Jay-Z at the New York Public Library

Jay-Z puts out one major release every year, most often in November. Usually it’s a record, another installment in the lyrical autobiography that has made up his life’s work. This year it’s a book, Decoded, and Jay showed up at the New York Public Library last night to talk about it.

Decoded rocks a golden Andy Warhol Rorschach image on its front cover, hinting at the psychological self-exploration that has always been Jay-Z’s specialty. The book’s heft, dramatic packaging and thematic chapter structure indicate a serious work, and a highly deliberate encounter with the literary form. I was hoping to hear Jay talk about his writing process and his literary inspirations at the NYPL, but the onstage interview with Paul Holdengraber and Cornel West was such a high-energy affair that, after an hour and three quarters of intense conversation, we never even got around to that topic.

Both interviewers had a lot to say, and formed a funny contrast. Cultural historian and political activist Cornel West seemed to want to contextualize Jay-Z’s career as part of the great sweep of the American civil rights movement, to place hiphop as inspired protest music, and to reach for the spiritual meaning beneath the surface of it all. Library executive Paul Holdengraber, meanwhile, was clearly new to Jay’s work, and frankly blown away to realize how good it is (he read a touching letter about Jay-Z written by his 9-year-old son). Holdengraber’s newbie excitement was refreshing and often brought laughs from the crowd. (I remember my own first flush of excitement after buying Volume 2 in 1998, so I could relate,)

West and Holdengraber often seemed to be pulling Jay in opposite directions (I bet he gets that a lot), and he got fewer words in than either of his co-hosts (I bet that suited him just fine). Cornel West dared to press Jay on sensitive topics, pointing out that Jay’s grandfather had been a pastor and asking what role faith played in his life (“I believe in God,” Jay said), inquiring about the relationship between freedom fighters and hustlers in America’s black tradition, quoting Shakespeare and Shelley, introducing Harry Belafonte in the crowd and pointing out the continuity between Belafonte and hiphop, pondering whether or not there were imperialist sensibilities hidden within “Empire State of Mind”, and wondering whether rappers had to be more vulnerable than the doo-wop singers West had grown up with, because doo-wop singers harmonize in groups while rappers stand on stage alone. I really liked Cornel West’s unconventional, searching style, and I’m glad he drove home the important point that Jay’s career has always had a meaning and purpose beyond celebrity and wealth.

On Holdengraber’s prompting, Jay spoke about the trauma of losing touch with his father as a tween, and about the way he’s threaded this and other themes through all his work. He delivered a classic line or two, but probably the most memorable moment was when he interpreted Scarface’s verse on the remarkable song This Can’t Be Life. The story of this track, and Scarface’s spontaneous contribution to it, is one of the key sections in Decoded, and clearly signifies a lot to Jay. He seemed to become choked up when he delivered these lines:

I coulda rapped about my hard times in this song
But heaven knows that woulda been wrong
It wouldn’t have been right, it wouldn’t have been love
It wouldn’t have been life, it wouldn’t have been us.

Mostly, though, Jay kept it light, and in a couple of unplanned exchanges with the hosts we got a surprising glimpse of this laid-back vocalist’s skillful comic timing.

Well, then again, I guess it’s no surprise that Jay’s got expert timing.

(Photo by Jori Klein)

9 Responses

  1. Good coverage, Levi. Are you
    Good coverage, Levi. Are you familiar with the story of “The Grey Album,” a mix of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles White Album? I’m not kidding. It was supposedly mixed by Danger Mouse but I don’t think it was ever released, unless there are bootlegs floating around.

  2. Sure, that’s pretty
    Sure, that’s pretty well-known. I also have some good mashups my sister found somewhere of Jay-Z and Bob Dylan.

  3. They are pretty much my two
    They are pretty much my two favorites, right there. Look for “Threat of the Man in the Long Black Coat” if you can find it …

  4. I will be searching for this
    I will be searching for this Jay-Dylan project the second I get home, sounds intriguing. (As far as other mashups go, I do recommend Jaydiohead.)

    I found Jay’s book surprisingly insightful, at least in parts. I feel like a lot of the lyrical footnotes seem written in a voice much closer to dream hampton’s than Jay’s, but his memoir pieces are gold, especially the aforementioned bit on Scarface and his analyses of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane. I really like the notes on “Lucifer,” too.

    Whenever I’ve talked to rappers (I had the deeply awkward pleasure of interviewing Nas a few years back — that man is ridiculously intense in person), I’m always surprised by the depth at which they analyze their own, and other rappers’ rhyme schemes, meters and line breaks. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, but I always assume it’s just the poetry scholar in me that gets so into such things, and that the rappers themselves would be less interested in discussing the mechanics of rhyming. But it’s usually the complete opposite.

    Aside from the gully talk and materialist flash, most great rappers are really just poetry nerds at heart.

  5. Levi,
    I was really looking


    I was really looking forward to this post and your coverage did not disappoint. Gotta love the breadth of marketing and engagement Hova got for Decoded…it’s very impressive.

    As far as I can tell no one has mentioned the Nas episode being a part of the book and I am a bit disappointed. An inside look into that artistic fracas would have been something.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Mayowa — There’s absolutely
    Mayowa — There’s absolutely nothing on the Nas beef in the book. Which is strange, because he mentions Illmatic several times, and also discusses the general hermeneutics of the rap beef.

    Perhaps those wounds are still a little raw. After all, I’ve actually heard people use “Ether” as a verb — “he totally ethered him on that track.”

  7. Thanks for another great
    Thanks for another great piece, Levi.
    It shouldn’t be hard to find the Jay-Z/Dylan mashups but let me know if anyone needs any direction.

  8. HA! Guilty as charged. I have
    HA! Guilty as charged. I have used and still use “ether” as a verb.

    Maybe he didn’t mention Nas because of the whole truce/record label shebang. I always want to hear more about their interactions because they are a microcosm of art in general. I think of Hova as (really) good genre fiction and Nas as literary fiction with both enjoying the riches and critical acclaim commensurate with both. It’s a fuzzy comparison, but I like it.

    Thanks for the heads up.

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