don't you tell me how i feel.

Big readin’ by Steele
December 14, 2011, 6:14 am
Filed under: badass, boox, cops, Shit I love, Shit I Was Late on, violence

One of the most exciting gifts I received last Christmas was a copy of Jay-Z’s gorgeous tome, Decoded. I was so excited about this that I managed to put off starting it until a week ago, when I realized that I should probably stop “saving” it and get on with it already. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I can’t hold off on giving my opinion.

Part coffee-table book, part biography, part cliffs notes to his song lyrics, this is a terrific read. There’s no ghostwriter here – it’s all Jay-Z’s articulate voice, his stories, his attitude. As one of those celebrities who’s always been a little tough to get a read on, this is probably our best chance. He describes his childhood in Brooklyn as “life during wartime,” and is matter-of-fact but never dismissive about his years of working as a drug runner. He writes with intelligence about the parallels between battling with competing dealers and other rappers, the paranoia that results from knowing that there’s always someone younger coming up and looking to take you down. Success, of course, brings a whole new host of problems for drug dealers-turned rappers:

“The not-so-funny shit is that Pac and Biggie were perfectly safe before they started rapping; they weren’t being hunted by killers until they got into music. Biggie was on the streets before he started releasing music, but he never had squads of shooters (or the Feds) coming after him until he was famous. And Pac wasn’t even heavy in the street. It wasn’t until a he was a rapper that he started getting shot at, locked up, stalked by the cops – and eventually murdered.

“I was reminded of this when I recorded “Moment of Clarity” with Eminem for the Black Album. It was 2003 and he was on top of the music world – three major multiplatinum albums, 20 million sold, a number one film with 8 Mile, and on and on. He was probably the biggest star in the world. When we met in the studio, I reached over to give him a pound, and when we bumped, I could feel that he had on a bulletproof vest. Here was Eminem, doing the thing he loved and succeeding probably beyond his wildest dreams, and he had to wear a bulletproof vest. To the studio. He should’ve been on a boat somewhere enjoying himself without a care in the world, not worrying about getting shot up on the way to work.”

Jay also explains the meaning behind many of his songs, in part as a way of showing any nonbelievers that good rap actually is a form of poetry. And he writes with real anger about race in America. In diagramming the meaning of his iconic “99 Problems,” Jay acknowledges that the situation in the song is based on a real experience of being pulled over with a trunk full of drugs. But it’s about more than that:

“If you get caught up in the hook of the song you miss something. The story – like the language used to tell it – has multiple angles. It’s a story about the anxiety of hustling, the way little moments can suddenly turn into life-or-death situations. It’s about being stopped by cops with a trunk full of coke, but also about the larger presumption of guilt from the cradle that leads you to having the crack in your trunk in the first place.”

I’ll leave you with a final excerpt, this time about meeting Bono and being asked about the singer in an interview:

“The writer had asked me about the U2 record that was about to be released and I said something about the kind of pressure a group like that must be under just to meet its own standard. Bono told me that my quote had really gotten to him. In fact, he said it got him a little anxious. He decided to go back to the studio even though the album was already done and keep reworking it till he thought it was as good as it could possibly be. I really wasn’t trying to make him nervous with that quote – and I was surprised to find out that at this point in his career he still got anxious about his work.”

Got a music geek in your life who hasn’t read this yet? Wrap this bitch up and stick it under the tree.



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