Jonah Bromwich decodes Decoded so you don’t have to.
1. I knew Marcy Projects wasn’t Mt. Holyoke before I started Decoded but three scenes from Jay’s old neighborhood really struck me. According to Jay, kids in Marcy would go up to “leaning nodders” (heroin addicts ) and push them off the benches they were sleeping on “the way kids on farms tip sleeping cows.” (pg. 4) And girl gangs like the Deceptinettes (the female version of the Decepticons) were “broads who would just walk up to grown men and punch them in their faces so hard they’d drop.” (pg. 13) Finally, Hova’s first drug connect was murdered like “something out of a mob movie. They cut his balls off and stuffed them in his mouth and shot him in the back of the head, execution style.” (p. 15)
2. It turns out Jay had Hammer on the brain before he recorded his verse for “So Apalled.” He references Stanley Burrell twice. The first time, he notes that “even when [Hammer] was spinning around with his pants billowing all around him, you could see in his eyes that this was still a nigga from the hood. Sean is a bit more careful about hurting Hammer’s feelings in print though. In discussing the man’s fall he writes “It’s no dis to Hammer to say that it was shocking to watch it happen.” (pg. 93) He’s a bit less delicate when talking about Hammer’s attempt to become a gangster stating “Really? Please don’t. You don’t have to! (italics his). (pg. 249)
3. When discussing the Kanye-50 sales battle, Jay points out that he had his own battle with Curtis. Apparently, The Black Album and Beg for Mercy came out the same week and 50, (of course) “got on the radio and announced he was putting money on Beg for Mercy outselling Jay’s pseudo-retirement album. Not only did the G-Unit debut lose to The Black Album (despite containing the all-time classic single “I Smell Pussy”) but it also lost to the Resurrection soundtrack. Jay says that there was “something beautiful” about competing with Tupac rather than 50. (pg. 71)
4. Jay-Z thinks that “Beach Chair” is “one of the hidden jewels of his catalogue.” (pg. 278)
5. Jay’s first memory of Dame Dash might be tainted by their more recent history. When he describes their meeting he calls Dame “a Harlem dude through and through—flashy, loud, animated. According to Hov’ ‘Harlem cats “enter every room like it’s a movie set and they’re the star of the flick.” However he does give credit where credit’s due, remembering that Dame was “entertaining” but “serious, with real vision.” (pg. 237)
6. Giving credit where it’s due is a bit of a theme in this book. On the page which explicates “Renegade” he calls Eminem’s verse “absolutely fucking brilliant” and points out that, off the merits of that verse, Eminem is the only guest on The Blueprint. (pg. 104) He also includes the story of the Scarface verse on “This Can’t Be Life” which is always worth hearing about. Scarface learned that his good friend’s kid had just died. Instead of rescheduling the recording session Scarface went into a room and wrote a verse about the loss, meaning that Scarface wrote one of the better rap verses of all time in a matter of minutes. (pg. 270)
7. I know that people think that Jay is a member of the Illuminati. I did not know that people think he worships the devil. Apparently this belief is popular enough for Jay to address it. At the end of the notes on “Lucifer” he calls this suspicion of Satanism “another chapter for the big book of stupid.” (pg. 289)
8. “Empire State of Mind” has some really nice wordplay that I’d never noticed. The way that Jay spits the line “And in the winter gets cold, in vogue, with your skin out” makes “And in the winter” sound like Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief at American Vogue. (pg. 129) It’s no big thing, but the presence of that kind of lyrical detail on an enormous pop song is a reminder of Jay’s prodigious lyrical talent.
9. When Jay discusses autotune, we find that his attempt to kill the ubiquitous effect stems from a few too many screenings of The Matrix: “Rappers across the board started fucking with [autotune]. It was disturbing. It felt almost like a conspiracy. Instead of aspiring to explore their humanity-their brains and hearts and guts—these rappers were aspiring to sound like machines.” So, clearly, Jay-Z is terrified of machines. (pg. 251)
10. About two thirds of the way through Decoded, Jay describes his threefold purpose in releasing the book. He writes that he wanted to “make the case that hip-hop lyrics…are poetry, to tell a little bit of the story of his generation,” and “to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to.” (pg. 235) The book succeeds in all three of these enterprises, as Jay (and his ghostwriter) effectively show how Hova’s life story manifests itself in his lyrics. Decoded is impressively intelligent and informative, with a gorgeous layout to boot. It’s worth picking up, whether you’re a Hovaphile or a rap n00b.
MP3: Jay Electronica ft. Jay-Z & The-Dream-“Shiny Suit Theory”