“I wasn’t even in high school yet and I’d discovered my voice,” writes Jay-Z of his time growing up in Brooklyn. “But I still needed a story to tell. Hip-hop was looking for a narrative, too.”
Fourteen years and 10 solo albums since the debut of his gangster polemic Reasonable Doubt, not only has Jay-Z told his story—often heart-wrenching (“Song Cry,” “Lost One”), almost always vivid (“Coming of Age,” “Where I’m From”)—he has largely defined, and at times even controlled, the hip-hop narrative. In Decoded, part memoir (ghostwritten by veteran rap scribe Dream Hampton), part song index, Jay-Z offers a narrow glimpse into the life of Shawn Carter vis-a-vi selected tracks. Which begs the question: What isn’t Jay-Z telling us? Why these songs? Still, for a man known for his cryptic rhyming, the book is a treat for die-hards who’ve yearned for more clarity on songs like “Can I Live?”
“I’ve never been a linear thinker,” Jay-Z said of the book, “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.” But that’s just it with Decoded, which debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times Bestsellers List in November: it is a book of careful and generous documentation—it’s a love story by, and of, rap’s most successful son.
The perfect gift for: Jay-Z stans who insist Kingdom Come isn’t that bad of an album.