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

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