Jay-Z’s book ‘Decoded’

When I was at college studying English Literature, we were tasked with writing an essay arguing for the inclusion of a piece of literature, song or poem to be included in the literary canon. The western literary canon is a rather outdated collection of literature, music and art that scholars accept as the most important and influential when it comes to shaping western culture. Of course the canon is seen by most people as widely restrictive and noninclusive of work by authors and artists from different racial backgrounds and genders, as most of it’s included works have been created by white, European men (but really, what did you expect?)

My time at college was also the time where I really developed my love for hip hop and rap music. As a white girl who grew up on her Dad’s punk rock music, and her Mum’s eclectic mix of 80’s pop and Elvis, rap music was rather unknown territory for me back then. Around this time I had discovered a lot of rap artists, but my favorite had soon proved to be Jay-Z, arguably one of the most well known hip hop/rap artists since the 90’s when he first emerged onto the scene. Getting tasked with this essay at the time I was becoming obsessed with rap music was really a great way to explore and learn about the history of rap, how it came to be, and why I had suddenly fallen in love with it. I decided to do my essay about Jay-Z and his music, the meat of my argument being that rap music was poetry in another form and highly influential to a huge group of people.

‘Politics As Usual’ Photograph from Decoded

As much as I love to read, there is no doubting that there is something truly special about music. It can be inspiring, motivating and like many classic books or poems in literature, can transcend through time and across age, class and gender. Lyrics are usually the first poetry we experience as children and can be less intimidating and easier to understand. Music brings groups of people together, at festivals and concerts, even people across different socioeconomic statuses and people across varied backgrounds. The fact that music is able to be so diverse is something that is increasingly important, where artists from all ethnicites and backgrounds are contributing to the music industry. As singer/songwriter John Denver says, music truly “allows us to experience the same emotions. No matter what language we speak or what color we are.”

In all honesty; I didn’t get a very good grade on my Jay-Z essay, due to undiagnosed dyslexia and problems with actually getting my thoughts down articulately on paper. However, looking back at this essay now, I still think it was a great idea and was a great opportunity to push myself and explore something I didn’t usually write about. Today as I listened to perhaps Jay-Z’s most famous and highly regarded album, ‘The Black Album’ today whilst I put away clean laundry, memories of when I first fell in love with his music came rushing back to me. The rather muddled essay I wrote almost four years ago is still something I think about today, and I decided it deserved a second chance.

According to the criteria for the literary Cannon, texts are expected to talk about topics such as “the value of love” to asking political questions in their context. In Jay-Z’s song, Murder to Excellence, a song on an joint album with Kanye West, Jay-Z talks about real and contemporary issues of police brutality and “black on black murder’”, and encourages his listeners to celebrate brotherhood and equality, “power to the people, when you see me, see you”, to encourage others to strive for the status and wealth he has, and what he calls “Black excellence” (Meaning the celebration of blacks breaking through to  the American elite) rather than add to the media’s negative perception of African American culture. Not only is this a positive message to give his listeners, motivating them strive for a fair society, he also talks about a real contemporary issue that is often lacking from the Canon, and more importantly a Black modern voice that is not always explored in literature.

“No, I’m not havin hip hop at Glastonbury. Fucking no chance”

This particular song, among many others of his, has strong links to one of the most energetic movements during the 1990s, Slam Poetry. Across America, slam poetry was not respected by poets in academia, however slam was well received among youth and poets of diverse and poverty stricken backgrounds, where the spoken poetry, usually performed in the streets (like a modern day rap-battle), was highly politicized, drawing upon racial, economic and gender injustices as well as current events.  Jay-Z’s music draws on this raw form of poetry, allowing him to reach the same wide audience. In his song, Rags To Riches, Jay-Z speaks of how his life enables him to connect to those who are in poverty and are under educated, but also those who are successful, as he is now one of the most “financially successful and respected hip-hop artists and entrepreneurs in America” despite never graduating high school and selling drugs as his only form of income. This makes Jay-Z himself, along with his music, an icon of untypical success and inspiration for those who do not see themselves in other highly regarded pieces of literature or art.

Rap music is commonly seen as transparent and not usually regarded as intelligent or clever perhaps in the same way poetry is. However, rap lyrics usually have their own complex vocabulary, including regional slang and international slang and includes literary techniques like double entendre, alteration, similes and metaphors which are all found in classical poetry and literature. Jay-Z educates people on his terms through his music, in language that is accessible to a new and wider audience than explored in other literary texts. In the song “Why I Love You” Jay-Z alludes to classical texts and writers, “Maybe too much of a good thing,” taken from the phrase that Shakespeare coined, “Can one desire be too much of a good thing?” also including bible references, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) and historical figures, “Caesar didn’t see it so he ceased to exist.”

The lyrical language is “witty” and “controlled” in order to produce “verbal art” which is almost a perfect description of what his lyrics do. Relating back the history of rap, where from the beginning since rap was formed out of Blues and Jazz poetry, Elijah Wald stated that “blues have been rapped as early as the 1920’s,” provided people with an escape from poverty and urban blight.  Even rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan developed an entire lexicon among their clique, demonstrating the sophisticated ways in which rap effectively educates people about, what has been called, the “unspeakable” and reaches a wider audience, using language and developing it linguistically into new forms that people can take and make their own.

Of course, not all Jay-Z songs feature deep meanings or current issues, they are more intended to be simply “music anthems” which have a high sexual content and themes of violence and crime, but that should not make his lyrical skill any less highly regarded. The music that makes it to mainstream listening, like Jay-Z’s most known song, “99 Problems,” which repeats the line, “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one,” are possibly the cause behind the negative view of Jay-Z and other rappers, where the public’s only view of rap is the song’s that make it to mainstream listening. People who dislike rap music tend make blanket judgments on his music and rap music as a whole from one mainstream song, but I think it’s incredibly important to look into rap music deeper and see that it’s not always about violence, sex and drugs – and even when it is, it’s making a point about that. Jay-Z’s sheer ability to connect and move people through his evocative lyrics should not be pushed aside or seen as less than just because the language or style is not usually what’s seen in highly regarded literature or poetry, because essentially, poetry is exactly what Jay-Z does.

He makes a conscious effort to connect with the listener in his music, like in “Murder to Excellence”, the song ends with the words, “Truly yours,” a direct message and dedication to the listener. In “Lucifer”, a song about Jay-Z’s anger and sadness over his friends who have been murdered, the tone and lyrics are emotional and almost sorrowful whilst once again he includes clever puns, “Devils pie, save some desert for us” and bible references, “Vengeance is mine’, sayeth The Lord”
When listening to this song, the line, “these days I can’t wake up with a dry pillow, gone but not forgotten” feels emotive and almost painful for Jay-Z, as he goes on to end the song as almost a prayer, “Lord forgive him, we’ve all have sinned,  but Bob’s a good dude, please let him in, and If you feel in my heart that I long for revenge, please blame on the son of the morning, thanks again.” His sheer passion and raw unguarded emotion that is present in his music so frequently, just like the memorable lines from literature, make a true mark on people and may help them find solace through his words.

Jay-Z is clever, for example shown through his knowledge of ancient philosophers, “Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?” (Reference to Plato’s Euthyphro)  in a way that does not make you feel inferior or intimidated like some classical texts, instead he manages to intrigue listeners, encourage them and motivate them to strive for the best, “If you don’t give me heaven I raise hell”, not only by his words but his own “rags to riches” life.  

When you look deeper, is lyrical skills are clearly apparent, and value is clearly a quality residing in his music along with the real contemporary issues he talks about, bridging the gap between the world of rap music and literature.  The very fact that Jay-Z’s lyrics speak to me as a White female growing up in the UK, shows his diversity and ability to also connect to people from all walks of life, not just those from the same background or culture as him, which is something that not many classical literary texts can do, or in fact, even try to do. I can honestly say when I saw him in concert, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. 

But finally, to quote Jay-Z,
“These are just my thoughts, ladies and gentlemen.”



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