Jay-Z says he had three goals with the book. The first goal was to make the case that hip-hop lyrics (not just his lyrics, but those of every great MC) are poetry if you look at them closely enough. (I got a kick out of reading that because I've been telling my friends that for a while myself.) The second goal was to tell a little bit of the story of his generation and show the context for the choices they made. The third goal was to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to. All three messages came across clearly in the book.
The book alternated between prose and lyrical decomposition -- breaking down line by line (and often word by word) with footnotes describing the double and sometimes triple meanings behind the lyrics. I was amazed to see so much that I had missed from more cursory listening.
I also learned a lot of interesting things about Jay-Z's life. His dad left his family when Jay-Z was very young, and though he did reunite with him, it was a very traumatic childhood. He saw his first murder at age 9 and would routinely wake up to the sound of gunshots in the New York Projects housing where he lived.
He grew up hustling (selling drugs) on the streets and traveling all over the state to make a living. While doing this since a young age, he would write rhymes almost non-stop, stopping in the middle of crosswalks and noting down rhymes on paper bags. He couldn't stop the rhymes from coming into his head. He spent considerable time traveling around and rapping for others too, trying to get his break into the music industry, which never treated him well.
In the end, he became a true entrepreneur. He risked all his capital and resources and pooled them with a friend to start his own label (Roc-A-Fella). This was the only way he could produce the music he wanted. He did the same thing for clothes. He saw what a large effect rap was having on the sales of other goods (like Cristal champagne), and when he wanted to team up with brands to cross-promote, no one would support him. He did the same thing with clothes as he did in music: he went out on his own and started Roc-A-Wear, a highly successful clothing company.
Throughout the book, Jay-Z points out how people are naive and take his lyrics at only a surface level, thinking that all he says is true and how he feels. He says that he writes songs like authors write books and screenwriters write movies: they are stories meant to convey a message. In the same way you don't expect Matt Damon to be a spy in real life, the stories that Jay-Z sings in the first person are similarly pure narratives meant to grab attention but not actually cause you to believe every word.
There was a lot of awesome stuff in the book, and below are some of my favorite quotes:
- If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it. The beat is everywhere, but every life has to find its own flow.
- A lot of street cats come in to the music game and expect a certain kind of honor and ethics, even outside of contracts. But in business, like they say, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. So I mind my business, and I don’t apologize for it.
- He knew that the key to success was believing in the quality of your own product enough to make people do business with you on your terms.
- To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of lie. To tell the story of the pain without telling the story of the rewards—the money, the girls, the excitement—is a different kind of evasion. To talk about killing niggas dead without talking about waking up in the middle of the night from a dream about the friend you watched die, or not getting to sleep in the first place because you’re so paranoid from the work you’re doing, is a lie so deep it’s criminal.
- For any image or symbol or creative act to mean something, it has to touch something deeper, connect to something true.
- Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just fucks with you for the fun of it.
- The highest level of giving, the eighth, is giving in a way that makes the receiver self-sufficient. [In reference to different levels of anonymity in charitable giving and philanthropy]
- It’s hard to beat the entertainment value of people who deliberately misunderstand the world, people dying to be insulted, running around looking for a bullet to get in front of. [In reference to his critics]
- This is one of the things that makes rap at its best so human. It doesn't force you to pretend to be only one thing or another, to be a saint or sinner. Having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is the most common thing in the world. The real bullshit is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you, that you’re so dull and unimaginative that your mind never changes or wanders into strange, unexpected places.
- Identity isn't a prison you can never escape. The way to redeem your past is not to run from it, but to try to understand it, and use it as a foundation to grow.
- Competition pushes you to become your best self, and in the end it tells you where you stand.
- If the price is life, then you better get what you paid for. There’s an equal and opposite relationship between balling and falling.
- Going back to poetry for a minute: I love metaphors, and for me hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles -- the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all.
- It's like a metaphor for itself; if you can say how dope you are in a completely original, clever, powerful way, the rhyme itself becomes proof of the boast's truth.
- Poets make words work by giving them layers of meaning, so you can use them to get at complicated truths in a way that straightforward storytelling fails to do.
- It took me a long time to realize how much courage it took to work at McDonald's, to walk through the streets past rows of hustlers wearing that orange uniform.
- You learn to compete as if your life depended on it. That's the lesson I brought with me to the so-called "legitimate" world.
- Everything that hip-hop touches is transformed by the encounter, especially things like language and brands, which leave themselves open to constant redefinition. With language, rappers have raided the dictionary and written in new entries to every definition: words with one or two meanings now have twelve. The same thing happens with brands (Cristal).
- We gave those brands a narrative, which is one of the reasons anyone buys anything: to own not just a product, but to become part of a story.
- This is what the streets have done for us, for me: they've given us our drive, they've made us stronger. Through hip-hop we found a way to redeem those lessons, and use them to change the world.
- There's enough of whatever you love to kill you. That kind of sudden change can destabilize even the most grounded personality. and that's when you lose yourself--like the Eminem song says, "superstardom's close to a post-mortem."
- There was a real tension between the power of the story we wanted to tell and just how desperately some powerful people didn't want to hear it.
- What's the meaning? That's the question rap was built on from the beginning and, through a million different paths, that's still its ultimate subject.
- There's wisdom in all kinds of religious traditions--I'll take from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever. The parts that make the most sense feel like they're coming from the same voice, the same G-d.
- For hip-hop to keep growing, we have to keep pushing deeper and deeper into the biggest subjects and doing it with real honesty. The truth is always relevant.
- Rap, as I said at the beginning of the book, is at heart an art form that gave voice to a specific experience, but, like every art, is ultimately about the most common human experiences: joy, pain, fear, desire, uncertainty, hope, anger. Love, money, and power don't change you, they jut further expose your true self.