Decoded by Jay-Z

It took hip-hop an entire year to draw breath and now I’m being blinded by the lights of Jay-Z, Beyonce & Kanye. Looking through my music collection, I realize I didn’t buy much hip-hop this year. Then in a bolt of press releases, Kanye and Jay-Z are dropping records and Beyonce has a huge TV special Thanksgiving night. Jay-Z is doing a re-release with a few new tunes and Rolling Stone gave Kanye’s new one five stars. If I still respected RS, I would be impressed. And there’s a Jay-Z book.

Jay-Z’s last album, The Blueprint III, blew my doors off. I hadn’t been the level of a fan with him where I had opinions about entire albums. I liked songs here and there. At work, we tried to focus on a favorite and would just keep bringing up lyrics or hooks or concepts. I heard it everywhere. A party didn’t happen without a spin of Empire State of Mind and when he sang it at the opening Yankee game of the World Series, everyone knew the lyrics. Now that he’s on my radar, I’m finding out all sorts of great info. The guy is a media genius. He’s worth gazillions of dollars and he did it DIY. This book is a glimpse into all that.

The same thing that irks me about Kanye, irks me about Jay-Z. The ego. I get the machismo thing but jeez fellas, seriously? What Kanye lacks in self-control, Jay-Z masters. If you’re a serious Jay-Z fan, you already have this book and are in fan heaven. The book is an in depth deconstruction of his work thus far and how he got here. From a business perspective, I’m awed by him. I also like that he keeps it from that distance and doesn’t air dirty laundry or gossip. Its design is quite magazine article-ly with great photography, sidebars, enlarged quotes, and other known trickery of the trade.

He does spell out a lot of the history of hip-hop and explains the story of it though his eyes:
Hip-hop has always been controversial, and for good reason. When you watch a children’s show and they’ve got a muppet rapping about the alphabet, it’s cool, but it’s not really hip-hop. The music’s meant to be proactive—which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily obnoxious, but it is (mostly) confrontational, and more than that, it’s dense with multiple meanings. Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don’t necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it. Instead it plants dissonance in your head. You can enjoy a song that knocks in the club or has witty punch lines the first time you hear it. But great rap retains mystery. It leaves shit rattling around in your head that won’t make sense till the fifth or sixth time through. It challenges you.

And he hit the point about Biggie and Tupac:
When Biggie got into it with Tupac, some hip-hop journalists were like, “Hey, isn’t this the same nigga who said c4 at your door? Why hasn’t he planted a bomb in Pac’s house yet?” which is just the kind of dumb shit that rap has always been subjected to. Not to say that there wasn’t real beef there, lethal beef, maybe, but Entertainment Weekly isn’t outraged that Matt Damon isn’t really assassinating rogue CIA agents between movies. It goes to show that even when he was narrating a fantasy with all the crazy, blood-rushing violence of a Tarantino flick packed into three minutes, Big was real enough that some people thought he was just describing a day in his life.

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