Cover Art: ©Spiegel and Grau, New York
The Voice In Your Head is Right
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
I’ve always believed in motion and action, in following connections wherever they take me, and in not getting entrenched. My life has been more poetry than prose, more about unpredictable leaps and links than simple steady movement, or worse, stagnation.
It’s allowed me to stay open to the next thing without feeling held back by a preconceived notion of what I’m supposed to be doing next.
This and all following quotes, from Decoded by Jay-Z
There is a narrative demand in Jay-Z’s Decoded, as hungry and radiant as a man fresh from a vision quest. An inventive salvation of lyrics, and the songwriter’s autobiographical pulse-by-pulse explanation of them, unfold a masterful, deeply gripping performance piece that is as much an everyman’s tale as it is one man’s life.
It’s impossible to miss the artist in Jay-Z. His voice is both a wave and a world: a ride that carries and tumbles a hundred anecdotes of an indelible coming of age in its descriptive power, and a place sharply laid out in a young man’s geography of complex rhymes and chaotic criminal activity.
Transmission: the message sparks a soul
When the politicians can’t censor you and the industry can’t marginalize you, call the cops.
The statistics on the incarceration of black men, particularly men of my generation, are probably the most objective indication that young black men are seen in this country as a “problem” that can literally be made to disappear.
No one in the entire world – not in Russia or China or Iran – is locked up like black men are locked up in this country.
From his childhood Bed-Stuy days when street life was shifting from knife fights and weed to guns and crack, Jay-Z details an encounter with a neighborhood friend who set his imagination spinning on its course, and it reads like pure shaktipat. One afternoon, he sees a thick circle of people with another child, Slate, rapping at the center, “Transformed, like the church ladies touched by the spirit.”
He was rhyming, throwing out couplet after couplet like he was in a trance, for a crazy long time – thirty minutes straight off the top of his head. He rhymed about nothing – the sidewalk, the benches – or he’d go in on the kids who were standing around listening to him, call out someone’s leaning sneakers, or dirty Lee jeans.
That night I started writing rhymes in my spiral notebook. From the beginning it was an easy constant flow. For days I filled page after page.
The spirit had found its mark.
Young, gifted and black
Through adolescence into young adulthood dealing drugs and surviving harrowing brushes with deadly violence, Jay-Z trains himself to compartmentalize his thoughts in order to remember the long, sophisticated rhyming and rhythms of the songs he is constantly composing but unable to write down until he is alone each day.
Jay-Z’s descriptions of writing and of rap make Decoded a read that is a rare pleasure of insight and poetry, in which the very art he is describing is employed to show “how it’s done.” The rhythms and language of Jay-Z’s prose are fluid and physical, vital renderings of an artist’s practice.
In poetry the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat. It’s like time itself, ticking off relentlessly in a rhythm that never varies and never stops.
When you think about it like that, you realize the beat is everywhere, you just have to tap into it. But the beat is only one half of a rap song’s rhythm. The other is the flow. When a rapper jumps on a beat he adds his own rhythm.
The flow isn’t like time, it’s like life.
Decoded is in addition, a very wonderful book to look at.
Duotone or vivid color photographs and hip-hop art direction make it a true creative catalyst to leaf through or delve into. I find myself turning to it before my own practice some days, inspired by its visceral images and the way Jay-Z’s words are never far from the kinetic energy of life.
Jay-Z is a 21st century Hafiz. The anarchic clamor of Decoded is a high stakes engagement of being here, now.
Poets and hustlers play with language because for them simple clarity can mean failure. They bend language, improvise, and invent new ways of speaking the truth.
When you step outside of school and have to teach yourself about life, you develop a different relationship to information. I’ve never been a purely linear thinker. You can see it in my rhymes.
My mind is always jumping around, restless, making connections, mixing and matching ideas, rather than marching in a straight line. That’s why I’m always stressing focus. My thoughts chase each other from room to room in my head if I let them, so sometimes I have to slow myself down.
The rhymes come to me … as a series of connecting verbal ideas, rather than full-fledged stories.
But that’s a good match for the way I’ve always approached life.
From the bottom of the block
If it’s impossible to miss the artist, it’s equally impossible to miss yourself. Perhaps this is where the genius of Jay-Z is most evident. There’s no question of comparison of the incommensurate experiences of any two lives. Yet like the gifted poets of other ages, Jay-Z sees past his own circumstances and gazes into the human condition.
Even though the two are probably opposites in a lot of ways, Slick Rick and Scarface share that ability to get under your skin by dredging up the kinds of emotions that young men don’t normally talk about with each other: regret, longing, fear, even self-reproach.
It was a verse about fear of failure, which is something that everyone goes through, but no one, particularly where I’m from, wants to really talk about it.
But it’s a song that a lot of people connect to: The thought that “this can’t be life” is one that all of us have felt at some point or another, when bad decisions and bad luck and bad situations feel like too much to bear, those times when we think that this, this, can’t be my story. But facing up to that kind of feeling can be a powerful motivation to change. It was for me.
I pray I’m forgiven for every bad decision
By expressing the underlying tensions and motivations of extreme situations, Jay-Z reaches the emotions and experiences that are the common stock of everyday life. While those who grew up in the tattoo of crack and bullets of neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy can certainly vouch for the authenticity of Decoded what in the end is impressive, is that the rest of us can too.
This sense of the shared challenges of life are a generosity, not an accident.
I don’t think any listeners think I’m threatening them. I think they are singing along with me, threatening someone else. They’re thinking, Yeah, I’m coming for you. And they might apply it to anything, to taking their next math test or straightening out that chick talking outta pocket in the next cubicle.
When it seems like I’m bragging or threatening or whatever, what I’m actually trying to do is embody a certain spirit, give voice to a certain emotion. I’m giving the listener a way to articulate that emotion in their own lives, however it applies.
Even when I do a song that feels like a complete autobiography, like “December 4th,” I’m still trying to speak to something that everyone can find in themselves.
Decoded is a myth of the seeker, retold as an urban shipwreck in Brooklyn. Against all odds, Jay-Z reckons with his challenges and wrestles a blessing from them.
It does not matter where you open the book, what episode of excess or somber moment of reckoning is the first to break word on word smoothly from the page. You will find yourself tracing the magic geometry of this story, learning to grieve your circumstances where you’ve had little choice, put aside the mistakes made when you did have choices, and allow your inner voice to become your guide.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.