Jay-Z Decoded

06 Apr
So, before I started the readings for this week, I had to google the difference between hip hop and rap. Turns out, hip hop is a culture, while rap is simply the style of music. And, honestly, the only rap I had ever listened to before was Eminem. So, this was yet another week of music I am completely unfamiliar with. I love it. I’ve been listening to and reading Decoded, reading the lyrics as I listen to the audio track that Ryan gave us (so helpful, THANK YOU). And for me, it’s like reading Shakespeare. Hip hop music is constructed in a kind of syntax and structure that I am just not fluent in. Thank goodness for the footnotes that Jay-Z includes. It’s like Shakespeare in that it’s definitely English, but English in a way that I have to, well, decode. Perhaps this is the beauty of hip hop – the realness of the struggles for this group of people.

Decoded is a look into the songwriter’s head. We thus far have not had many readings that dealt with the “artistic” side of music, and how a musician synthesizes the songs he writes (although Suisman’s book does talk a little about it — generally with the perception that music is driven mostly by economics). But Decoded takes us through one artist’s thought process, then the finished product.

Another thing that crossed my mind while reading Decoded was the fact that the names were, well, not conventional. It is almost as if they internalize a performative aspect to their lives, and change their name to one that is performative for music purposes (and possibly others). And, they reference real names in songs. Jay-Z does it himself, and references other people like Bleek (in Coming of Age). This sort of self-referencing and referencing real people in their lives gives the music an autobiographical feel (as fiction as sometimes Jay-Z would like us to believe). In fact, the whole book is a combination of Jay-Z’s story, and the intersection of that story with his art.

Decoded often veers into poignancy, as for example, when Jay-Z talks about being invisible. In Larry’s class today, we were just talking about the erasure of certain cultures and races in America. Jay-Z is very aware of this, and it is as if rap is a way to make the stories that the Powers That Be want to keep invisible visible. It is a side of America that was supposed to stay buried, yet didn’t. His discussion of the hip hop police depicts a scene almost like a battle – Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses – the police, whose job is to uphold the ideology and image of the America that is supposed to be, battling the subversive forces that find power from the bottom up.

This week seems to follow the theme of race and genre in music. The fact that hip hop is tied closely to black culture leads me to think about the questions we encountered during our discussions of narcocorridos and ragtime, and the segregation of race into genres. Rap and hip hop seems the modern day separation of race and genre. Jay-Z talks about the Beasties and Eminem, and makes the statement “Hip-hop gave a generation a common ground that didn’t require either race to lose anything.” (Jay-Z, 180). Perhaps they didn’t lose anything, but the genre itself is still entrenched in power struggles, and I can’t help wonder if white people doing hip hop is tainted with re-appropriation of an art form that they can perform and hence, control. There are white rappers. Other than Darius Rucker, have there been any other non-white country singer star? Does it work the other way? I feel Jay-Z may be a bit too idealistic in that statement. But overall, he leaves us with the message to listen, with our minds and hearts open, and perhaps in this way, we can start understanding other cultures and continue the conversation.

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Posted by on April 6, 2011 in Uncategorized


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