I’m halfway through Jay-Z’s brilliant new memoir (Decoded), and I already have the pages of this masterpiece marked up like my dog-eared copies of The Bluest Eye and The Brothers Karamazov. It’s that good.
The men/boys of the mainstream hip-hop industry generally don’t impress me, and it’s not only because of the hyper-machismo and sexist lyrics. I’m genuinely revolted by many of their core personalities. I wouldn’t ever be able to get along with Kanye West or the woman-hating, animal-hating DMX. But Jay-Z has always seemed like one of the sane, likable ones. If he had been in my freshman dorm in college, we could have been great drinking buddies. I know people who have run into him at his 40/40 club downtown and they’ve confirmed that there’s something deep and different about him.
The Jigga-man has been a writer since the tender age of 9. In Decoded, he describes how he’d be walking down the street with his friends and suddenly come up with the perfect rhyme or phrase in his head. He carried a notebook with him to get the words down on paper before he forgot them. I do that too.
He took up his brand of songwriting to explain the psychology behind urban hustling/street life/the underworld - and to be “honest about that experience.” We should be “approaching rap like literature, like art” and viewing hip-hop music as anthropological reportage. As if all this conceptual enlightenment weren’t enough, he’s teaching me new words and terms such as “leaning nodder,” “subwoofer,” and “raising green up.” (The verdict is still out on what exactly a leaning nodder is. I looked it up and it could be anything from a condom to a drug reference.)
Growing up in the Bed-Stuy housing projects, where he met a few other visionaries, he read the dictionary to build his vocabulary. I live about 10 minutes away from a set of housing projects and when I sometimes take shortcuts through them, I’ve seen and overheard groups of their residents gathered around a bench, passionately philosophizing away. If they had been born into even slightly different circumstances, they just as easily could be having these discussions around a bench on the campuses of Brown or MIT. But the Jay-Zs of the world (and there aren’t too many people who are gifted with this preternatural level of stubborn, confident, and thoughtful entrepreneurial ambition) don’t necessarily need formal higher education and all of its prescriptions and restrictions. They have what it takes to figure out how to reshape and enhance a cultural narrative on their own terms.
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