Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has put together a striking tabletop hardcover that is part biography, part lyrical anthology. The covers hold his plight from poverty as a hustler and aspiring emcee growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses.
First impressions lead the reader to assume that the book, titled “Decoded,” is just a pretentious promotional project. In this case, Carter, in collaboration with writer and filmmaker Dream Hampton, has compiled a book that synchronizes Carter’s story with the meaning and origins of his discography.
The book is at its best in the autobiographical segments where Carter connects the dots to defend hip-hop lyrics as poetry. He argues that his lyrics have a universal theme of struggle, a story anyone can relate to.
Life experiences in the slums gave him something to rhyme about. Dealing drugs was a risk Carter took growing up just to keep his head above water, never abandoning his pursuit of becoming the best emcee in the city.
Every chapter features the voice of Carter discussing parts of his life, whether it is his career, street life or childhood, and connects it with an analysis of songs that follow the theme of the storytelling.
“Decoded” features 36 songs by Carter embedded with footnotes throughout the verses. The songs are divided to fit at the end of most chapters and are pretty in the clean layout.
The pages include creative photo montages and portraits of recognized artists in hip-hop that help.
“I wanted to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to,” Carter wrote.
And he has done just that — managing an extravagant, artsy look and hustler story perfectly without losing touch with the street vibes of hip-hop.
Jay-Z states in his song “Moment of Clarity” (featured in the book): “I dumb down for my audience, double my dollar.”
There’s no dumbing down in this book.