I realize that probably 99.9% of people who read this blog don’t care for hip-hop. That’s OK. But I hope you will still read this review because I think Jay-Z’s memoir/analysis Decoded raises some important questions and themes that are worth your time to think about.
In the book Jay-Z, an incredibly successful rapper and businessman, sets out to explain the literary form of rap (and there is a poetic formula to rap, the same way there is a poetic formula to epic and sonnets and free verse and opera and country music), to describe the history and milieu of his generation in the inner city, and to show how hip-hop uses those specific types of experience to describe things we all go through. Although at times I felt like he over-explained or glossed over issues, overall I think Jay-Z made his case persuasively.
Lots of people dismiss rap without listening to it because they think it idealizes violence and drugs and sexism and a sort of reverse racism. There are valid concerns behind those points. In one sense I think it’s a mistake to see rap as being a straight biographical narrative – as in any form of expression hip-hop uses literary devices and examples that are hyperbolic because characters and emotions writ large are more descriptive than mundane details. On the other hand, the ramifications of some of the conventions of rap are extreme and I have a hard time with songs that don’t at least wrestle with the contradictions and bigger questions represented by the life they describe. I like hip-hop, but there are lots of songs that I just don’t listen to because I can’t stomach the way the lyrics talk about women or seem to glorify horrific violence and so forth.
But I will also say that I greatly appreciate music that takes a realistic stance to how those realities (and they are realities in many cities and neighborhoods, even if they aren’t in yours) are a catch-22: the very things people grasp at as a way out of their situation can turn into a trap, the means to escape can be at the expense of others’ well-being, and there is a lot of collateral damage. In that sense I think hip-hop is a hyperbolic example of what all of us do when we’re backed into a corner or trying to fill a need with something other than God, or living without hope. Really, the only difference between you and me and the hustler selling crack on the street corner is the culture we were born in – apart from Christ we are all just the same.
As I read this book, I kept thinking about how Jesus did not spend his time on earth giving gold stars to Pharisees, he hung out with tax collectors and sinners. He didn’t say that their choices and lifestyles were OK, but he didn’t see them as reprobates, he loved them where they were. I think those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers could stand to take pause and think about our knee-jerk reaction to people who are caught up in and trapped by the grinding poverty and dismal prospects and hustling and violence hip-hop describes. There are real people really living with the tension of that life. Jesus did not go to the outcasts of society and say “hey, what y’all need is to dress and talk and act more like the Pharisees.” He showed them real love, compassion, and hope and valued them as worthwhile people no matter where they were when He found them.
Jay-Z makes some powerful points in his book about why kids get caught up in this lifestyle – as he says, no kid wakes up and says hey, I want to risk my life hustling drugs on a street corner for $100 a week – and I spent a lot of time thinking about what other options there are for desperate people. It’s easy to say “just get a job” but harder when there aren’t many jobs or the jobs available are for minimum wage when you’re trying to provide for a family and you have no education. It’s hard to get an education when you might get shot in school and everyone around you is dropping out and the teachers don’t care. I don’t think it’s enough to say “here’s your welfare check, good luck with all that.” I also don’t think it’s fair to say “stop complaining and get a job.” Obviously people spend a lot of time thinking about solutions to inner city problems and smart people disagree on the answers, but regardless of our stances on policies and the role of government and all that, what is our heart for people who are different than we are?
Although I disagree with some of Jay-Z’s positions and conclusions, I respect his willingness to take ownership of his choices and really wrestle with big questions in his writing and his life. He willingly admits the contradictions and tension in his past and his lyrics. At least he is honest, which is more than a lot of people can muster.
Decoded is a book about hip-hop. If you don’t like hip-hop, you probably won’t like the book. If you do like rap, you would probably find the book incredibly interesting. It contains a lot of lyrics to rap songs and a lot of profanity and, frankly, not a lot of redemption. Jay-Z seems to really struggle with how to take his music to the next level, how to keep the genre moving forward, and how to be a transformative voice in his community. I think what he’s missing is redemption and deep, heart-level hope and Truth. I hope he finds it.
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