Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jay-Z's new book Decoded is anthology, catalogue, memoir of his creation of a persona; no AY; bio next year should dig deeper

So, is there anything about Atlantic Yards, and his fractional ownership of the Nets, in Jay-Z's new book Decoded?

Not really, at least according to my quick skim of the book at the bookstore. It's not an autobiography. The New Yorker, covering Jay-Z's recent appearance at the New York Public Library, described the book as "part memoir, part carefully annotated lyrics anthology, and part visual catalogue."

MTV provides a compendium of early reviews. The best review I've seen is from Zach Baron in the Village Voice, headlined Decoding Jay-Z's Decoded: Why the rapper's memoir is definitely not Shawn Carter's.

The person and the alter ego

Baron writes:
Unlike, say, compatriot Eminem and his constantly rehabbing progenitor, Marshall Mathers, there has always seemed to be a lot of harmony between Jay-Z and his real-life alter ego, Shawn Carter, the Marcy-born drug dealer who gave Jay-Z the nerves and the seed money to get his music-biz start. "I never had to reject Shawn Carter to become Jay-Z," the rapper explains, but note the distinction—those two people are not the same. That this is a fact that matters is one of the central revelations of Decoded, which began life as an autobiography, penned with the smart critic Dream Hampton. The bio, once called The Black Book, was scrapped for its too-personal revelations about his father and Carter's years as a career criminal—"It's too much," he told Rolling Stone.
He adds:
It also explains why Decoded's most central revelations are about not Shawn Carter, who remains stubbornly distant, but about hip-hop itself, the genre that made Jay-Z rich and that he in turn helped make a fully global, world-beating industry.
Making the myth

Millions of people love Jay-Z, but who exactly do they love? Baron explains:
But as Decoded makes clear, what the rapper's project actually is is a kind of self-novelization: person meeting persona in 16 measure bars. "The flow isn't like time," he writes about the craft. "It's like life."

...As his author is careful to observe, Jay-Z is not a person but a "first-person literary creation," a product with a vast and addicted clientele, to be sold like the work his progenitor used to stash in "baggy jeans and puffy coats" while shivering in the New Jersey winter. As for that guy, whose name was Shawn Carter—well, he got away a long time ago.
Jay-Z's take

And here's what the author (assisted crucially by the writer Dream Hampton) explains:
When you're famous and say you're writing a book, people assume that it's an autobiography--I was born here, raised there, suffered this, loved that, lost it all, got it back, the end. But that's not what this is. I've never been a linear thinker, which is something you can see in my rhymes. They follow the jumpy logic of poetry and emotion, not the straight line of careful prose. My book is like that, too. Decoded is first and foremost, a book of rhymes, which is ironic because I don't actually write my rhymes--they come to me in my head and I record them. The book is packed with the stories from my life that are the foundation of my lyrics--stories about coming up in the streets of Brooklyn in the 80's and 90's, stories about becoming an artist and entrepreneur and discovering worlds that I never dreamed existed when I was a kid. But it always comes back to the rhymes.
Brooklyn landmarks

One commenter on the Voice web site suggests that "RapGenius.com explained all of the songs in the book better than Jay-Z did" and, indeed, the site's worth a look.

Its New York City Rap Map presents numerous Brooklyn locations, including the Barclays Center linked to Jay-Z's over-claim in "Brooklyn (Go Hard)" that "I'm the black Branch Rickey" and his former stash house at 560 State Street (from "Empire State of Mind").

A non-interactive screenshot is below; click to enlarge.


Biography coming

For some of the details Mr. Carter left out, we'll have to wait 'til next March, when Zack O'Malley Greenburg's Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, is published.

He was recently interviewed by Rap Genius.

RG: Will Jay-Z have you killed when he reads your book?

ZOMG: He probably won’t be thrilled with some of the stuff that’s in there, particularly some of the stuff Jaz-O told me. But it’s not a hatchet job, it’s both sides of the story. You don’t go from street corner to corner office without making a few enemies along the way, regardless of whether they’re justified in hating you.

By the way, the author pegs Jay-Z's net worth at $450 million and suggests that the first $900,000 stake came from dealing.

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