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Credit: Jori Klein

Image Credit: Jori KleinLast night at the New York Public Library, Jay-Z and noted scholar Cornel West talked for two hours about the rapper’s new memoir, Decoded. Their free-wheeling discussion began with Jay-Z’s life and lyrics and expanded to touch on issues of history, culture, and race in America. They were joined on stage by the Library’s Paul Holdengräber, an eager, earnest fellow with a strong Belgian accent who confessed his relative ignorance of rap before reading Decoded.

Holdengräber’s presence felt slightly awkward at times, but it tied into one of Jay-Z’s chief aims with Decoded: explaining the significance of his words, and of hip-hop as a whole, to outsiders who might not otherwise understand. “It’s a conversation between worlds,” Jay told me as we sat in another opulent chamber of the Library a few minutes before the talk began. “Because at the end of the day, we’re all the same, when you take away the titles of who we are. We all have the same emotions, the same feelings. We’ve got so much more in common than we don’t.”

Jay-Z first announced that he was working on a memoir around the time of 2003’s The Black Album, but he ultimately chose not to publish that early attempt at laying out his life in book form. He sees Decoded as a project of another kind entirely. “This book [is] much more than just an autobiography,” he said. “It’s basically about music and about the power of words — rap as poetry. Then it told the story of a generation of kids. It gave a voice to what we were feeling, emotions we were going through. So it was much more important than just a story about me.”

In writing Decoded, he hoped to make a case for the literary value of all rap lyrics, not just his own. “We’re talking about something that was dismissed as a fad,” he said. “That’s how rap started: ‘Oh, it’s just another fad. It’ll be gone.’ So it’s terribly misunderstood. The same people who thought rap was a fad need to really understand what we’re saying and get into the deeper meanings of what we’re talking about.”

With Decoded finally in stores today, Jay-Z isn’t sure if he’ll go on to pen more books. “I had an idea, and the execution was better than the idea,” he reflected. “That never really happens. When I sat down and looked through this book and read it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is powerful.’ So it’s going to take me a second to get over that one.”

Of course, if he ever does decide to write Decoded 2, he’ll have lots of material to work with. “I have seven million thousand songs,” he said with a laugh. “So yeah, there’s more… I think every piece of art is up for decoding and judging and listening to and prodding and poking into. It’s all on the table.”

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