Book: Decoded (Jay-Z)

Decoded is wonderfully-produced in full colour on glossy paper. The producers are playful with fonts and photoshopped images. And the paper feels great.

A self-employed salesman’s glorious transition to adulthood
317 beautifully-produced pages, ★★★★★

We all loved Steve Jobs‘ biography. Steve Jobs was a white slumdog millionaire, who followed his heart from poverty to the same superstardom that surrounds L. Ron Hubbard and Chairman Mao. Steve Jobs was the American Dream personified twice, with international reach: some Chinese youths even sold kidneys to buy an iPhone or iPad 2. If you loved the recent Steve Jobs biography, then you’ll connect with Decoded, too.

Jay-Z’s story is similar to that of Steve Jobs. Both their fathers left when they were young. Both were excellent showmen and both of them succeeded in business. Both became extremely successful in more than one field. Both were supporters of Barack Obama. Jay-Z didn’t enjoy the success on the same scale as Steve Jobs, but his starting point was also much lower (“…you could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time”). Their climb was roughly equal.

“You could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time” — Jay-Z

Jay-Z is a professional salesman. He started aged 13 by selling crack cocaine to supplement his single mother’s income, when a couple of characters from his inner circle introduced him to poetry to vent stress from the job. To date, none of this early-age poetry has ever been published.

Jay-Z kept (relatively, aside from selling crack cocaine) out of trouble and kept doing what he loved. He kept writing poetry. The skills he learned from selling crack cocaine (life’s too short; don’t do drugs; stay away from trouble; everyone’s trying to get their hands in your pockets) hardened him for the dog-eat-dog environment of the music industry, which he describes as “one of the most ruthless industries in America”.

“Being a recording artist on a major label is probably the most exploitative contractual agreement in America, and it’s legal.” — Jay-Z

Decoded helped me understand the journey I took in 2011. I used to crave the salaried office jobs that Jay-Z criticises (“American Dreamin'”, page 30), with the water cooler conversation (page 79) and the safety net of having a fixed salary (“Freakonomics”, page 75). Most of these jobs (especially corporate finance) are just as socially-useless, money-obsessed and unfulfilling as selling crack cocaine on the street. They bring large paycheck at the expense of huge social damage; and Jay-Z reminds us that subprime mortgages are much worse than crack cocaine. ★★★★★

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