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In a word this book is Jay-Z’s memoir. In several, it is a work of art not unlike other projects the musician and entrepreneur has crafted in his career. His skill, tenacity, and creativity shines through. The text includes the legend’s own story of becoming a success. His history represents black culture and the hip-hop community. Through a compilation of songs complete with lyrics and explanations of their contexts and meanings he decodes the artistry of rap and the life of a hustler.

Little Jay-Z  grew up in the  Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn, NYC. As a young boy he marveled kids in rhyming, or battle rapping circles. Seeing these talented youth led him to record his own rhymes in a notebook he carried with him everywhere from that day forward. As the narrator of his own story and those of many just like him, Jay-Z conveys the difficulties of living in poverty and struggling to get by, combined with passion the life inspires to find an outlet.This becomes the music.

There is an intricate and beautiful quality to rap beneath its provocative exterior. Many people are unaware of its complexities. It is a unique form of poetry. ‘It has been said that the thing that makes rap special, that makes it different from both pop music and from written poetry, is that it’s built around two kinds of rhythm. The first kind of rhythm is the meter. In poetry the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat.’ After reading Jay-Z’s break-down, I admit; I wanted to listen to some of his music again. I am not really a fan of hip-hop. But, after reading how Jay-Z describes the history and psychology of it all, I know why I’m not. Before it was just words, now the words have meaning.

Jay-Z uses his own life on the streets to depict the hustle. The hustle leads to the discussion of controversial topics headlining rap lyrics. In the projects, there was poverty or hustling, so kids chose to dream big. But, the money and drugs lead to pain, loss, and death. The reality of it is that ‘A 13 year old kid doesn’t want to sell drugs.’ The lyrics are ‘raw and honest’ to explain the psychology of a lifestyle. People not a part of the culture may not understand the words or experiences of the songs. But, each of the songs is multi-layered and embedded in references to history, politics, race, culture.

Like all people, rappers are searching for meaning in life. Jay-Z tackles ‘soft’ subjects such as vulnerability, introspection, and forgiveness as they relate to his own life and that of the hustler in his lyrics. Through his music Jay-Z is able to show he is okay with his father having left the family. He also depicts mothers and girlfriends as victims of a culture of violence in “Soon You’ll Understand.”

A life with the goal of making money is a success for Jay-Z. Still, the people living in Marcy suffer. He gives back to the community, does what he can. But, nothing can change the past. ‘When you get the things you always think you wanted it doesn’t stop the head’s interrogation.’ In the Epilogue, Jay-Z writes that no matter what other endeavors he tries to pursue, he always goes back to the music. The rhymes guide his release-the opportunity to reflect and tell the truth about things that are but should not be. Those of us who come from another place have been given a chance to listen and learn, and we really should take the time to do so.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

 

 

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