and think of only guns, clubs, and Cristal. And while everybody has different tastes, it’s a nice change to go somewhere unexpected and to develop an appreciation, even if you don’t feel the need to add it to your iPod. I’ve always enjoyed rap and hip-hop, but found myself humbled after reading this book because I realized that I didn't go beyond the surface, either. I felt like the person who sees "Born in the U.S.A." as a patriotic song. But it's okay -- I learned a lesson, and listened to a story. It’s not my story, but for at least a while, I was part of it.

Decoded is recommended for:
-Reading at home (the hardcover is not commuter-friendly, plus it looks pretty on the end table)
-Music lovers

Not recommended for:
-Bill O’Reilly
-Anyone who is trying to stop swearing