Decoded is one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read. Pitched as a biography/defense of hip hop (as reiterated by Jay-Z throughout the book) Decoded comes up short in both aspects. The biography aspect is vague while the defense of hip hop amounts to “I love hip hop, it is deeper than you realize, here are a couple pages of my lyrics with annotations.” Jay-Z is at the point in his life and career where he is no longer a normal person and he only runs with millionaires and celebrities. Stories about meeting Quincy Jones or Bono lack any outside perspective because Jay-Z is on their level. He can’t convey any excitement because he can’t convey any empathy for his past self. All of his stories from his drug dealing days are slight and lacking in detail. I can’t tell if this is for legal reasons or because he is so ashamed of his past. Jay-Z makes numerous references to how young and foolish he was in his younger years but relays this information with a bored detachment and with that level of detail. Decoded is obviously Jay-Z expanding his brand while not wanting to offend anyone with what makes Jay-Z Jay-Z. Jay spends pages on his rise to success but presents the story like an accountant delivering bank numbers. It’s about half way through that realize you’re listening to someone explain their plan to get rich. There is numerous mentions of artistry and art and a chapter that talks about Basquiat but it all reads like lip service on the way to end goal, which is money of course. Of course I know that Jay-Z and plenty other rappers talk about money and consumer culture in their music but when it is placed plainly on the page the information becomes tired and boring. The annotations that accompany the lyrics are superfluous and are largely skippable, which is a sad thing to say about any book. Jay-Z spends an inordinate amount of time telling when he should be showing. The lack of detail is absolutely maddening even for stories that are already widely known. The best he can tell us about the Notorious B.I.G. is that they smoked a blunt together one time and that B.I.G. didn’t go to a club with them because he thought he might get killed. (Irony!) Decoded names no names, steps on no toes, and doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. Decoded is a book for your mom.
As someone who has been a fan of Jay-Z for awhile now Decoded is a crushing disappointment. I never expected it to be a good book, but being interesting wouldn’t have hurt. Whoever told Jay-Z he had to start being respectable should go fuck themselves.