as many hip hop fans might embrace it—as just another brand extension. This would be a tragedy, as the people who most need to read Decoded are those who are most troubled by rap music and most vocal about the destructive aspects of hip hop culture (symbolized by the use of the infamous “N-word”). Among the most prominent of those repulsed by the negative aspects of rap music is Winfrey herself. That she has gone from publicly condemning the lyrics and images of songs by artists including Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Carter, to including it on her coveted favorite things list speaks to the eye-opening, thought provoking power of Decoded.
Okay, and it’s a brand extension, too. But never fear. While the cover of the book screams artist (which, after all, is what Jay Z is), the pages of the book are all Shawn Carter, a former drug-dealing hustler who initially did not take rap seriously as a way out of life on the street. Jay Z fans will love getting the back story of the creation of Roc-A-Fella Records, the multiple meanings of lyrics from songs on The Black Album or why the candidacy of President Barack Obama inspired him to become politically active straight from “HOV” himself. However, the true value of Decoded is not unlike that of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Manchild In The Promised Land (though I in no way consider it to be the equal of those classics). Decoded is an unflinching look at what happens to predominantly black, low-income, urban communities, and young black males in particular, in a country that still sees both as disposable at best (New Orleans post-Katrina) and fit for extermination (what else can you call the tidal wave of drugs and weapons that destroyed so many black lives in the ‘80s and early ‘90s?) at worst. And like Malcolm X and Claude Brown, there’s something affirming about Carter, who turned 41 on Dec. 4, surviving a gauntlet of violence, criminal conduct and destructive living at least long enough to gain some measure of understanding, accountability and self-awareness, to triumph in a way that might inspire others.
So whatever else you do with the book, read it. You’ll find that beneath Jay Z’s Russian mink hat (worn at the inauguration of President Obama) and multimillionaire lifestyle, Shawn Carter is still there, evolving, more mature and wiser—but as real, complex and unapologetic as the streets he came from. Through Decoded, Jay Z shares the inner visions of Shawn Carter. But more importantly, he gives voice to hundreds of thousands of young black men who never lived to tell their tales or who’ve survived only to be rendered invisible. Whether a lover or hater of Jay Z, unmake up your mind long enough to hear what he has to say.