11.14.10

A Baby Boomer's Guide to Jay-Z

The rapper's autobiography, Decoded, hits stores Tuesday, but you have no idea who this Jay-Z character is. Peter Lauria breaks down the lyrics to decipher the man with the mic.

If you're over the age of 50, have ever complained about the stereo being too loud, or think of rap music as little more than rhymes about druggies and women, then Jay-Z's probably a mystery to you. Tomorrow's release of the rapper's autobiography, Decoded, (the year's second-most anticipated music memoir after Keith Richards' Life), should have you worried. You don't want to seem out of touch to your kids, who already think you're hopelessly uncool. There's no time to read the book and you can't understand what Jay is saying on any of his 11 studio albums, which have sold more than 45 million copies combined.

Don't fret. We've got your back. Brush up on your Jay knowledge with our lyrical tour through the rapper's life and career, and by the time you get home tonight, you'll know enough to roll with Roc-A-Fella. (Um, that's the name of the record label Jay-Z owns.)

Who is this Jay-Z fella?
The song "December 4th" begins with a voiceover from Jay's mom noting: "Shawn Carter was born on December 4/ Weighing in at 10 pounds 8 ounces/ He was the last of my four children/ The only one who didn't give me any pain when I gave birth to him/ And that's how I knew he was a special child."

Who is this Marcy girl he keeps rapping about?
Marcy isn't a girl—it's the violent, drug-infested Brooklyn housing project consisting of "27 six-story buildings" where Jay grew up. The song "Where I'm From" illustrates it best: "One day I pray to you and said if I ever blow I'd let 'em know/ Mistakes and exactly what takes place in the ghetto/ Promises fulfilled, but still I feel my job ain't done/ Cough up a lung, where I'm from, Marcy's son, ain't nothing nice."

Does he have a multiple personality disorder? Who are Hov, Hova, Jigga, and Jiggaman?
They are all the same person: Jay-Z. The rapper uses those handles interchangeably on the mic.

From the song "Public Service Announcement": "Allow me to re-introduce myself/ My name is Hov, OH, H-to-the-O-V/ I used to move snowflakes by the O-Z/ I guess even back then you can call me/ CEO of the R-O-C, Hov!"


Watch Jay-Z's "Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)..." music video.

Video screenshot

You mentioned his mom, but what about his dad? What's the story there?
The relationship between Jay and his father is a recurring narrative in the rapper's lyrics. Hova's (that's Jay, remember?) dad left when he was young, leaving the family in a struggle for survival in the projects, which forced Jay into an early life hustling drugs. The rapper overcame his resentment toward his father and they eventually reconciled later in life. But as Jay writes, "three months after we had our first conversation in 20 years, he died."

From the song "Moment of Clarity": Listen close you hear what I'm about/ Nigga feel my truths/ When Pop died/ Didn't cry/ Didn't know him that well/ Between him doing heroin/ And me doing crack sales."

So… he was a crack dealer?
Yes, but the story's not cut and dry. Another recurring theme in Jay's raps is understanding the impact of culture, and from his point-of-view a lot of kids who came of age during the '80s crack epidemic had to turn to hustling to survive. They were forgotten about by the government, abused by the police, abandoned by the health-care system, and left to starve in the projects. "Guys my age, fed up with watching their moms struggle on a single income, were paying utility bills with the money from hustling," Jay writes.

From the song "Young, Gifted and Black": "Grew up thinking life ain't fair/ How can I get a real job/ China white right there/ Right in front of my sight like here, yeah/ There's your ticket out the ghetto/ Take flight right here."

Hmm… he sold drugs to get out of the ghetto until he realized he could make millions by glorifying drug dealing in rap music?
That's a simplistic and ignorant viewpoint, and irrefutable proof to your kids that you just don't get Jay, and therefore you don't get "it," so stay away from that argument, you uptight, conservative fool. To your children, Jay is a sort of urban sociological poet, documenting a life on the streets that seems worlds away from where you are likely bringing them up. Jay never excuses his choices, just presents them as fact. "To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of lie," Jay writes. "To tell the story of the pain without telling the story of the rewards—the money, the girls, the excitement—is a different kind of evasion."

From the song "December 4th": "And it's nobody fault I made the decisions I made/ This is the life I chose or rather the life that chose me/ If you can't respect that your whole perspective is wack/ Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black."

OK, even if I buy into that argument, I don't understand why he has to use words like "bitches" and "nigga" all the time. It's not proper.
Jay's story is the story of the street hustle, and it is the same story told over and over again in movies and books without anyone batting an eye at the language or images. It has even been told musically before, just not in rap, which is a relatively new format for you—you are over 40, remember?—and therefore seems raw and offensive. Get over it.

From the song "Renegade": Motherfuckers/ Say that I'm foolish I only talk about jewels/ Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it/ See I'm influenced by the ghetto you ruined/ That same dude you gave nothing, I made something doin'/ What I do through and through and/ I give you the news with a twist, it's just his ghetto point of view.

I do know a few things about Jay-Z. He's married to Beyonce.
Wow, impressive, though you would never know the music moguls were married from the book or his music. They prefer to keep their relationship private and rarely talk about it in public—she is scarcely mentioned in Decoded, and sometimes she's referred to only obliquely.

From the song "Operation Corporate Takeover": "Came to fruition, sort of premonition/ Uh, uncontrollable hustler's ambition/ Alias superstition/ Like Stevie, the writing's on the wall like my lady, right baby? ( The Writing's on the Wall is a record from Beyonce's former group, Destiny's Child.)

Speaking of business, wasn't Mr. Z on the Forbes richest list?
Mr. Z? Jay has many nicknames, but that's not one of them. And, yes, he was on Forbes' 400 Richest Americans list. Time magazine considers him one of our "most influential" people. At 40 years old, Jays is worth $450 million. Among his business interests are a record label, music-publishing imprint, clothing and beauty line, sport-bar chain, restaurant, and stake in the New Jersey Nets basketball team. He also served as CEO of Def Jam Records, and, according to The Wall Street Journal, has brand partnerships with companies from Budweiser to Reebok to Microsoft.

From the song "Operation Corporate Takeover": Word up on Madison Ave. is I'm a cash cow/ Word down on Wall Street homie you get the cash out/ IPO Hov no need for reverse merger/ The boy money talks no need to converse further/ The baby blue Maybach like I own Gerber/ Boardroom I'm lifting your skirt up/ The corporate takeover."


Watch Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'" music video.

Video screenshot

He sounds like his own biggest fan.
There's no arguing that point. One of rap's unifying lyrical threads is trying to find the freshest and most concise way for one MC to rhyme about being better than another MC. It goes back to before it was a cottage industry, when it was just street corner kids gathered in a "cipher" on the corner battling. But scratch past the ego, and you'll find that Jay is actually one of the most contemplative rappers in the game. He has bouts of insecurity, doubt, remorse, and heartbreak. It's all there; it's just overshadowed by the bravado.

From the song "This Can't Be Life": "My life is getting too wild/ I need to bring some sorta calm to it/ 'Bout to lose it; voices screamin' 'Don't do it!'/ It's like '93, '94, 'bout the year/ That Big and Mac dropped; and Illmatic rocked/ Outta every rag drop, and the West had it locked/ Everybody doin' em, I'm still scratchin on the block/ Like "Damn; I'mma be a failure."

This is a lot of information to digest. Can you sum up Jay's life in 140 characters?
Don't be a lazy punk. We suggest you read Decoded in its entirety. If your kid is a fan, this memoir is likely to be as meaningful to them as Keith Richards' Life was to you. But in lieu of that, this verse seems apropos:

From the song "Renegade": "My demeanor—30 years my senior/ My childhood didn't mean much, only raising green up/ Raisin' my fingers to critics; raisin' my head to the sky/ BIG I did it—multi before I die (nigga)/ No lie, just know I chose my own fate/ I drove by the fork in the road and went straight."

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.