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)