“When you’re famous and say you’re writing a book, people assume that it’s an autobiography—I was born here, raised there, suffered this, loved that, lost it all, got it back, the end. But that’s not what this is. I’ve never been a linear thinker, which is something you can see in my rhymes. They follow the jumpy logic of poetry and emotion, not the straight line of careful prose. My book is like that, too.” —Shawn Carter
The New York Public Library recently hosted a conversation between Shawn Carter—also known as Jay-Z—Princeton Professor Cornel West, and NYPL’s Paul Holdengraber. The topic: Jay-Z’s forthcoming memoir, Decoded. To be released on November 16th, the book is being promoted as Jay’s reflections on his art and his life and his craft. What follows is one writer’s instantaneous reflections on the dialogue:
Jazz plays loudly in a dimly lit room at the New York Public Library. A screen—either projected or LCD—shows images of Jay-Z’s childhood stomping ground, Brooklyn. On the stage are three chairs, two tables, and one vase of roses. The stage is set.
They still have not begun. Perhaps a reference to Kanye’s Late Registration, on which Jay-Z rapped and whose cover picture was taken outside McCosh 50—a place Professor West knows all too well. Perhaps? The stage is as it was at 7:08.
The song Jay sampled on “Can’t Knock the Hustle” bounces through the room. Nut! Still hasn’t started, but that screen is dark.
NUT! NUT! NUT! Jay’s fittingly autobiographical awesome song “December 4th” comes on but is interrupted by the traditional spiritual, “Let My People Go”—will that be the theme of the evening? Holdengraber comes out and introduces the event, gets the people pumped up! Invites audience to join NYPL mailing list…
Holdengraber (hereafter known as H—I don’t feel good, don’t bother me) introduces Cornel West, reveals he himself is a Princeton alum. West shakes his butt before sitting down—nut! Introduces the book as the greatest of the past decade, Jay-Z as the greatest poet of that same period. Woah.
H begins by reading a passage, Jay makes the inevitable comment about H’s strong German accent. Cornel giggles. Gets down to business of talking about influences and stuff… H makes the obvious point about his childhood being different from Jay’s.
Oh, the glory days of Princeton! Jay-Z and Toni Morrison talkin’ Socrates! Nut! West makes point of Jay-Z being Plato to Biggie’s Socrates. Hm. He says Jay’s music has value in its context as part of history and black music and its anti-terrorist resistance to the siege of black America… Jay is the scion of that cultural tradition.
H brings discussion back to book. Compliments Jay’s “almost Talmudic” analysis of his own lyrics; he posits another analogy: Jay the critic is Ezra Pound to Jay the rapper’s T.S. Eliot. This is heady, beddy stuff. Compliments Jay for expanding his (H’s) vocabulary in the book.
Jay discusses “Socratic exchange” with Oprah Winfrey about “the N word.” Talks about “ninety-nine problems but a b—h ain’t one” being provocative and not misogynist. That b—h is not a woman but a dog in a drug-sniffing K9 unit—nut! Criticizing critics for criticizing his profanity; he is either being clever, descriptive, or provocative.
Some Curtis Mayfield blasts over the speakers (he is one of those influences). Professor West grooves hard and sings along to “Pusherman.” He and Jay suggest the drug hustler is the freedom fighter, but with a lower level of maturity. They are young Lech Walesas; they are young George Washingtons! Jay, in his soul, is “hustler first, artist second.” (Me, too, I think.)
H asks Jay, “You can be naughty, right?” Pause. Tells Jay, “You create a sense of intimacy for a man such as myself.”
Professor West makes good point about people criticizing rap’s “barbarism” without recognizing the “barbarism” it responds to.
Jay posits rap as a linguistic revolution. His influences (Prince, Mayfield, etc.) weren’t speaking his generation’s language, so they created music that did. West: “It was your power, your voice!!!!!”
Jay gets into “technology and society” and oddly praises internet as not democratizing but purging of bad music from labels; internet, he says, will bring back “old days” of music. He is, as we know from “Encore,” “out the country but the BlackBerry still connect.”
H talks about going back to Germany to visit his ailing father, who asks him what rap is. H reads a letter his nine-year-old son in response to that question; “Rap,” he writes, “is what allows dreams to come true.” Talks to Jay about his mythologized notebook he would write thousands of rhymes in. He lost it, apparently.
Professor West, a religion pastor at Princeton, finally brings up religion. Apparently Biggie’s death shook Jay’s theology. Jay says he believes in God, but Cornel West presses him on it. Jay says, “I believe the Ku Klux Klan prayed to the same God.” West nods his head.
H brings up Jay’s appropriation of Annie, but my internet fails. It truly is a hard knock life…
Back up and running! Nut! “It was the best of times, it was the worst times”…Jay plays this to his running theme of emotions transcending external divides. Professor West asks what Jay’s ideal world would look like; Jay says this one. Oh, ever the realist poet!
This is a very New Jersey-centric discussion. They just played Lauryn Hill; Jay is part owner of the Nets; Professor West teaches at Princeton.
Jay recounts the rapper Scarface writing a verse for “This Can’t Be Life” about his friend’s son dying, moments after he heard about his passing. To him, that is the best of rap, that direct emotional question. H hasn’t spoken forever. I miss him.
Guess who’s back! H starts a discussion about Jay’s parents. They were apparently scared of him (“*ucking scared”), but still supported his musical interests. Jay says rappers appear desensitized because many of their fathers had abandoned them and they are scared of being vulnerable through love to another abandonment.
Jay-Z: “At my father’s funeral, I was more intrigued than devastated.”
Nut! “Brooklyn’s Finest”—Jay’s collaboration with Biggie—fills the room. It’s a very violent song, describing a crime, beginning with Scarface gunshots, “shooting your daughter in the calf muscle.” Professor West: “This brother came from the underside of the American Empire, the projects.” He doesn’t discuss that “shooting your daughter in the calf muscle” part.
We get to Professor West’s favorite topic, Barack Obama. West says Obama should be more like Jay. Jay praises Obama, and for embracing rap despite stigma. Cornel brings Oprah back up (I didn’t catch why) and flips out that she’s never had a “blues man” on her show and then gets into an argument with the audience about whether B. B. King has been on her show. He recedes into contemplation.
H brings it back home. He references his own naïveté again about rap, says he will bravely ignore the PARENTAL ADVISORY stickers and let his kids listen to Jay. Jay “reveals” to H that his kids know swear words and might have said them. H is pale.
H begins a question, “If you were to have a son or a daughter…” Apparently, that was the extent of the question, because he stops—but no one responds.
“Empire State of Mind” plays over the speakers: all three men—the academic and theologian, the rapper, the librarian—all bob in exactly the same way. Afterward, Cornel West: “Empire State of Mind! Empire State of Minddddddd!” Criticizes its imperialism, “but [he] likes it musically…”
West and H say they have been inspired. Event ends abruptly after West refuses to ask a final question. All three men stand about a foot apart on the stage and scratch their heads until H has an epiphany and directs them off the stage. I’m going to get a cookie, so you know.