Jay-Z’s state of mind

2011-02-25 10:16

Some say the eyes are the windows to the soul. For me, words are the window to the soul.

Every time I write a story, a line, a blog or even send out a tweet, I reveal a little more of my soul.

For Jay-Z it’s no different.

The millionaire music mogul understands that his words are a reflection of his story, his history, his art, his life and, most importantly, his hustle.

Decoded is the ultimate metaphor for this.

And while his critics only ever seem to focus on the glaringly obvious targets of hip-hop – violence and gangsterism – the book reveals the nuances behind the manic life of a boy who grew up in the ghetto and became the man who shared the cover of Forbes magazine with Warre
n Buffet.

Decoded aptly begins where it all started for Jay Z: the Marcy projects in Brooklyn, New York, where the rapper grew up.

His roots don’t differ much from most rappers: Eminem grew up in a trailer park and Tupac Shakur was born in jail while his mother was incarcerated.

The book has attracted much criticism. International critics slated it as being too veiled.

Forbes magazine and The New York Times criticised him for revealing too little about how he transformed himself from a drug dealer to a businessman whose empire is estimated at $545 million (R3.89 billion).

And the critics are right.

In Decoded, Jay Z reveals little about his personal life, often holding back.

It becomes evident just how closed off the rapper is, even to those who know him personally as Shawn Carter.

For example, he only shared his dream of becoming a rapper for the first time with his long-term girlfriend (whom he doesn’t name) when he was 19 years old.

He alludes to not enjoying any kind of media attention and, more importantly, makes only one mention of his wife, Beyonce.

And that mention is reduced to a single sentence when referring to Barack Obama’s inauguration: “Beyonce performed at the Lincoln Memorial and I decided to watch her perform from the crowd.”

As a true Jay-Z fan – I admire him both as an artist and for his remarkable business acumen – I read the semi-autobiography closely. I knew from the opening line, “I saw the circle before I saw the kid” – which refers to his first interaction with hip-hop at the age of nine on a street corner – and knew instantly the book had nothing to do with his Cristal-popping, Maybach-driving lifestyle.

Decoded will appeal to true Jay-Z fans, the real hip-hop connoisseurs who can look beyond pop hits like Bonnie & Clyde and Hardknock Life (both great songs).

The book is as manic and crazy as the the rapper’s life.

The chronology is sometimes hard to follow, which I suspect was done intentionally.

He often jumps from his life as a drug peddler in Marcy to his life as a rapper, hanging out with icons like Biggie Smalls or U2 frontman, Bono.

The story of his childhood as a hoodlum on the streets runs parallel to the story of a teenager jumping on and off subway trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan, which sometimes runs parallel with his life as a hustler and trying to break into the rap game.

It’s sometimes unclear whether Jay-Z is talking about his life as a drug dealer or whether he’s referring to his life in the music industry.

For example, he says: “An older guy will see a kid and think ‘man that kid moves differently to the rest’. They know that if they can put that kid under his tutelage, he’ll get it fast and step right into the rhythm of life.”

While the owner of Rocawear clothing – just one of the many money-spinning spheres of his company – leaves many gaps about his life wide open, he does come clean about his thoughts on the American music industry.

“I basically accepted that I’d be a hustler who happened to rap in my spare time. I thought the rap game was crooked and a little fake, but I still admired those who were in it.”

What Jay-Z does well in Decoded is break down the complex layers of the hip-hop genre. He talks about competition and references much-publicised confrontations and battles for sales between himself, Kanye West and 50Cent.

“Sales battles are a hip-hop phenomenon that you just don’t see played out in the same explicit, public way in other genres of music.”

He also taps into the lifestyle that comes with hip-hop and breaks down what he sees as some of the misconceptions about the game.

Surprisingly, he dedicates an entire section to Cristal champagne and refers to an interview with Frederic Rouzaud, managing director of the luxury brand of French bubbly.

Here he describes, in no uncertain terms, the utter disgust he feels about Rouzaud’s dismissive opinions of hip-hop artists who have given the premium brand global appeal.

“When asked about an influential segment of his market, his response was, essentially, well, we can’t stop them from drinking it. That was it for me. I released a statement saying that I would never drink Cristal or promote it in any way or serve it at my clubs ever again. I felt like this was the bull***t I’d been dealing with forever, this kind of offhanded, patronising disrespect for the culture of hip-hop.”

Jay-Z also draws comparisons between the musical genre and sport, then as art, and then delves into its literal and abstract meanings.

He is outspoken about his opinions on politics. He has no qualms about revealing his feelings about the Bush administration and its handling of Hurricane Katrina, and about the relationship between the US and African Americans.

One of his most controversial songs, 99 Problems – which garnered more attention because he used the word bitch in the chorus than it did for its lyrical genius – actually deals with his take on “white America”.

He tackles political policy, poverty and, of course, his enigmatic relationship with Barack Obama, being one of very few musicians who gets regular invitations to the White House.

Decoded is an ode to one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time: an ambassador, a hustler and a businessman whose impact rivals that of The Beatles in the 60s, the Bee Gees in the 70s, and Michael Jackson in the 80s.

“Rap,” concludes Jay-Z, “is at heart an art form that gave voice to a specific experience, but like every art, is ultimately about the human experience.” And this is the essence of Decoded.

Publisher: Random House Struik / Virgin books
Pages: 317
Price: R250

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