Books

Jay-Z doesn't run from past in 'Decoded'

Jay-Z's book "Decoded" is essentially a love story.

No, it's not about the Brooklyn rapper-mogul's high-profile marriage to Beyonce Knowles. In fact, Mrs. Z is mentioned only twice, in passing references to President Obama's inauguration weekend.

Instead, "Decoded" is the story of his love of hip-hop — how it seduced him, how he chased it, how he can't leave it alone. More important, the book outlines his reasons why.

"In some ways, rap was the ideal way for me to make sense of a life that was doubled, split into contradictory halves," he writes, trying to explain how he reconciles his drug-dealing past with his well-respected, charitable present. "It recognizes that you can be true to yourself and still have unexpected dimensions and opposing ideas."

Part biography, part textbook, part poetry, part coffee-table book, "Decoded" is built around Jay's lyrics, footnoted to give context or explain why he chose certain words to create a better rhyme.

For hip-hop fans, the explanations will bring them closer to his work. For hip-hop haters, he makes it harder to argue against the artistry of the form when he explains his use of internal rhyme or onomatopoetic devices or when he shouts out Alfred, Lord Tennyson or writes passionately about the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"Decoded" opens a door onto Jay's creative process. That doesn't mean the notoriously private Jay-Z is suddenly revealing details of his personal life. Insight into his relationships, his feuds, his business practices — all the usual fodder for a celebrity tell-all? Forget about it.

"Decoded" is about how Shawn Carter became a rapper in Marcy Projects, then a drug dealer and then a rapper who rhymed openly about his life as a drug dealer — or, as his songs redefined it, a "hustler." And then a multiplatinum success, who runs his own business, gets invites to the White House, places of honor in Yankees parades and dinners with Oprah.

"We came out of the generation of black people who finally got the point: No one is going to help us," he writes of his choice to start selling drugs as a teenager. "So we went for self, for family, for block, for crew — which sounds selfish ... but it's just a rational response to the reality we faced. No one was going to help us. Not even our fathers stuck around."

That kind of blunt honesty fills "Decoded," which the 40-year-old also sees as an explanation of his generation. He doesn't run away from his past actions, but he doesn't glamorize them, either.

Jay-Z explains how he wanted his songs to be aspirational and inspirational. He knows that not everyone can relate to where he's from but hopes they can all relate to his struggle.

"My songs are my stories, but they take on their own life in the minds of people listening," he writes of watching a girl cry at one of his concerts. "The connection that creates is sometimes overwhelming."

"Decoded" by Jay-Z (Spiegel & Grau, 317 pages, $35)

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