Originally published on Forbes.com on November 16, 2010.
Jay-Z’s Decoded is a 300-page tome that’s filled with lush photographs, autobiographical musings and lyrical analysis, roughly in equal measure. But despite its title, the book leaves much un-decoded.
Among the important topics largely left out of the book: the details of Jay-Z’s rise as a businessman. Jay-Z has amassed a fortune of $450 million by Forbes’ last count; last year alone he pulled in $63 million. Yet Decoded offers little commentary on the rapper’s transition from the booth to the boardroom. There’s next to nothing about Jay-Z’s ascension to the presidency of Def Jam, his ownership stake in the Nets, his pact with Live Nation.
Though Jay-Z spends much of Decoded talking about his career as a drug dealer, there’s not much explanation of how or why he extricated himself from that life. Somewhere toward the middle of the book, he zips right past an explanation of how and why he got out, saying “Maryland ended badly, too–shootouts in clubs, major police investigations, whole crews arrested. I got out of there just in time.” In fact, one of the main reasons he decided to get out was a failed attempt on his life.
By the early 1990s Jay-Z’s hustling career was approaching its peak. He spent much of his time making “business trips” from New York to Maryland and points further south. Rapping was merely a hobby, a dream deferred–when the opportunity arose, he’d appear on songs like “Can I Get Open,” recorded with a group called Original Flavor in 1993. But he remained hesitant to devote time and money to music when he knew he could make more as a hustler. It would take more than a nudge to make him change his priorities.
That came suddenly and violently in 1994, when Jay-Z almost had his life taken over a dispute with rival dealers. “He messed with the wrong people,” one of his associates told me in an interview for my Jay-Z biography, due out this winter. According to this source, an assassin tracked down Jay-Z in the streets and chased after him, firing three errant shots. When the would-be killer tried to fire a fourth shot, his gun jammed, allowing Jay-Z to escape with his life.
Jay-Z makes note of this incident in his song “Moment of Clarity” on The Black Album, rapping that, “Three shots couldn’t touch me / Thank God for that.” But in Decoded, all he offers about the lines describing his near-death experience is the following: “This is about not having fear … even three shots couldn’t touch me … which means I’m untouchable.”
Similarly, he glosses over the crucial moments of harrowing tales from his youth (“We faced off and guns were drawn, but luckily nobody got shot”) and his alleged stabbing of record producer Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999. (“I headed back over to him, but this time I was blacking out with anger. The next thing I knew, all hell had broken loose in the club.”) And there’s nary a mention of Jay-Z’s wife Beyoncé.
Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records cofounder Damon Dash had a well-publicized breakup in 2004, but in Decoded, the rapper doesn’t address the reasons behind the split. A few: Dash going behind Jay-Z’s back to promote rapper Cam’ron to vice president status, Jay-Z and Dash clashing over different management styles, and Jay-Z realizing he could make more money if he didn’t have to share with someone whose help he no longer needed.
To be fair, Jay-Z didn’t make many promises beyond the implications of the book’s title. He begins one chapter by saying that when he started working on Decoded, he told his editor that he wanted it to do three important things.
“The first thing was to make the case that hip-hop lyrics–not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC–are poetry if you look at them closely enough,” he writes. The bulk of the book is composed of sections of footnoted lyrics. (Though some explanations may be obvious to most of Jay-Z’s listeners–for example, that “cheese” means “money” in hip-hop parlance–a few nuggets come as a surprise. For instance, Jay-Z claims the word “bitch” refers to a drug-sniffing dog, not a woman, in his song “99 Problems.”)
Jay-Z’s second goal, he writes, “was I wanted the book to tell a bit of the story of my generation, to show the context for the choices we made at violent and chaotic crossroads in recent history. And the third piece was that I wanted the book to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to.”
Nowhere in this quotation does Jay-Z mention wanting to reveal much about his life, which makes sense considering what he’s said about autobiographical projects in the past. He scuttled a memoir titled The Black Book in 2003, explaining in a recent Rolling Stone cover story that the memoir unveiled “too much.” Interestingly, Jay-Z’s co-author on that book was former Source editor Dream Hampton, who also collaborated with him on Decoded–meaning it’s possible the latter is filled with material repurposed from the former, minus the juicy stuff.
For more on the business of entertainment, check out Zack’s new Jay-Z book, entitled Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office, due out March 17th.