Yes I was pressed. And then I became impressed.
The writing is stellar (with the help of respected music journalist dream "lower case" hampton) and it parallels magically between the life of Shawn Carter and the birth and growth of hip hop. The two overarching themes criss cross and blend on every page. But this is only part memoir. It's also part education in the subtle nuances that make up the music genre and the generation that created it.
The focal point of the book are indeed Hov's lyrics. However, instead of dissecting them from beginning to end chronologically, he sections the book off by themes. Each theme is then explained in context by the act or lesson that inspired the work (songs) or the era of time that they were crafted in. In the section titles "Cautionary Tales", Jay Z reflects:
Great rappers from the earliest days distinguished themselves by looking closely at the world around them and describing it in a clever, artful way. And then they went further than just describing it. They started commentating on it in a critical way. Rap's first great subjects were ego-tripping and partying, but before long it turned into a tool for social commentary.
From this perspective he takes us inside "This Life Forever" (Unreleased, Black Gangster, 1999), "Meet The Parents" (The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse, 2002) and "Where I'm From" (In My Lifetime, Vol 1 1997).
Truthfully for true Jigga fans this dissection of his lyrical content isn't the highlight. We've been there and debated each word before. In fact this fan almost hesitated to read the footnotes of some of those explained lyrics. I'd rather leave some things open for interpretation. However, what will keep true fans interested is his lyrical intent and this comes in the essay form within each section.
His insight at times is spot on even for someone who grew up a generation behind him. The narrative is all Jay Z. It's as if he stops you on the way to your local bodega and briefs you on all his knows. You also get a real sense on how his mind works. Mr. Carter has a very non-linear approach to a lot of his songs. His words sort of tumble and spiral down to the point. It's half due to the pop ups thoughts that make up his meaning and it half serves as to not beat you over the head. It's a very artful way of showing without telling. It's the exact method 1st year creative writing students are forced to demonstrate.
Not only do his songs display this technique, his prose does as well. Jay Z will zig zag from images of his Dad taking him though the neighborhood, having a one on one with Michael Jordon, or the burden of bootlegging. You'll wonder, where is he going with this, but you'll get the light bulb moment at the end.
And while this book is written from his ghetto point of view, you don't have to even be a Jay Z fan to enjoy it.
If you love music and the artist's intent this is a great read.
If you grew up with hop hop this is a great read.
If you hustler baby, you'll relate to what Hov means with the constant use of winter as imagery.
But if you're looking for some undying expression of love for his wife Beyonce don't bother. She's only mentioned in passing and it was to debunk this line from "Big Pimpin" (Vol 3: Life and Times of Shawn Carter, 1999) " I parts with nothing, y'all be frontin'. Me give my heart to a woman? Not for nothing, never happen. I be forever mackin'."
Yes, the Jigga Man eventually did give his heart to a woman. He grew up and in so many ways so has hip hop.
Are you planning to buy Decoded? If you've already read it what are your thoughts?