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.
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