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

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

ByABC News
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.

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.

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.

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.