"Any music without context is a lie," Jay-Z proclaimed Monday night at The New York Public Library in Midtown Manhattan. And with that, Shawn Carter gave the night a theme — and the grounding it needed. Because though he releases his memoir and lyrical anthology Decoded (Spiegel & Grau) Tuesday, the Public Library — literary, elegant, unabashedly highbrow — is not the sort of venue you'd necessarily expect to host the iconic Marcy projects-bred rapper.
But with the publication of the book and the release of a greatest hits collection next week, Jay-Z is experiencing a highbrow moment. Dressed smartly in a dark blue tailored suit, with a gold Rolex peeking out from the sleeve, Jay was flanked by Paul Holdengräber, the NYPL Director of Public Programs, who acted as MC for the evening, and the esteemed Princeton professor and public intellectual Cornel West.
The three men engaged in a loose, rollicking 90-minute conversation that touched on a wide range of topics: the music played in Jay's parents' Brooklyn household when he was a kid ("We had all the new, super-cool records"), the evolution of his writing process and the diversity of his iPod. "If you look, you'll find Miles [Davis], you'll find Thom Yorke, you'll find Ol' Dirty Bastard," Jay said.
Holdengräber, perplexed — he was a relative Jay-Z neophyte — deadpanned, "You will lose me at times." Moments later, while Holdengräber recounted the music of his childhood, Jay gave as good as he got. "You will lose me at times," he cracked.
At one point, West challenged Jay's mission, particularly about where the line between "the hustler" and the freedom fighter lies. "[Hustling is] about freedom, but it gets lost, and becomes about greed and the excitement of getting away with it," Jay-Z conceded. But ultimately West positioned Jay-Z as a descendant of a long-standing African-American tradition of socially relevant entertainers, putting him in league with Count Basie, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Harry Belafonte, who was in attendance.
Jay also cited a tense conversation he had with Oprah Winfrey about race and the power of language as a major inspiration for Decoded, which inspired a rabblerousing rant from West about Winfrey's "entrepreneurial genius" and the conservatism of her "social constituencies."
Much of the conversation was less politically charged, instead revolving around the intention and origin of some of Jay-Z's most famous songs, like the-true-to-life warped humor behind 2004's "99 Problems," the chicanery related to the sample clearance for 1998's "Hard Knock Life" and the particularly moving story of the rapper Scarface's verse on Jay-Z's 2000 song "This Can't Be Life." All three tales are recounted in detail in Decoded, along with dozens more.
"They say rap is for kids," Jay-Z said near the conversation's end. "It's not. It's for everybody."