Love him or hate him, Jay-Z is an American success story in the grand old fashion. Born into extreme poverty in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses and involved with drugs and violence from a young age, he parlayed his success as a rapper into an entrepreneurial career that may make him a billionaire. With his combination of willpower, skill, and a self-promotional streak seven lanes wide, he’s exactly the sort of person who’s earned a shot at a slick vanity book.
Surprisingly, though, Decoded is a bit more than just a self-aggrandizing vanity project. Part lyrical anthology, part biography, and part fancy tabletop art-book, Decoded is less passion project than promotional vehicle, but the craft and intelligence put into it allows it to rise above its origins. It would be disingenuous to deny that the book is at least partly intended as just another high-end Jay-Z lifestyle accoutrement; few other rappers are putting out books with a Warhol print on the cover. But that’s part of its appeal. To start with, Decoded is a lovely book, designed (with supervision by the man himself) to be looked at as well as read; its combination of gorgeous layout, ambitious photo-montage, and line drawings are designed to appeal to an upscale, trendy crowd, but without fully abandoning the street sensibilities of hip-hop.
Decoded’s structure is simple but clever. Each chapter features Jay-Z discussing some aspect of his life—childhood, his rap career, politics, street life, big business—and ties into a pointed, clever self-analysis of a song or two from his discography that sheds light on that theme. Jay-Z’s lyrics are curious beasts; he isn’t a truly brilliant wordsmith on the level of Aesop Rock or Rakim, but he’s also better than he’s generally given credit for by detractors. His own interpretations and explications of those lyrics are strong and deep, but they also have a professorial tone that suggests the majority of the heavy lifting here was done by his collaborator, journalist and filmmaker Dream Hampton.
Decoded’s autobiographical sections read much more like they’re authentically in Jay-Z’s voice, and as a result, they’re the best part of the book. Like any celebrity biography, Decoded gets self-aggrandizing at times, but it’s written with a tone that suggests restless intelligence and no small degree of self-examination, as well as a sometimes pugnacious tone that combines the traditional braggadocio of hip-hop with the authoritative confidence of a business leader. Whether he’s defending the idea of commercializing his lyrics to balance art and trade (“It’s a trick I learned from the greatest emcees: a ‘dumbed down’ record actually forces you to be smarter, to balance art, craft, authenticity and accessibility”) or making the case that rap is a cultural game-changer as big as rock ’n’ roll was in its day, Jay-Z comes across as bright and swaggering here as he does in his songs. And the book’s synthesis of upscale artiness and hustler narrative neatly encompasses both ends of his fan spectrum.