The bulk of Jay-Z’s new book Decoded, out this week, consists of a lyrical exegesis of 36 of Jay’s own works. What better source could there possibly be? How about RapGenius.com, the world’s premier rap-lyric-explanation website. They’ve already tackled all 36 songs in the book (plus 75 other Jay-Z tracks), and while Decoded is undeniably a more handy tray for rolling joints (unless you’re using an iPad) it turns out that, here and there, RapGenius’s close textual analysis does prove more insightful than Hov’s own. Vulture got RapGenius to provide their ten favorite examples.
1. On leasing a car:
“We don’t lease / we buy the whole car, as you should.” (“Can I Live”)
Jay-Z says: “Advising to buy a car rather than lease speaks to my naïveté at the time. Cars lose value the minute they leave the lot.”
RapGenius says: Jay is jumping from one extreme to another, when in reality the “buy vs. lease” decision is quite complex: Your budget and preferences, as well as depreciation tables and resale values for the model you’re considering, ought to be taken into consideration. Jay’s new preference for leases speaks to his increased risk-aversion with age. Jay, you’re turning into our uncle!
2. On criminal procedure:
“Well we’ll see how smart you are when the canine comes” (“99 Problems”)
Jay-Z says: “This dialogue is about the tension between a cop who knows that legally he’s dead wrong for stopping someone with no probable cause other than race, and a narrator who knows he’s dead wrong for moving crack.”
RapGenius says: During the incident in question, the cop unknowingly pulled Jay over with drugs stashed away in the car, but — because the K-9 unit he called in didn’t show — was forced to let Jay go. So: Was the cop legally wrong? The Roberts court ruled in 2004 that you no longer need probable cause for a K-9 search, all you need is “reasonable suspicion,” which the cop likely had in this fact pattern (see Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405). Lucky for Jay, “the year [was] ‘94”, so he was safe. Back in the Clinton years the Fourth Amendment still meant something.
3. On musical influences:
“They say ‘they never really miss you til you dead or you gone’” (“December 4th”)
Jay-Z says: ”It’s like the line from the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” (which Janet Jackson and Q-Tip sampled), you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
Rap Genius say: The line’s more of a reference to the Notorious B.I.G. — specifically, his song title “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” — than Joni. Jay is, of course, a proud participant in the time-honored hip-hop tradition of biting Biggie (“the Socrates to my Plato” —Jay-Z). “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” is also the source of the “sycamore/more sicker” pun in the following line, which Jay freely admits he bit. Jay, don’t worry, bro: Our moms gets Joni Mitchell and Biggie mixed up sometimes, too!
4. On silverware:
“I drove by the fork in the road and went straight” (“Renegade”)
Jay-Z says: “I love this concept: instead of being forced into a fucked up choice where you lose either way, choose your own path.”
Rap Genius says: Jay is paraphrasing Robert Frost (and/or Yogi Berra): As with his muddled Biggie citation, Jay seems to think that plagiarizing dead people is okay (in China, this is actually true).
5. On nutrition:
“My homey Strict told me, ‘Dude, finish your breakfast.’” (“Public Service Announcement”)
Jay-Z says: ”My friend Strict uses the phrase ‘finish your breakfast’ as a way of saying you need to finish your job up strong.”
Rap Genius says: “Strict” is John “Franchise” Strickland, an NYC street-ball legend. During the 2003 tournament at Harlem’s Rucker Park, in which Jay managed a team, Strickland didn’t follow through on an alley-oop and the coach of team S. Carter told him, “Dude, you have to finish your breakfast.” Jay omitted the details — but did remember the most important meal of the day.
6. On dirty words:
“Fuck shit ass bitch / trick precise” (“Ignorant Shit”)
Jay-Z says: “A satisfying list of ignorant words — childish and adult at the same time, like a rapper with Tourette’s..”
Rap Genius says: Jay is actually mimicking George Carlin’s “The 7 Words You Can’t Say on Television” stand-up routine. Just replace “precise” with “cunt” and it’s almost the same list!
7. On revenge:
“Vengeance is mine” sayeth the Lord / you said it better than all” (“Lucifer”)
Jay-Z says: “I’m repeating the Lord’s own words to him because he ‘said it better than all’; if he can allow himself to take vengeance, then why can’t I?”
Rap Genius says: Jay-Z is paraphrasing the second half of Romans 12:19. Apparently he missed the first half, though: “dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath.” (Italics ours.)
8. On religion:
“And even if Jehovah witness / bet he’ll never testify” (“D’Evils”)
Jay-Z says: “The narrator is completely lost to the “D’Evils” … the final two lines, contrasting the demons in his head with a God he thinks is powerless, show how deeply he’s fallen into a moral vaccum.”
Rap Genius says: One of the most intricate lines in all of rap — yet the explanation contains no close-reading of the actual line! Jay makes a three-way pun:
• God (a.k.a. Jehovah) is the witness to all our sins
• “Jehovah’s witness”
• His own nickname: J-Hova
9. On the vanity of vanities:
“All this Ace of Spades I drink just to piss out / hold up, let me move my bowels” (“Success”)
Jay-Z says: “Success is supposed to be about consumption … but the finest meal ends up as shit … which isn’t to say I don’t like buying things and eating nice meals!”
Rap Genius says: A bit more detail is called for: Jay is referencing Armand de Brignac Champagne, his favorite since “Cristalgate” — the bottle has an ‘ace of spades’ on it. So, yeah you can drink all that Champagne and eat at New York’s high-end restaurants, and it still all ends up in the toilet. Sobering thought.
10. On masturbation:
“It’s just once in a blue moon when there’s nothing to do / and the tension gets too thick for my sober mind to cut through” (“Feelin’ It”)
Jay-Z says: …
Rap Genius says: Curiously, Jay’s classic ballad from his classic first album is not explained in Decoded.