Book Review: Decoded

November 24, 2010

This is a review from my Favorite Books list; the link from which will be also on the Books Page.


“To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of lie. To tell the story of the pain without telling the story of the rewards — the money, the girls, the excitement — is a different kind of evasion.”

“The kid in McDonald’s gets a check and that’s it. There’s no dream in fast food. Manager? That’s a promotion, not a dream.”

“You learn how to compete as if your life depended on it. That’s the lesson I brought with me to the so-called ‘legitimate’ world.”

48 hours. Forty- eight fuckin hours. I set a new personal record by reading this 300-plus-page book in two days (bumping Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball to #2).

To summarize Decoded in one word, wow. I recall Jay-Z had originally been set to produce a straight-up autobiography to couple with his Black Album back in 2003 but had ultimately decided that it went against his principles to go into too much detail about his drug-dealing past. Being that I’ve never sold any drugs myself, I recall being kinda upset that Jay-Z scrapped The Black Book (the announced title of said autobiography); if only because I could’ve been able to learn about a culture (at least part of it) that I’ve watched and rapped along to word-for-word since the days my dad blasted Public Enemy through the house in my formative years.

Alas, in between grouped break-downs of songs, Jay does actually give his life’s story. He starts from the early years with his mom & dad playing every popular record from the time period; to his parents’ split (and divying-up of all the records they owned); to his start in the street life and introduction to rap; to his struggle to get into the rap game (both his inability to get a recording contract and his personal struggle to leave the streets behind) and beyond.

Jay makes the great point that his music is the clearest autobiography he could ever create, thus the dissection of his lyrics in lieu of a traditional book format.

Decoded prints the lyrics of several of Jay-Z’s songs (30 or 40 in all, culled from his so-far 14-year career) and the artist goes into detail about the context and double- and triple-meanings behind the words (a huge concept of this book, as Jay states, is how many detractors of Hip-Hop decry the words rappers use, without understanding the context of why the artist is saying what (s)he is saying). Even a huge Jay-Z fan such as myself, who could recite word-for-word 99% of the songs he broke down in Decoded from memory, gleaned a shitload of new information from hearing the artist explain his own work. Again, wow.

Decoded is a book that, for anyone even mildly interested in rap, will have the same effect as Tucker Max’s first book has on anyone mildly interested in funny: even if you NEVER read books, you will devour this one (though probably not in two days — you’re no Dre Baldwin). This book is that damned good.

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