Widgets Magazine

Review: ‘Decoded’

Courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

In 2009, rapper Shawn Carter, more commonly known as Jay-Z, was a guest on the HBO talk show, “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The host gave the rapper a bound copy of every lyric of every song he had officially released. The book was no mere pamphlet, but a behemoth, putting a physical perspective on the copious amount of writing Jay-Z has done since his first official album, “Reasonable Doubt” (1996). Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Jay-Z’s first published book, “Decoded,” has the flow of a well-studied author.

On Nov. 1 the expanded edition of Jay-Z’s book, “Decoded,” hit the shelves. The book was originally released in October last year and quickly made its way onto The New York Times Best Sellers List, but the expanded edition, which includes three new “decodings” of his songs and an extended afterward, arrived in bookstores just this month.

Much of the book itself is an autobiographical account of Jay-Z’s development as a rapper. It has a very oratory feel–a dialogue between Jay-Z and the reader as he tells the captivating stories of his career.

Jay-Z’s tone is passionate and simple, giving the account of his life a literary poise not always expected from a man of his profession. A great deal is covered in the roughly 300-page account, ranging from his early days as a hustler in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn to his sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden.

The real heartbeat of “Decoded,” however, is the interlacing of songs throughout the text, adding an emphasis to the stories. The songs vary from big hits like “99 Problems” to unreleased tracks like “History.” On the left side of the page, the lyrics to selected songs are printed, and on the right are footnote citations linked to specific lines within the song. In these citations, Jay-Z describes what these lines mean and the deeper conceptual thoughts and reasoning behind his use of them.

Through the explanation of his lyrics and the recounting of his stories, Jay-Z decodes his life. He stresses the point that he, and his lyrics, are often misunderstood or misinterpreted by many listeners. By emphasizing the idea that rap is poetry and by decoding certain lyrics, he exhibits the deeper meaning within the songs. The combination of relaxed storytelling with this plethora of lyrics acts as a window into understanding the passionate and complex thoughts that shape Jay-Z’s life, and subsequently, his music.

To further illustrate the evocative nature of his music, the aesthetic layout of the book itself is a work of art. Designed by Rodrigo Corral Design, the book features numerous pictures and graphics to add to the already vibrant descriptions and narratives taking place. The cover is a Rorschach inkblot, playing nicely with the idea of decoding, and the powerful meaning and interpretation that can lie within.

Jay-Z may not be a well-published author or hold a degree in classics from an esteemed university, but after years of writing verse after verse, he inarguably has writing experience–experience that “Decoded” shows truly does count for something.