Jay-Z said he put together his book “Decoded” to give fans a chance to “really understand” his story and the origin of his rhymes. The book, which came out on Tuesday (November 16), is equal parts memoir and lyrical deconstruction as well as an argument for rap to be considered as a form of modern poetry. So, what’s the public reaction to “Decoded”?
“Despite the career he has made out of rapping in the first person, Jay-Z is known for prizing privacy. His new book ‘Decoded’ may not erase that reputation — look elsewhere for gossip — but it is nonetheless Shawn Carter’s most honest airing of the experiences he drew on to create the mythic figure of Jay-Z,” Simon Vozick-Levinson writes in Entertainment Weekly.
EW breaks the book down along three criteria, giving Jay props for portraying the “desperation that drove him to crime and the paranoia and shame that followed” in describing his time as a crack dealer and additional props for not lingering on his rise to the top. Instead, Jay offers interesting glimpses at the drug life that reveal a complex businessman and friend.
“The memoir’s chief theme is Jay-Z’s obsession with words,” Vozick-Levinson writes. “Annotated lyric sheets unpack allusions that even the most attentive listeners might have missed. He situates his work in the English canon, comparing his chosen form to the sonnet and crediting favorite authors (‘Shout-out to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’). After reading ‘Decoded,’ you won’t doubt for a second that he deserves the same level of respect as any of those great scribes.”
The Barnes & Noble review noted the irony of the title, given what it called the MC’s “decidedly plain spoken and confessional” lyrics compared to such knotty contemporaries as the Wu-Tang Clan. It also notes that while we know Jay the performer, aside from the well-trod arc of his life as project kid to hustler and then world-renowned hip-hip icon, he is generally a private man.
“Though he’s released a staggering 11 albums in 14 years, the man behind the business still remains a mystery — often seen, but rarely heard,” writes Adam Bradley, the author of “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop.” “That is what makes ‘Decoded’ such an unexpected and welcome gift. At over 300 pages, it is a multimedia, multi-genre extravaganza: part memoir, part coffee table book, part annotated compendium of lyrics, part polemic in the defense of hip hop’s poesy.”
Bradley commends Jay and co-author dream hampton for interspersing “personal anecdotes, rhetorical broadsides and deep reflections with rich images and typography. From Andy Warhol’s striking ‘Rorschach’ on the book’s front cover to the interior art, which ranges from Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’ to a vintage Little Orphan Annie button, the book is a visual feast.”
If you were expecting a tell-all memoir, though, Bradley warns, this ain’t it. It is, however, an essential collection of lyrics and it joins other recent works in putting rap verses into their “proper context within the American popular songbook and the broader tradition of poetry through the ages.”
“Like its multi-hyphenate author, Jay-Z, ‘Decoded’ is many things at once,” Juliet Disparte writes in her Amazon.com review. “At its core, ‘Decoded’ is an eloquent and candid memoir detailing the story of a man who was born in a Brooklyn housing project, spent his teen years dealing drugs on the streets of Trenton, New Jersey, and grew up to be one of his generation’s most successful artists and businessmen. But ‘Decoded’ is much more than a memoir: It is an intensely personal homage to hip-hop, as written by a man who so clearly adores the art form. It is a rare glimpse of the unexpectedly deep meanings behind the most recognizable rap lyrics of the last decade and it is a truly moving collection of essays on topics ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the decline of the music industry.”
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