by Weston Cutter
The easy sell for this—that it’s a necessary purchase for those of us who don’t usually get through 24 hours without the occasional hova loop dominating gray-matter space—doesn’t do this great book justice. Wait, let’s back up: I assume everyone knows Jay-Z. Subject of a really profound 2001 profile regarding corporate rap, husband to Beyonce, maybe the single most accessible rapper in the history of the art, etc. For those of us in the late-20’s/early-30’s demographic, we might have different associations regarding Jay-Z than those held by younger folks: if you (like me) remember him mostly for his “Can I Get A…” or “Big Pimpin,” his public self in the last while—marraige, less aggressive rap (or certainly less misogynist)—can strike odd. Don’t get me wrong: I love Jay-Z’s old stuff—I’d be happy to nerd out and be the dorky academic who talks at length about how “Big Pimpin” is doing more interesting metric stuff than all the poetry published in the last two years—it’s just that this guy who promised “not for nothing, never happen, I’ll be forever macking” is now, well, a liar.
That schism is actually one of the reasons this book is so valuable and great: Jay-Z does a tremendously satisfying job of squaring his various selves, and, in doing so, putting in some serious miles of thought and consideration about contemporary urban social issues. No more than a handful of pages ever pass without him ever mentioning his former life as a drug dealer; likewise, no more than a handful of pages ever pass without him mentioning why and how be became a drug dealer. Which means, aside from being a gorgeous art book (there’s tons of photography, and the pages are thick like a coffee table book), Jay-Z’s Decoded is a phenomenal, first-person account of failed social inner-city social policies from the last quarter of the 20th century.
I’m not saying this book’s got to be read that way—if you like the guy’s stuff, get the book, if only to read the footnoted lyrics he includes in each chapter. But this is not just some vanity project of a book by a world-famous rapper detailing stories of his money and his parties or whatever: this is a serious book that seriously considers black male inner-city life in America, that seriously considers the work of Basquiat (and Jay-Z’s analysis of the work, and his appreciation and understanding for it, is great to read, even if it’s funny to note how offhandedly he mention that he owns some of the artist’s work [the book's cover, as an aside, is a Warhol print]), that seriously considers not just the drug hustle, but how and why it got to be exactly what it is (it’s easy to read statistics in a newspaper about the disproportionate numbers of blacks locked up vs. whites, harsher sentences for crack than powdered cocaine, etc; those same stats take on a different life when presented by someone who was there, in them, a could-have-been-one-of-them).
And those lyrics Jay-Z footnotes and explains? Here’s what’s so awesome about them and that process: in trying to disentangle info and influences, Jay-Z actually proves, through his own lyrics, how inextricably tied rap is to the culture that birthed it (or, at least, how inextricably Jay-Z’s rap is tied to his own culture). In lots of ways, the book feels like a magic knot of a trick: all these aspects of the man and his music are interconnected, and there’s no way to understand one aspect without bearing in mind several other aspects simultaneously. You don’t have to care about Jay-Z, or rap, that’s fine, but unless you’re insane or heartless or worse, you should care about the conditions in inner cities, and there are a handful of exceptional books that shine stark, clarifying light onto those stories, and Jay-Z’s Decoded is one of the best them. (Also: this book should be necessary reading for anyone who watched The Wire, and certainly for anyone who loves Richard Price’s novels, particularly Clockers).
Speaking of Social issues: Helen Thorpe’s Just Like Us is the single-best book on immigration policy I’ve read. What’s so fantastic about Just Like Us is that Thorpe has taken this hairy, complex issue—illegal immigration, specifically regarding hispanic immigrants—and has, instead of offering some tract or wonkish overview, addressed policy by addressing the stories of those effected by the policies in question. And what stories? Those of four high school girls in Denver.
Lest you believe that more intense or moving stories could be found by focusing on immigrants in Texas or Arizona, the stories of these four young women are as riveting as anything anyone could possibly drum up. Two of the young women are illegal immigrants—they were born elsewhere and brought across the border illegally—and two are legal. For those of us with little to no experience of how massively shadow-casting those terms are, and the shocking ways in which such tags shape identity, Just Like Us is less eye-opener than perception destroyer (for instance: one cannot get a driver’s license without a birth certificate; one can’t buy a plane ticket without some form of ID; day-to-day aspects that those of us born in the US so take for granted are complex, terrifying ordeals for these people).
Compounding the flat-out riveting aspect of this story is that Thorpe’s husband was, in the period she’s writing of (as he still presently is), mayor of Denver—Thorpe literally had as insider-ish a seat as possible. What Thorpe’s biographic stake in the story precludes is Just Like Us mimicking that most perfect of life-story-as-policy-portrait masterpiece, Random Family by LeBlanc. I’ll fess up to wanting Just Like Us to be more like Random Family, simply because, like anyone who’s read it, I long for more writing like LeBlanc’s (plus this book’s almost asking for comparison–look at the covers of each book). However, Thorpe’s vivid, personal telling of these lives, and the policies that so sharply and massively affect them, is phenomenal, refreshing, and illuminating. I’d expect most of us don’t have 100% clear notions of exactly what should be done regarding immigration in this country—I at least am not 100% clear. This book, in the best ways, complicates the issue for me, and thankfully drags the issue from the realm of the theoretical. This is a riveting, necessary book.