Wertz, R. James, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
Decoded Jay-Z. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.
The year 2010 was a great one for autobiography, particularly those by musicians. Keith Richards, guitar legend and founding member of the Rolling Stones, gave us Life, a classic tale of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll infused with impassioned histories of American southern blues, the British invasion, and the many dark secrets of his musical mates. Alternative rock icon Patti Smith won the National Book Award for /?si Kids, her memoir of youth, innocence, and an unrequited love affair with her best friend, photographer provocateur Robert Mapplethorpe. But perhaps the most culturally significant contribution to this subgenre is Decoded, a story of music, words, and life, by rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z.
Decoded recounts Jay-Z's tale of a childhood lost in Brooklyn, New York's Marcy Project. But it also tells the story of a generation of Black youth who escaped the projects through hip-hop at a time when so many of their peers were dying by the gun or fading away into obscurity by way of the needle or the crack pipe. Through the exploration of his own lyrics, Jay-Z explains how rhyming street kids formed the foundation of a cultural movement, the evolution of an art form, and shaped a truly American success story.
Jay-Z came of age in the 1970s when heroin was sweeping the streets of New York City. Gangs had always been a reality in the Marcy Project and most kids simply expected to end up as a gang member feeding the drug habit of the neighborhood. Jay-Z remembers tipping "leaning nodders" - heroin addicts who fell asleep after taking the drug? off of park benches the same way that farm kids tip sleeping cows. Ultimately, he would end up selling drugs from adolescence through his early twenties, but the gangs were not for him.
Jay-Z attributes his independence from gangs and ultimately his escape from drug dealing to his art: rhymes. …