If one moment can be identified as the one in which Jay-Z — product of a Brooklyn housing project turned hip-hop impresario — crossed over to the mainstream in the UK, it was surely his appearance on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross last year. Introducing the rapper and his fellow guest the television naturalist David Attenborough, Ross dispatched a camera-carrying robot to their respective dressing rooms, which fed back footage to a computer on his desk.
“What did we expect?” mein host asked as shots of a suited man making a phone call appeared from Jay-Z’s room. “It’s business-like, professional, they’re doing worldwide deals.” Then into the great naturalist’s room snuck the camera and to general hilarity revealed half-a-dozen figures in gorilla suits, jumping up and down and swigging champagne, each sporting a gold chain seemingly identical to the one that Jay, back in the green room, was wearing himself.
Perhaps it’s understandable that the 83-year-old Attenborough should have missed the racially charged undertones of this gag. Nor, given everything we know about Ross, is it surprising that he should think it amusing to let viewers draw the conclusion that rappers are, well, nothing more than party-hardened apes. But what Jay-Z really made of it was impossible to tell: better than most pop performers he understands the power of a metaphor, but he simply laughed, too, and put his own gold chain around Attenborough’s neck. Not for anything would he give himself away, or be anything less than gracious.
This episode isn’t retold in Decoded, which is not an autobiography but rather a scrappy memoir, containing much of the Jay-Z creation myth, but nothing, for example, about his relationship with his wife and rival performer Beyonce. Alongside the main text is a wide selection of lyrics that the rapper has annotated to explain their provenance.
But what emerges is anything but bland: while not as well written (indeed, it’s a ghostwrite, with journalist Dream Hampton), it is a book as revealing in its way as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles or even Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog.
The early part of his life is well rendered: born Shawn Carter, he grew up in one of the most deprived areas of New York and, abandoned by his father, at the age of 12 shot his crack-addicted brother in the shoulder for stealing from him. By then he was already on the streets, selling cocaine. While it’s not an archetype he identifies for himself, as a drug hustler Carter was playing the role of Stagger Lee, that original gangsta of black folklore. But this was a period, between 1989 and 1994, when — and this is a point he does argue — more black men were murdered in the streets of America than died in the entire Vietnam war. Hip-hop was one response to this, whether in the articulate, polemical form of groups such as Public Enemy, who called this nascent art form the ghetto’s CNN, or, conversely, in the form of thug rap, a celebration of the “Big Pimpin’” lifestyle. Jay-Z’s brilliance was that, better than any of his peers, he told both stories, and later reconciled them, shaping the narrative by becoming one of his country’s most successful black businessmen (Forbes estimates his current net worth at US$450 million).
In Decoded, he writes tellingly about the moment when the managing director of Cristal, a brand of champagne Jay liked to reference in his lyrics, spoke to distance his product from the “bling lifestyle.” The rapper takes umbrage at this: “There’s a knee-jerk fear in America that someone — especially someone young and black — is coming to take your shit, fuck up your brand, destroy the quality of your life ... but in hip-hop, despite all the brand-shouts, the truth is, we don’t want your shit. We came out of the generation of black people who finally got the point: no one’s going to help us.” Jay-Z led a boycott of Cristal, making the point that he wasn’t there for anyone to patronize.