Hustling to the Top

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Decoded by Jay-Z

Jay-Z always had an extraordinary work ethic. The whole nine-to-five thing was never really for him. Instead, he put in countless hours all over the country selling crack in the streets. He recounts one weekend in which he and two others hustled for 60 hours straight just to break even. He kept himself awake by eating cookies and writing rhymes on brown paper bags.

Like many others, his life was saved by Hip-Hop. Had it not been for Hip-Hop, rather than being the one man business with a five hundred-million dollar net-worth that he has become, he would probably be an elusive kingpin somewhere the in shadows of New York’s underground.

Hip-Hop gave a voice to a generation that wasn’t getting proper representation. With crack-smoke thick in the 80s air and stacks of money being had and lost in the space of mere hours, and phantom fathers resting only as distant memories in the minds of kids everywhere, Hip-Hop offered a distinctive poetry of ascension and belonging.

All his personal stories compliment some bigger idea inclusive of the whole Hip-Hop culture. Those curious about his highly private marriage to Beyonce will be disappointed—she receives a single professional mention. Those wanting a more in-depth account of his feud with Nas will be disappointed too (a feud in which dis-songs were traded: Nas’s ‘Ether’ being a stream of homophobic non sequiturs while a single verse of Jay-Z’s ‘The Takeover,’ featuring an almost polite review of Nas’s professional failures was accepted almost unanimously as the victor).

Decoded isn’t so much a memoir as it is Jay-Z’s love song to Hip-Hop itself, though this is merely because the personal subject matter of his life takes a back seat to the subject of the music he loves, and not the other way around.

With that said, he still takes time out to talk about some of his music and where particular song ideas came from. A famous line in his mid-career anthem, ‘99 Problems’ is explained and confirmed with a meaning whose code was cracked long before—‘So if you got girl problems I feel sorry for you son/ I got 99 problems but a bitch aint one.’ The ‘bitch’ referred to is a police drug-dog.

Jay-Z’s strength with this book lies in his gift for analogy and metaphor. He often comes up with interesting ways to describe what Hip-Hop does.

‘But the beat is only one half of a rap song’s rhythm. The other is the flow. When a rapper jumps on a beat, he adds his own rhythm. Sometimes you stay in the pocket of the beat and just let the rhymes land on the square so that the beat and flow become one. But sometimes the flow chops up the beat, breaks the beat into smaller units, forces in multiple syllables and repeated sounds and internal rhymes, or hangs a drunken leg over the last bap and keeps going …’

Very analytical of what rap is and what rap does, Jay-Z often gives off of sense of standing outside of the culture and looking in just as much as he stands inside of it. ‘It’s a variation on a story I’ve been telling since I was ten years old rapping into a tape recorder: I’m dope. Doper than you.’

He’s aware of the criticism directed at Hip-Hop, citing that many people have thought of it as a form of ‘hyper-capitalism.’ For Jay-Z and many others, the survival instinct of the streets simply took them to the top and there wasn’t much reason to stop going.

While there is special attention given to his previous life as a hustler, Jay-Z offers brief flashes of his current-life of private jets, gargantuan business deals and meetings with the president (Barak Obama has Jay-Z on his IPod)—a result of shooting to such high commercial success while learning to be a good businessman.

While Jay-Z remains succinct and articulate on the subject of Hip-Hop, some of his more abstract ideas get lost in the stories he uses to make his points. Bono evidently went back and redid a whole album with U2 when it was already done (which album? we don’t know) because Jay-Z made an off-hand comment to some journalist about how much pressure U2 must have felt at that stage in their career. When he learns that Bono reacted this way, Jay-Z is surprised that Bono did, in fact, feel that way. Why the surprise? Jay-Z then goes on to say:

‘In Hip-Hop, top artists have the same pressure a rock star like Bono has—the pressure to meet expectations and stay on top. But in hip-hop there’s an added degree of difficulty: While you’re trying to stay on top by making great music, there are dozens of rappers who don’t just compete with you by putting out their own music, but they’re trying to pull you down at the same time. It’s like trying to win a race with every runner behind you trying to tackle you.’

The moral of the story seems to be that Jay-Z has it tougher than Bono, even if Bono feels the need to redo and entire album in its final stages.

He knows Bill Clinton too, but this relationship is a bit more problematic.

‘He’d done a lot of good as a president. But he’d also taken the country to war in the Balkans and sat in his office while AIDS ravaged Africa and genocide broke out in Rwanda […] But I’m not exactly the same person I was in 1992, either. Everyone needs a chance to evolve.’

I’m not certain if Jay-Z’s comparison of his own petty street hustling to a president’s criminal atrocities counts as an act of extreme hubris or whether it counts as an act of incredible moral miscalculation.

The chapters are short, giving Jay-Z just the space needed to wax aesthetic about art without getting out of control. Every now and then a perfectly slangy and therefore comically interruptive sentence works its way in, like, ‘I mean, where were they gonna plug them shits in?’

With the subject of race, he doesn’t play it safe. One recalls an old interview that Tupac Shakur did with a white female journalist after he got out of prison. When Tupac expressed surprise that he was hearing the word ‘nigger’ being directed at him by the prison guards, the journalist responded, ‘But you use that word in your albums all the time,’ at which point Tupac gave her a lesson in the difference between ‘nigger’ and ‘nigga.’

Jay-Z uses both, and uses them along Tupac’s largely accepted contextual definition: ‘Nigger’ is a pejorative no one should use. ‘Nigga’ is simply a hypostasized identification that people best not think about too much and white people best not use. Jay-Z has little patience with white people who’d like to think of him as ‘one of the good ones.’ The song ‘99 Problems’ tells the story of a man being pulled over for the crime of being black and driving a car.

As Jay-Z reminds us throughout the book, how far he’s come and how much money he has or how many rock star and president friends he has didn’t change his concerns and sentiments very much. He is still Hip-Hop to the bone; still that kid from Brooklyn trying to make it and trying to represent the others who don’t have a voice.

 

Read about Rick Moody's book On Celestial Music