Rappers don’t need autobiographies, or memoirs, or in the case of Jay-Z (born Shawn Carter), half-memoir-half-lyric-reference-guides, that being the thrust of his new book Decoded. Hip-hop is autobiographical. Hip-hop, particularly the gangsta-rap offshoot Carter dominates, is founded equally on literal truth - poverty, black culture - and mystery - ego, intimidation - and on paper, the latter tends to disappear. What you’re left with is a Jay-Z album, minus some of the rhythm and all of the rhyme.

Decoded isn’t an amazingly well-written book, but it is often fascinating. The only real problem comes in the dual between literary ambition and recitation. In other words, Carter sometimes can’t decide whether he wants to be poetic or straightforward. The book opens with an awkwardly high-minded portrait of his neighbourhood as a youth, the Marcy Projects:

“The shadowy bench-lined inner pathways that connected the twenty-seven six-story buildings of Marcy Housing projects can seem like labyrinths to outsiders, as complicated and intimidating as a Morrocan bazaar...the street signs seemed like metal flags to me: Bed-Stuy was my country, Brooklyn my planet.”

It ain’t Dickens, but for the most part, simplicity actually wins out. Since the average reader, and I include myself in that, is interested more in what is being said than how it is said, Decoded flows quickly when it summons up the recent history fans will recognize with as little embellishment as possible. Though Carter ostensibly wrote the book solo, its finest passages feel like extended interview segments, with the quality of a story being told on the spot.  

The most rewarding sections of Decoded are the extended lyric-breakdowns, in which Carter analyses, clarifies, and expands his complex rhymes. For the guy who once asked “Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”, it feels like a vindication. Most Jay-Z hits are the glossy, materialistic odes his critics deride, but those are the anomalies on classic albums like Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint; the chilling breakdown of Kanye West-produced “Lucifer” exemplifies how dark and thoughtful he is as a lyricist.

Carter is a businessman, not a politician, and his spin in Decoded is minimal, or at least hidden from view. Much of the chapters are events and highlights plainly dictated on paper, which, going by the title, might have been the whole point. Though its reach is sprawling, its connection is immediate and personal.

JayZDecodedcover.jpgDecoded, by Shawn Carter/Jay-Z (Random House Canada, 336 pp.)

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