Review of Decoded by

Book cover for Decoded

A friend lent Decoded me after I expressed a desire to “get into hip hop”. This is not a whim on my part but a recognition of a gap in my otherwise wide musical listening. Although I would say that my “favourite” music tends towards a fairly narrow swath of sound, and my tastes are decidedly more pop than hard rock in later years, I appreciate a lot of different sounds, albeit perhaps not equally. I rock out to classical music cranked loud with my windows down; I dance around my kitchen to Florence + the Machine or my classroom to … well, pretty much anything. My music collection is not devoid of hip hop either, but those songs are few and far between. More importantly, though, I lack any clear idea of who I should try to listen to. My typical musical discovery involves hearing a song that I like somewhere, figuring out who performs it, and then going through their catalogue to discover if I want all the things or just that track, then buying accordingly.

This strategy hasn’t worked for hip hop. Part of it is that I don’t often understand the lyrics when I hear a rap song. I might like the beat or the flow, maybe there’s a hook that stands out that I enjoy, and I can groove to it when it comes on. Basically, when Jay Z says:

Which is the other reason hip-hop is controversial: People don’t bother trying to get it. The problem isn’t in the rap or the rapper or the culture. The problem is that so many people don’t even know how to listen to the music.

he’s talking about me. Except I am trying to get it, but very slowly and probably poorly because I have no idea what I’m doing. This book helped, a little, but in the end I suspect I am more like Kathleen Norris, whose reaction to reading proofs Jay Z quotes in his afterword of this edition. She speaks as a poet who has been given a better understanding of something she knew was important but had no way of interpreting. I’m hobbled further by a more general antipathy towards poetry (sorry Norris), and so maybe that’s why rap, which seems so much more poetical than other genres of music, intimidates me.

Because rap is poetry. I pity people who dismiss it as anything less, and Decoded proves them wrong. Consider how Jay Z breaks down “Public Service Announcement” and compares rap to sonnets:

But even when a rapper is just rapping about how dope he is, there’s something a little bit deeper going on. It’s like a sonnet, believe it or not. Sonnets have a set structure, but also a limited subject matter: They are mostly about love. Taking on such a familiar subject and writing about it in a set structure forced sonnet writers to find every nook and cranny in the subject and challenged them to invent new language for saying old things. It’s the same with braggadocio in rap. When we take the most familiar subject in the history of rap—why I’m dope—and frame it within the sixteen-bar structure of a rap verse, synced to the specific rhythm and feel of the track, more than anything it’s a test of creativity and wit. It’s like a metaphor for itself; if you can say how dope you are in a completely original, clever, powerful way, the rhyme itself becomes proof of the boast’s truth. And there are always deeper layers of meaning buried in the simplest verses. I call rhymes like the first verse on “Public Service Announcement” Easter-egg hunts, because if you listen to it once without paying attention, you’ll brush past some lines that can offer more meaning and resonance every time you listen to them.

I love this paragraph so much. It is an eloquent explanation of what rappers are doing when they front. Moreover, it demonstrates the commitment required to create memorable and powerful verses. Jay Z is not claiming that every rapper knows the structure of sonnets and is labouring to recreate them in rap. Many rappers probably cannot explain how they rap as clearly and academically as Jay Z has here—but they still know their stuff. Indeed, they know it on an intuitive level that far surpasses someone like me with an English degree, because they live the flow. A good MC can spit rhyme any time inspiration strikes, as Jay Z recounts the days he had to rush into a store to buy something so he could get a brown paper bag to write sudden lyrics on before he forgot them.

Jay Z says he wants “to make the case that hip-hop lyrics—not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC—are poetry if you look at them closely enough”. I believe he makes that case more than adequately. Structure and cleverness, as mentioned above, aside, some of these verses are just so deep and so beautiful that it’s difficult to believe they might be juxtaposed next to a line about bitches coming on to him or the money his character has made from hustling. They are, though, and time and again Jay Z returns to the idea that it is more difficult to separate these two things in hip hop than one might want to believe—that is, “clean” rap is largely an illusion. However, he is more than willing to mock both himself and his critics by serving up self-satirizing songs like “Ignorant Shit” or the “almost a deliberate provocation to simpleminded listeners” of “99 Problems” with its clickbait chorus line but ultimately unrelated subject matter:

The art of rap is deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. And sometimes the words we use, n*, bitch, motherfucker, and the violence of the images overwhelms some listeners. It’s all white noise to them till they hear a bitch or a n* and then they run off yelling “See!” and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about. But that would be like listening to Maya Angelou and ignoring everything until you heard her drop a line about drinking or sleeping with someone’s husband and then dismissing her as an alcoholic adulterer.

I grok Jay Z’s frustration; I really do. It’s so weird that our society is fine with giving PG ratings to movies that show brutal violence, yet a little bit of nudity or sex suddenly makes it R-rated. Showcase (a specialty channel here in Canada) is fine with showing a rabbit getting its head ripped off in The Magicians or Eliot getting the shit kicked out of him in Mr. Robot, but they make sure to bleep the F-word—I assume because they think if their viewers hear a single F-bomb their brains will implode?

Yet I am also somewhat complicit in this. I admit to qualifying my appreciation for rap with things like “but not gangsta rap” or “I like rap, except the parts with misogynistic lyrics”. While my intentions here might have been good, it shows an ignorance regarding the nuance that Jay Z articulates about this genre. To be frank, it’s a little racist of me: here I am, a privileged white dude, bursting onto the scene like the Kool-Aid man and insisting I’ll take “the good rap” but not “the offensive stuff”, as if I can pick and choose. Obviously it’s up to me what I listen to. But Jay Z’s stories and explanations are a stark reminder that I am so incredibly lucky with my lot in life:

Most of us come from communities where people are just supposed to stay in their corners quietly, live and die without disturbing the master narrative of American society. Simply speaking our truths, which flew in the face of the American myth, made us rebels.

It’s worthwhile having a conversation about the meanings within rap lyrics, as it is with lyrics from any genre. But such a conversation taken out of the context of those lyrics’ birth is little more than tone policing. I have the privilege of ignoring the pain and poverty that the predominantly Black communities face, the constant violence and aggressions that result in a vicious cycle of drug selling and buying. Jay Z is very critical, rightly so, of the ways in which the American government launched a “war on drugs” even as it funded drug cartels in other countries.

There is pain here, but there is also a buoyant sense of optimism and hope that hip hop is a way to improve the future lots of Jay Z’s brothers and sisters. Jay Z observes that in some cases the potential for rap to influence social change must be there, or else why would authorities go to such lengths to suppress it:

Rappers, as a class, are not engaged in anything criminal. They’re musicians. Some rappers and friends of rappers commit crimes. Some bus drivers commit crimes. Some accountants commit crimes. But there aren’t task forces devoted to bus drivers or accountants. Bus drivers don’t have to work under the preemptive suspicion of law enforcement. The difference is obvious, of course: Rappers are young black men telling stories that the police, among others, don’t want to hear. Rappers tend to come from places where police are accustomed to treating everybody like a suspect.

Opposition to rap on the basis of character, then, is another form of culturally inculcated anti-Blackness. While I suppose I was aware of this in some latent sense, it took these words to make me realize it consciously. There’s nothing wrong with finding rap music unappealing, for whatever reason—but condemning it or the “offensive” words so often used in its lyrics in a wholesale fashion is another example of wilful silence in the face of the oppression that Black people and communities face. Hip hop is the latest in a long line of musical genres used—and often even piloted and popularized by Black musicians before being co-opted and made safe by white musicians—to express the angst, pain, and raw emotion of the oppression or, as it is put, “the struggle”. Jay Z believes that hip hop’s power is far from confined to Black experiences, though:

This is why the hustler’s story—through hip-hop—has connected with a global audience. The deeper we get into those sidewalk cracks and into the mind of the young hustler trying to find his fortune there, the closer we get to the intimate human story, the story of struggle, which is what defines us all.

(Emphasis his.) This statement, lavishly splayed in white text on a black page early in the book, resonates deeply with me despite zero experience with the hustling lifestyle. I get it, because as a storyteller and reader and educator I get that need to connect on a human level with the stories we tell in all avenues of our lives.

This book is part song explanation, part autobiography, and part rumination on the politics and pressures on African Americans. Jay Z explains the meaning behind many of the lines in the selected songs, and he also comments on his choice of words and rhymes, as demonstrated above. The songs are not ordered chronologically; rather, they are grouped around loose themes that dip in and out of his history: Part 1 heavily features his adolescence, growing up on the streets, and life as a hustler, to which he compares the life of a hip hop artist; Part 2 is more about the business of hip hop and the pressure of being “known”; Part 3 gets more political; and Part 4 is an attempt to capture the zeitgeist and issues around which hip hop crystallized. Throughout this book, Jay Z openly discusses his time selling drugs, his relationship with other rappers, music that influenced and inspired him, and his attitude towards politics, particularly the election of President Obama. I imagine fans already familiar with his work will relish the first-hand explanations herein as well as the frankness of his reflection: there is more Shawn Carter here than rapper Jay Z. As someone who until this book only knew Jay Z second- and third-hand, Decoded is now a firm anchor going forward in my exploration of hip hop.

Jay Z says that he’s “happiest knowing that [Decoded]’s working as a gateway drug for kids to get into reading and into thinking about new ways to use their own voices and experiences”. I have long talked about books being my drug. And I too like to use them as a way to help people express themselves. I’ve known other teachers to use hip-hop in their classrooms; I still need to get around to reading Emdin’s Urban Science Education for the Hip Hop Generation (even though I don’t teach science), though I did pick up his latest, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too. Largely I’ve eschewed using hip hop because my lack of familiarity makes me worry that I’ll use it in a inauthentic way. Hence, my exploration of hip hop is not merely a desire for cooler tunes.

In my latest iteration of an English class I worked hard to improve my unit on stereotypes, drawing on the unfortunate proliferation of police shootings of Black men in July of this year. We discussed Black Lives Matter, and I did take the chance and include both Jay ’Zs “Spiritual” and Beyoncé’s “Formation” in this discussion. Though my mastery of this content is incomplete, that just means my students and I are on a quest for knowledge together. Sometimes it can be tough as a teacher to let go of needing to have all the answers, but the rewards are often worth such a risk. Although Decoded came too late for this version of the unit, it will doubtlessly inform my planning next time around. I’ll need at least that much time to mull it over anyway.

Engagement

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