Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Gray Area, a review of Jay-Z’s Decoded, Pt. 1

I bought Jay-Z’s new book Decoded (Spiegel & Grau, New York, $35) with the same anticipation that I watched the 2004 documentary “Fade to Black” with: I wanted a glimpse at the man whose clever wordplay and sad stories of loss have meant so much to me over the years. Even when Jay-Z’s songs are redemptive there is a twinge of sadness: he has clearly won, but yet these motherfuckers just won’t give it to him.  And there’s the lighter side, as Jay-Z himself points out on “What More Can I Say?” his music is part silly. Silly pop music has been making people laugh or cry forever, but when you look at it closely, what are you really looking at? Do we really need a close reading of “Big Pimpin’”? Who is this artist? We know who he says he is: from the humblest of beginnings in the Marcy Projects, fell in love with hip-hop at age 9, that love was put on-hold by the immediate desire to make money selling crack, decided to take rap seriously, turned superstar, turned business man, turned husband to Beyoncé Knowles, turned part owner of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets. We also know he is an accomplished storyteller.

I remember watching Jay-Z play Monopoly with real money at the end of the “Dead Presidents” video, via satellite in my rural upstate New York home when I was 16. The song wasn’t anything special, just a simple tale of the rigors of hustling, told over an ominous Ski production, and bookended by Nas’s classic line from “The World is Yours,” but you could tell he had something.

Dead Presidents video screenshot

3 years later, I moved to Brooklyn to go to college, discovered a ton of independent hip-hop being released by labels such as Rawkus and Mush, more or less abandoning Jay-Z for the time being. After all, this was a Jay-Z that offended most of the sensibilities of “true,” “underground,” hip-hop with blatant materialism and what could be seen as, at the very least, ambivalence, or at most disrespect, of hip-hop’s basic tenets. The cardinal rule of emceeing is no biting and while Jay-Z uses other people’s lines in homage much like Mos Def use to, it was the sheer regularity with which he appropriated other people’s lyrics that bothered me: paraphrasing or flat-out reciting a Biggie line on nearly a per song basis, and the aforementioned Nas sample was the first of many borrowed choruses and premises, the most notable being “Bonnie and Clyde” from Tupac and “99 Problems” from Ice-T.

Jay-Z was so good, you feared that the original song or lyric would be completely overwhelmed by his version, and similarly, that when he said he was the greatest that the average listener and maybe even he himself would believe that he was better than Rakim, or Kool G Rap, or Big Daddy Kane: the giants whose shoulders he was standing on. This indifference to the craft is further evident on “Moment of Clarity” when he says, if skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli, this is the equivalent of Stephen King saying he could’ve wrote like Don DeLillo if the mood struck him, and to add insult to injury he has to pause several times to pull the rhyme off in a way that strikes me as clumsy. This may seem nit-picky to the average listener, and over the years I have come-off my hip-hop Puritanism a great deal, but hip-hop retains the culture of honor of the low-income, high-density neighborhoods it frequently comes out of. [Continued below or after the jump]

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The Gray Area, a review of Jay-Z’s Decoded, Cont’d

In what is either a misunderstanding or poor wording by the book’s editor Dream Hampton or more clumsiness with the facts for the sake of myth making, this comes up early on in Decoded, when Jay-Z seems to mistake the classic Juice Crew posse cut “The Symphony Part 1” from 1988 with “Show and Prove” the posse cut he appeared on with Kane alongside ODB and others in 1994. Hampton writes that after recording the track, Jay-Z couldn’t stop thinking about Kane’s line, …put a quarter in your ass, cuz’ ya’ played yourself. Nobody can fault Jay for that, I’ve spent some time thinking about that line myself, but Kane said it on “The Symphony” back in ’88, when Jay-Z was still pushing weight, and Prodigy was unwittingly and severally damaging his career by posing for a photo dressed as Michael Jackson.

BDK, circa 1988

I didn’t sit down to write this piece or buy Decoded or watch “Fade to Black” to ticket Jay-Z for his various infractions against the hip-hop by-laws (and to his credit when he says, I do this for my culture, he means contemporary Black America, not hip-hop culture). And don’t get me wrong, Gatsbian self-reinvention and building songs off of other songs is just as much a part of hip-hop’s DNA as baggy pants and shell toes. I wrote this piece and bought Decoded, because I was looking for more of the catharsis that emerged (albeit under the false pretenses of a Holyfield-esque retirement) on “The Black Album,” not furthering of the “first-person literary creation,” as Jay refers to himself in Decoded. That literary creation is the comic book hero that made the Yankee hat, well, more famous than a Yankee can, not Shawn Carter. Although Jay asserts that the two are not mutually exclusive, “I never had to reject Shawn Carter to become Jay-Z,” there are in fact two.

Judging from the ease, with which Jay recalls Bill Gates proximity to a computer when he was a suburban Seattle teenager in a recent interview with Charlie Rose at the Brooklyn Museum, he is well aware of Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of outliers, he is probably also aware that he fits that definition: skilled yes, but also lucky enough to come along in the mid-nineties when hip-hop record sales were at their all-time high and rap’s two biggest superstars had just been murdered vacating the airwaves and front of store shelves at Sam Goody. In short, he is an intelligent and resourceful guy, who overcame cultural legacies and class distinctions to “make it” in an increasingly less-opportune America, and how he did it? Well, it’s complicated. Decoded is not a book for those of us that understand why the rhymes are great, or got the double entendres the first time around, or those of us who want to know the real truth behind all the Horatio Alger mythologizing, that book was apparently The Black Book, which he stopped writing because “it was too personal,” as he told Charlie Rose in that same interview.

I still get an adrenaline rush from his triumphant declaration, far from a Harvard student, just had the balls to do it, and maybe it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that, but he started it.

Reviewed by Daryl Clark

Published: December 31, 2010


Filed under books, essays, Music, Reviews, you decide

The second generation iPad is coming,

although this late February speculation seems aggressive.

Digital Trends

Remember, way back in the Spring of ’10, when we were all a titter over the first iteration.

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s memoir…

to be published by Knopf in the US.

DailyFinance on the book deal.

The New Yorker’s pre-diplomatic cables/sexual assault charges profile of Assange.

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Filed under (Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go, Announcement, Book Publishing, books, News, The Internet

A couple interesting reviews in the Sunday Times

Garrison Keillor finds Mark Twain capable of a bit of commerce, even a hundred years after rumors of his demise were precisely accurate and Michael Kinsley writes a more or less measured review of Decision Points, other than a parting cheap shot about W. probably being more fun when he drank (I’ll call a spade,”a spade” here, even when concerning 43).

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House of Usher

Mike Force directed me to these awesome photographs of Mike Tyson’s abandoned mansion by Helen Levi. 

PS- I thought 50 bought his house?

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Akashic Books extends their Holiday sale

Giant Holiday Sale Extended until Dec. 23rd!


Given the great reaction to our holiday sale we are extending it and encouraging people to order this week with the additional incentive of FREE Priority Mail shipping. Offer is good from today, Mon., Dec. 20, through Thursday, Dec 23rd…Happy holidays from Akashic Books!
Aside: My first publishing internship was at Akashic, 10 years ago or so. Their office was then located in a Fort Greene brownstone. I used to pick up the mail from a P.O. box in Manhattan, take some occasional ribbing from Arthur Nersesian, and call it a day. I also remember listening to Nas’s comeback album Stillmatic in the office quite a bit.  

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