On his 2003 song Public Service Announcement, Jay-Z delivered his now-signature opening line: "Allow me to reintroduce myself …" Of course, that's precisely what he's done on nearly every song in his autobiographical back catalogue – and the 40-year-old rapper does so again with his first book, Decoded.
Fans already know the basics, but Decoded clearly has outsiders in its sights. Born Shawn Carter in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood, and raised in its notorious Marcy housing project, Jay-Z spent his early years as a crack dealer – or as he'd say, hustler. That stint on the corner, with rocks in pocket and gun at hand, became fodder for his hip-hop arsenal. Later, his business successes – Forbes magazine clocks Jay-Z's worth at $450-million – would provide boastful counterpoint to his grimy origin stories.
After 11 albums so detailed that the song December 4th even revealed his birth weight ("10 pounds, 8 ounces"), an actual autobiography could have been redundant. So the beautifully illustrated Decoded functions more as a meta-memoir. Jay uses his story and rhymes to trace not only his ascension from the streets to arenas and boardrooms, but also hip hop's growth from New York's boroughs to global phenomenon and his generation's journey from crack to Barack.
Using a nonlinear narrative technique learned from Quentin Tarantino films, Jay skips haphazardly across his timeline: witnessing murders "like something out of a mob movie"; chatting up Bono and Bill Clinton in a backroom bar; Caribbean video shoots with Biggie Smalls; performing to 180,000 at Britain's Glastonbury Music Festival; his divorcing parents divvying up their R&B albums; watching his wife Beyoncé sing during Obama's inauguration.
But Decoded's ground zero is always the Reagan-era arrival of crack, which turned ghettos into "battlefields" seemingly overnight. Jay-Z describes the period as "life during wartime," and explains how hip hop saved him and black America. "Rap took the remnants of a dying society," he writes, "and created something new."
Without glorification or apology, Jay writes that hustling is the "ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles: the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all." As Decoded's title suggests, the latter is his primary motive and the most interesting feature is its annotated songbook.
Ironic for a rapper famous for never writing down rhymes – Jay-Z inherited a photographic memory from his absentee father – Decoded prints his lyrics so they can be deconstructed as poetry. Allusions are unpacked, slang deciphered, references revealed, homonyms, metaphors and internal rhyme schemes noted and, occasionally, the words themselves are bemusedly dismissed as "ignorant."
If Jay has often come off smarter than his street rhymes, then those rhymes now seem smarter, too, thanks to these fleshed-out footnotes. (Actually, Decoded would have benefited from a greatest-hits compilation).
Jay's life actually gets less-intensive scrutiny than his lyrics – expect no tabloid fodder on his superstar wife or rap feuds – but he includes enthralling anecdotes, ranging from seeing his first freestyle rapper at the age of nine and his only post-fame arrest ("they loaded me into the back of a cruiser like a prize catch") to privately meeting candidate Obama and a triumphant club performance with Young Jeezy of their song My President is Black.
Decoded's gripping yet matter-of-fact flow confirms Jay's status as consummate storyteller and cultural chronicler. But its thoughtful politics – calling out government complicity with the crack and gun epidemic, discussing the impact of endemic poverty, explaining what Hurricane Katrina meant to the black community – makes his general failure to be a similarly politicized voice on record stand out, even with this book-length argument that hard-core rap is political because it opened America's eyes to the inner-city struggle.
Still, Jay does write "for hip hop to grow to its potential and stay relevant for another generation, we have to keep pushing deeper and deeper into the biggest subjects and doing it with real honesty." So perhaps we can check back on Decoded's inevitable sequel.
Joshua Ostroff, music editor of Spinner.ca, has been into hip hop since buying Run-DMC and Beastie Boys cassettes in elementary school. He has covered the genre for The Globe and Mail since 2002.