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Highly Recommended.

I started reading Decoded because I heard the re-broadcast of Jay-Z’s Fresh Air interview from last year. I also kept seeing Austin Kleon keep mentioning how good it is and I just had to read it.

There are so many reasons why this is better than a conventional memoir. This book is really good. Like overwhelmingly good. Jay-Z’s prose feels like a really intelligent, easy, affecting conversation. That is most incredible about the book is his respect. He writes with such tremendous respect for the readers, his influences, his friends, his generation, and culture and that makes it really easy and captivating. I love his music but there’s no way I could ever grasp all the layers of meaning. To that end, the footnotes are great. They’re appropriately explanatory without sounding patronizing or condescending — the pervasive tone of the book.

Throughout the book he talks about his influences. That, for me, is really wonderful. Hearing people talk about things they love is such a great pleasure. One of my favorite parts of his Fresh Air interview is when they discuss his sampling of a song from Annie. It’s funny to hear a rapper and big-time mogul talk about a broadway musical, especially the only one to which I feel connected (on account of the redhead thing). The book is filled with references to artists and works I have never heard of and ones I have, always speaking from a place of respect.

My love of this book does not end. Not only is the prose stellar and illuminating but is also perfectly visual. In the hands of someone else (I am referring to Jay-Z as the art director, and the team of artists and designers who worked on it) this could have turned out like a collage, but here it’s done with near-perfect execution and great style. In fact I would place it more in league with artists’ books because of how effectively the medium of the book is used. Often in memoirs pictures serve a purely expository purpose. In Decoded, the images, which are certainly not limited to photographs, are integral and are part of the structure and purpose of the book. It is meant to be a different kind of experience. There are the written and visual components but since it’s about music, about rhymes and lyrics, the prose is aural as well. It is so different and so stunning compared to a conventional memoir, and an astonishing success.

I think it’s really perfect that I read this as/after I read The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack. There is so much really elegant wordplay, but the nonlinear structure reflects a lot of the connections made when developing those linguistic connections. Before I started, I had read and heard reviews talking about how the book is part memoir and part explanation of his lyrics. From that I was picturing a linear memoir and lyrical explanation. The book jumps around between time periods and there is no timeline. He’ll talk about his childhood and then a story from when he was CEO of Def Jam — it’s not about the sequence of events, it’s about similarities in what actually happened and how that shaped his life and music. That constant movement, between times, between meanings of words, between ideas, is what keeps his music and this book interesting.

One last thought that was so very perfect for me, an obsessive pop culture lover. There is a section where he talks about the 2008 Glastonbury Music Festival controversy, addressing it in a wonderful, modern, pup-culture-loving way. He says, “But kids today have a mix of songs from all over the place on their iPods, and they take pride in it. There is no rock music with walls around it. It’s one of the great shifts that’s happened over my lifetime, popular culture has managed to shake free of the constraints that still limit us in so many other parts of life. It’s an open field.”


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