Book Review: Jay Z Decoded

First, let’s get past the obvious: if you’re a true Jay Z fan (and when I say “true fan”, I mean you own his music, not just like his music), you must own a copy of Decoded. Ditto if you have a real passion for hip hop as an art form and cultural phenomenon.

But if you’re going to buy Decoded, it’s critically important that you actually take the time to read it. If you treat this book as just another addition to your collection of H.O.V.A. paraphernalia, something to flaunt along with your complete collection of The Source and XXL Jay Z magazine covers and Rocawear gear, you will be cheating yourself, along with a couple of generations of African Americans, and black males in particular, who desperately need you to listen and learn, even though you may not ultimately  agree.

I say this because in some ways, Decoded is almost too to-die-for fly, too well-designed and slickly produced. The front cover image features Andy Warhol’s “Rorschach.” The book was even included among Oprah Winfrey’s “Ultimate Favorite Things.” (Yes. Really. No, really.) I’m surprised I didn’t have to get past a velvet rope and bouncer in order to buy the book. (Maybe I got around that by ordering my copy online.) Decoded is an absolutely breathtaking book design effort, using text, images, illustrations and photos to breath life into what is essentially Jay Z’s vision of the world during his evolution from project kid to street hustler to artist, delivered as a series of essays each followed by song lyrics “decoded” by candid, descriptive, often enlightening footnotes. In fact, the book tries so hard (and succeeds) at being a work of art in itself, that I’m afraid many will be tempted to stop at that, to merely possess and admire it as the latest cool thing to own.

Simply put, the book smacks of what once was the ultimate epithet for a rap artist–it’s, well…commercial. The danger is this could cause the haters of Jay Z and urban culture in general to dismiss Decoded just as mindlessly