Jay-Z has been one of my favorite rappers since I started getting into rap and hip-hop in high school: I’ve listened to The Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album, Vol 2…Hard Knock Life, and Vol 3… Life and Times of S. Carter countless times. Unfortunately, I haven’t listened to as much of his new music lately since I’m a Spotify subscriber and he pulled all his music from Spotify and has it exclusively streaing on Tidal. Please come back to Spotify, Hov!

Recently my roommate Jason lent me Jay-Z’s 2010 book “Decoded”, which is a pretty unusual book. It’s one part an autobiography, but told through the meaning behind his song lyrics and the lyrics of other artists that influenced him, one part a poetry book showcasing his rap lyrics in a really aesthetically pleasing way, and one part just a master class on rap and its rich history and culture. He breaks down some of the hidden meaning behind his verses on club hits such as “99 Problems” as well as lyrically rich hits like “Public Service Announcement” to lesser known songs like “My 1st song”. It’s basically Genius (formerly RapGenius) on crack (no pun intended, although the book talks a bit about his life coming up as a hustler).

I particularly loved this quote about what makes great rap:

Hip-hop has always been controversial, and for good reason. When you watch a children’s show and they’ve got a muppet rapping about the alphabet, it’s cool, but it’s not really hip-hop. The music is meant to be provocative—which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily obnoxious, but it is (mostly) confrontational, and more than that it’s dense with multiple meanings. Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don’t necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it. Instead it plants dissonance in your head. You can enjoy a song that knocks in the club or has witty punch lines the first time you hear it. But great rap retains mystery. It leaves shit rattling around in your head that won’t make sense till the fifth or sixth time through. It challenges you.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

  1. Shots fired at Elmo, Grover and the rest of the Sesame Street gang.
  2. With the exception of Kendrick Lamar and some J. Cole songs, I can’t say I’m finding new meaning in the lyrics on the fifth or sixth listen-through for a lot of the rap and hip-hop songs I hear on the radio now. But I’m not listening closely enough. They do generally hit high on the provocative/confrontational scale, and the beats are usually amazing, so I’m not taking anything away from them. But they lack some of the layers that make re-listening to them really excited, that make the lyrics worthwhile to read off a page without the production and beats.
  3. It’s really hard to listen to good rap and hip-hop while working, especially while writing or coding. I don’t listen to music while running as much these days, but I love a good up-tempo rap/hip-hop song while running. At least for me, it’s really rare and unusual to just sit and listen to music, but maybe I should more of that to really appreciate good rap. Of course, good music is the savior of any long road trip.
  4. Jay-Z is definitely one of the few artists that can “leave shit rattling” around in my head with a lyric. If you haven’t listened to Eminem’s verse on Royce da 5’9”’s Caperpillar, go do that now (start from the beginning of the song, but Em’s verse starts at 2:48). I can’t get his bars out of my head.