Before his talk on Monday with Cornel West at the New York Public Library, Vulture sat down with Jay-Z amid the chandeliers and marble of the NYPL’s Trustees Room for a whole eleven minutes. Actually, it was more like 30, because we were waiting around like a puppy afterward for him to sign our copy of Decoded, his new sorta-memoir in which he explains the origins of his lyrics. During our official time together, we discussed the book, Jay’s literary influences, and that new Hammer video.
Were there ever plans to make this more of a straight-ahead memoir?
No, this was always intended to be a book about lyrics and the stories behind how we arrived at this particular song or point or emotion or opinion.
But weren’t you writing a memoir that turned out to be too personal?
That’s a different book.
Is that ever going to happen?
I don’t know. I have no idea. That’s the mysterious Black Book.
Why did you pick Andy Warhol for Decoded’s cover?
Besides him being a genius? I just thought it was, first of all, “decoded.” Rorschach is very famous. People see different things. People get different things out of different songs. You know, some songs mean something for you. That sort of thing. It just felt in line with the book. As well as it being one of my favorite images. I own one of those over the fireplace in my living room. It’s, like, one of the best pieces in my house and I’m very attracted to it.
You mention Basquiat in the book so much, though. There’s a whole section about a painting you own that says “Most Young Kings Get Their Head Cut Off.”
Yes, but this [Warhol] image also lends itself to the title, Decoded.
Was that always the title?
Yeah, from the beginning.
What other artists do you have in your house?
David Hammons, et cetera, et cetera. [Laughs.]
Who are your literary influences?
Oh, man. I don’t look at it like that. I just pretty much look at life. My influences, whether they wrote a book or not, is Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X — who did write a book — you know. Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Gandhi. Nice people like that. [Laughs.]
What do you read?
I read everything. Mostly I’m not into fiction, except for The Odyssey, which is pretty fictional. Depends on who you ask. The Celestine Prophecy, The Seat of the Soul, The Odyssey. I read stuff like that.
More so than fiction, yeah.
A footnote in Decoded reads, “Shout-out to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” Do you read poetry?
Yeah, sometimes. But not as much.
How did you meet Cornel West?
I’ve always been a fan of his. Always been a fan of his words and his speaking. We had a chance to meet a while back and he and his friend Geoffrey Canada, who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone, came to my house a couple of years back and we had one of the most interesting conversations in my dining room.
Eh, it was a personal conversation.
Did you ever come to the library growing up?
Do you remember the first time you came to this library?
Yeah, today. [Laughs.]
After I finish speaking with you guys, I’m going to go take a walk around, take a little tour.
[Note: Before each of the Live at NYPL talks, a curator pulls special objects from the collection for the honored guest. Patti Smith got to see the cane of her idol, Virginia Woolf, along with the manuscript for To the Lighthouse; Keith Richards got folios of Shakespeare and early books about pirates. For Jay-Z, curator Isaac Gerwitz pulled the following: A 1984 collection of drafts and notes for the autobiography of Imamu Amiri Baraka, titled The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones; a letter by Baraka from 1960 replying to a request about his views on writing poetry; an early draft of a scene from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; the second draft of On the Road; manuscripts from William Blake; a poem of T.S. Eliot’s revised by Ezra Pound; and Charles Dickens’s public reading copy of A Christmas Carol. Jay-Z left asking Holdengräber if he could please come back when he had more time..]
What are you interested in finding out?
The public library is a big thing. You know, I wrote a book, and I figured it would be good to go back to the library. I know that there’s technology and Kindles and all that, but we wanted to take it back to the roots.
It’s a real book …
Yeah, it’s a real book! [Laughs.]
I meant that there are so many graphics that it would look terrible on a Kindle.
You’ve been an author, a rapper, a fashion mogul, and a music mogul. A lot of rappers are moving into acting, too. Is that something you’d do?
I’m just not good at acting. If I was good at acting, I would be acting. I’m just not great at it. I’ll make movies one day. I believe that. But as far as me being a movie star, I’m just not very talented in that area.
Good to know your weaknesses.
Yeah, it is. [Laughs.]
What’s happening with the album you and Kanye are collaborating on?
It’s coming out pretty good.
What’s the sound like?
Really good. [Laughs.]
You can’t tell me anything about samples you’re using, or subjects of songs?
I can rap the first six songs for you if you’ve got time. [Laughs.]
I’ll take it!
Nah. It’s pretty early in the process. We went to London and recorded a couple of songs over a couple of days, and we’re going to go back in Australia somewhere and hopefully finish it up.
Hopefully. I don’t know. I have no idea. It could be spring, it could be winter. Pretty much, when it’s done. When it’s done, we’ll start planning for it. But we want to finish the creative process first.
You said on “Howard Stern” that you agreed with what Kanye said on the Katrina telethon — but how did you feel about him backing off that statement and apologizing?
I think that comes from him, you know, when he walked onstage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, he did it from a place of passion of art. Then it got turned into him being a racist, so he got a chance to get misjudged — what he believes to be misjudged; I mean, of course he’s not racist — so he got misjudged. So he had to think, Maybe I misjudged as well. That was the point he arrived to. Not me.
I still stand by the statement and still believe it. Because what he said wasn’t wrong. It was what we all felt. You know, whether it be accurate and Bush is truly racist — he didn’t say racist; he said, “Doesn’t care about black people” — but given the circumstances and seeing black people four or five days on a roof, with “Help” written across the roof and dying, and the Commander-in-Chief not even on the ground and hands-on helping … A lot of us came to that conclusion. He’s just the one who vocalized it. And we believed that. So it’s not just Kanye saying that. It’s the nation saying that. So even if Kanye backtracks on his statement because of his personal experiences in his life, I don’t.
Have you talked about your different stances?
Yeah. Kanye is Kanye. I’m Jay-Z. He’s his own person. I don’t try to make him believe what I believe. I actually tell him things and then I leave it alone. He comes to his own decision on his own. He’s a grown man. He’s a very intelligent young man as well. So we are who we are.
How did you feel about the midterm elections?
I seen some glimmer of hope in it. You know, the Republicans have to answer for their decisions now, so hopefully we’ll see how that works. Sometimes you’ve got to be careful what you ask for. You might get it.
It’s not a referendum on Obama?
No. What’s happening to Obama is he’s being judged on the last eight years of that administration that was one of the most horrific of our time. And there’s no way in the world that he can correct eight years of bad government in two years.
You say in the book that since his election, there was justified criticism against Obama. What were you referring to?
You gotta read it back to me. I said so much stuff in there. I need the context in which I said it.
It was just at the end of the chapter on Obama’s inauguration.
Well, if you find it for me, I can give you the context. I’ll give you my e-mail. You can page me when you find it. [Laughs.]
[Later we found it for him: “I just meant that he’s not a perfect human being. But no one is.”]
You mention in Decoded that criticism over the Che Guevara shirt and chain you wore on MTV Unplugged made you think more about your clothing choices. How much thought did you put into today’s outfit?
I had this on yesterday and I thought it looked good, so I wore it again.
That was it?
Yeah, I do that sometimes. I actually had this on yesterday. Sorry I didn’t dress for you. Ha-ha-ha. [Outfit was Timberlands, bleach-spattered jeans, and Alexander McQueen sweater and scarf. He changed into a Gucci suit for the NYPL talk.]
Lastly, have you seen Hammer’s new video, in which he claims you’ve sold your soul to the devil, and we see Satan feeding you lyrics in the studio?
No. I heard about it. I thought it was great. But what do I know?