“The magic of rap is in the way it can take the most specific experience, from individual lives in unlikely places, and turn them into art that can be embraced by the whole world. Decoded is a book about one of those specific lives–mine–and will show you how the things I’ve experienced and observed have made their way into the art I’ve created. It’s also about how my work is sometimes not about my life at all, but about pushing the boundaries of what I can express through the poetry of rap–trying to use words to find fresh angles into emotions that we all share, which is the hidden mission in even the hardest hip-hop. Decoded is a book about some of my favorite songs–songs that I unpack and explain and surround with narratives about what inspired them–but behind the rhymes is the truest story of my life.” So says Shawn Corey Carter, better known as Jay-Z, about his book Decoded. On one level it’s an autobiography, but Jay-Z insists it shouldn’t be thought of that way, because “I’ve never been a linear thinker.”
A classic story of up from hell, with hidden meanings
Jay-Z’s life is a classic up-from-hell story. Born in a housing project in Brooklyn, at the age of about twelve he shot his brother in the shoulder for stealing from him. A high-school dropout and crack cocaine merchant, he was saved from a probable end in prison or an early grave by musical talent and desire, and he is now a rich man and one of the most successful hip-hop artists in America. But as he says, this book is not just his life’s story. It’s also, and more importantly, about how life translates into art through the medium of rap. The title, Decoded, refers to an understanding of the meanings of the lyrics in rap songs, not just his own but those of many other artists, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. (Or anyway I hadn’t.) A gripping story in itself, and it contains many insights on music, politics, and life.