Jay-Z's 'Decoded': From Hip-Hop to Barack and Beyond

The 20 biggest revelations from Jay-Z's "Decoded."

November 16, 2010, 1:38 AM

Nov. 16, 2010 — -- Jay-Z is not your typical celebrity. His first book, "Decoded," is not your typical celebrity memoir.

In it, Jay-Z (real name: Sean Carter, aliases: many) paints the portrait of his life by delving into his lyrics, unwrapping his metaphors and opening up his ideology. He reveals who he was before he sold 50 million albums, scored 10 Grammys and established himself as a fixture in Forbes (current net worth: $450 million) as well as music history. He also ruminates on politics, race, and what it means to be successful in America.

Ambitious man, ambitious book, ambitious marketing campaign: Jay-Z teamed up with the search engine Bing to create a scavenger hunt that "hid" all 305 pages of "Decoded," which goes on sale today, in 200 locations pivotal in his life. The grand prize for a fan who "decodes" all the pages online: a lifetime pass that grants them free access to every single Jay-Z show on earth for the rest of their lives, and lets them bring a friend along for the ride. (Go to Bing.com/JayZ to enter.)

But for any hip-hop fan, the ride contained in "Decoded's" pages is exhilarating enough. Below, 20 of Jay-Z's biggest revelations from his first tome:

On why hip-hop is controversial: Hip-hop has always been controversial, and for good reason. ... It leaves s**t rattling around in your head that won't make sense till the fifth or sixth time through. It challenges you. Which is the other reason hip-hop is controversial: People don't bother trying to get it. The problem isn't in the rap or the rapper or the culture. The problem is that so many people don't even know how to listen to the music.

On people who misread hip-hop: The art of rap is deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. And sometimes the words we use, n***a, b***h, motherf***er, and the violence of the images overwhelms some listeners. It's all white noise to them till they hear a b***h or a n***a and then they run off yelling "See!" and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about.

But that would be like listening to Maya Angelou and ignoring everything until you hear her drop a line about drinking or sleeping with someone's husband and then dismissing her as an alcoholic adulterer. But I can't say I've ever given much of a f**k about people who hear a curse word and start foaming at the mouth. The Fox News dummies. They wouldn't know art if it fell on them.

On his provocative song, "99 Problems:" The hook itself -- 99 problems but a b***h ain't one -- is a joke, bait for lazy critics. At no point in that song am I talking about a girl. ... And the joke of is still potent: During the presidential primaries in 2008, some Hillary Clinton supporters even claimed that Barack Obama was playing the song at his rallies, which would've been hilarious if it was true. It's hard to beat the entertainment value of people who deliberately misunderstand the world, people dying to be insulted, running around looking for a bullet to get in front of.

On President Barack Obama's calling him for help prior to the 2008 election: Having met the man, I felt like Barack wasn't going to lose. I ran into him again at a fund-raiser at L.A. Reid's house and he pulled my coat: "Man, I'm going to be calling you again." ... He did eventually call me and ask me to help. It was in the fall of the year and he told me he wanted to close it out like [Michael] Jordan. So I did a bunch of free shows all over the country before the election to encourage young people to register to vote.

On Kanye West's saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people" at NBC's 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon: Kanye caught a lot of heat for coming on that telethon and saying, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," but I backed him one hundred percent on it, if only because he was expressing a feeling that was bottled up in a lot of our hearts. It didn't feel like Katrina was just a natural disaster that arbitrarily swept through a corner of the United States. Katrina felt like something that was happening to black people, specifically.

On the importance of President Obama: Since he's been elected there have been a lot of legitimate criticisms of Obama. But if he'd lost, it would've been an unbelievable tragedy -- to feel so close to transformation and then to get sucked back into the same old story and watch another generation grow up feeling like strangers in their own country, their culture maligned, their voices squashed. Instead, even with all the distance yet to go, for the first time I felt like we were at least moving in the right direction, away from the shadows.

On black men in America: The statistics on the incarceration of black men, particularly of men of my generation, are probably the most objective indication that young black men are seen in this country as a "problem" that can be made to literally disappear. No one in the entire world -- not in Russia or China or Iran -- is locked up like black men are locked up in this country.

Cops, Cristal and Crack Cocaine

On how police target rappers, and a cop who tailed him for seven years: The hip-hop cop stayed outside the clubs I was in. Every time I walked into a club he'd joke with me. "You got a gun?" I would f**k with him right back: "Do you?" For seven years that cop was there, at every club, every show. But I still have to ask myself why. Rappers, as a class, are not engaged in anything criminal. They're musicians.

Some rappers and friends of rappers commit crimes. Some bus drivers commit crimes. Some accountants commit crimes. But there aren't task forces devoted to bus drivers or accountants. Bus drivers don't have to work under the preemptive suspicion of law enforcement.

The difference is obvious, of course: Rappers are young black men telling stories that the police, among others, don't want to hear. ... The fact that law enforcement treats rap like organized crime tells you a lot about just how deeply rap offends some people -- they'd love for rap itself to be a crime, but until they get that law passed, they come after us however they can.

On his denouncing Cristal, the champagne he once rapped about: A journalist at The Economist asked Frederic Rouzaud, the managing director of the company that makes Cristal: "Do you think your brand is hurt by its association with the 'bling lifestyle?'" This was Rouzard's reply: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it."

He also said that he looked on the association between Cristal and hip-hop with "curiosity and serenity." The Economist printed the quote under the heading "Unwelcome Attention." That was like a slap in the face. ... When people all over started drinking Cristal at clubs -- when Cristal became a household name among young consumers -- it wasn't because of anything Cristal had done. It was because of what we'd done. If Cristal had understood this dynamic, they never would've been so dismissive. The truth is, we didn't need them to tolerate us with "curiosity and serenity." In fact, we didn't need them at all.

On the n-word: Oprah, for instance, still can't get past the n-word issue (or the n***a issue, with all apologies to Ms. Winfrey). I can respect her position. To her, it's a matter of acknowledging the deep and painful history of the word. To me, it's just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user and his or her intention. People give words power, so banning a word is futile, really. "N***a" becomes "porch monkey" becomes "coon" and so on if that's what's in a person's heart. The key is to change the person. And we change people through conversation, not censorship.

On crack cocaine's effect on Marcy, the Brooklyn projects where he was raised: No one hired a skywriter and announced crack's arrival. But when it landed in your hood, it was a total takeover. Sudden and complete. Like losing your man to gunshots. Or your father walking out the door for good. It was an irreversible new reality. What had been was gone, and in its place was a new way of life that was suddenly everywhere and seemed like it had been there forever.

On his comparing former president Ronald Reagan and Osama bin Laden in "Beware of the Boys" with the lines, "Before bin Laden got Manhattan to blow," "Before Ronald Reagan got Manhattan to blow:" Ronald Reagan got Manhattan to "blow" -- slang for cocaine -- through the whole Iran-Contra scandal, which got the United States involved in the drug trade that brought crack to the hood so they could finance the Contras in Central American. In the worst years of the crack epidemic -- the late '80s and early '90s -- there were literally thousands of homicides annually in New York. So juxtaposing Reagan and bin Laden isn't as crazy as it may seem.

Russell Simmons, Eminem and the Grammys

On how Russell Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam records, changed what it meant to be a CEO: Russell also made being a CEO seem like a better deal than being an artist. He was living the life like crazy, f**king with models, riding in Bentleys with his sneakers sticking out the windows, and never once rapped a single bar. His gift was curating a whole lifestyle -- music, fashion, comedy, film -- and then selling it. He didn't just create the hip-hop business model, he changed the business style of a whole generation of Americans.

On his work ethic: When you're on tours like the ones I've done over the last decade, you're like a professional athlete, except that night after night, you're the only one with the bat. When it comes to signing up new talent, that's what I'm looking for -- not just someone who has skill, but someone built for this life. Someone who has the work ethic, the drive. The gift that [Michael] Jordan had wasn't just that he was willing to do the work, but he loved doing it, because he could feel himself getting stronger, ready for anything.

He left the game and came back and worked just as hard as he did when he started. He came into the game as Rookie of the Year, and he finished off the last playoff game of his career with a shot that won the Bulls their sixth championship. That's the kind of consistency that you can get only by adding dead-serious discipline to whatever talent you have.

On rapper Eminem's paranoia: It was 2003 and he was on top of the music world -- three major multiplatinum albums, twenty million sold, a number one film with "8 Mile," and on and on. He was probably the biggest star in the world. When we met at the studio, I reached over to give him a pound, and when we bumped, I could feel that he had on a bulletproof vest.

Here was Eminem, someone who was doing the thing he loved and succeeding at it probably beyond his wildest dreams, and he had to wear a bullet-proof vest. To the studio. He should've been on a boat somewhere enjoying himself without a care in the world, not worrying about getting shot up on his way to work.

On his not going to the 1998 Grammys because they wouldn't televise the rap awards: I was nominated three times that year, but when they told us they weren't televising our awards I decided to stay home. It wasn't a big-deal, formal boycott. God knows there were bigger issues in the world. And eventually I started coming to the show and even performing. But not until they started showing rap the respect it deserves. The larger point was, I wasn't going to be a partner to my own invisibility.

Selling Out, Starving Artists and Success

On his getting U2 frontman Bono to reevaluate an upcoming U2 album: One night I ran into him [at the Spotted Pig, a NYC restaurant Jay-Z and Bono helped fund] and he told me he'd read an interview I'd done somewhere. The writer had asked me about the U2 record that was about to be released and I said something about the kind of pressure a group like that must be under just to meet their own standard. Bono told me that my quote had really gotten to him. In fact, he said it got him a little anxious. He decided to go back to the studio even though the album was already done and keep reworking it till he thought it was as good as it could possibly be.

On "selling out:" It's a recurring story in hip-hop, the tension between art and commerce. Hip-hop is too important as a tool of expression to just be reduced to a commercial product. But what some people call "commercializing" really means is that lots of people buy and listen to your records. That was always the point, to me. After my first record got on the radio and on BET, it was wild being at home, feeding my fish, and suddenly seeing myself on TV.

But it was satisfying. Hearing it on the radio was even better. There may be some artists who don't believe in radio, especially now, because the radio business is such a shady racket, but radio love puts you in the hood for real. I care if regular people -- sisters on their way to work, dudes rolling around in their cars -- hear my s**t.

On the notion of the starving artist: There's this sick fascination with the dead artist, the broke artist, the drugged-out artist, the artist who blows all his money on drugs and big chains and ends up on a VH1 special. Or artists so conflicted about making money from their art -- which so often means making money from their pain and confusion and dreams -- that they do stupid s**t with it, set it on fire or something.

This is a game people sometimes play with musicians: that to be real, to be authentic, you have to hate having money or that success has to feel like such a burden you want to kill yourself. But whoever said that artists shouldn't pay attention to their business was probably someone with their hand in some artist's pocket.

On success: In America -- and in hip-hop -- success is supposed to be about accumulation and consumption. But the finest meal ends up as s**t, which is a great metaphor for the fact that consumption's flip side is decay and waste, and what's left behind is emptiness. Empty apartments, empty stomach, unused objects. Which isn't to say I don't like buying things and having nice meals as much as the next person (okay, maybe even more), but success has to mean something beyond that.