Music gift guide

Our book pick

(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / November 26, 2010

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‘Decoded’’ is not a conventional or even linear memoir, but it works on two levels: as a riveting exploration of Jay-Z’s journey from the projects in Brooklyn, and as a critique of the rise of hip-hop culture. The best part? You don’t have to be a fan of the rapper and mogul’s music to get lost in “Decoded.’’ It helps, of course, but it’s so thoroughly engrossing, it reads like a good piece of cultural journalism.

Divided into two parts, “Decoded’’ is devoted to an analysis of Jay-Z’s lyrics with footnotes explaining references and esoteric meanings. It’s not just an autobiography, either. In several passages, he steps back to survey the broader picture. He expresses disappointment with the black pop stars he grew up admiring, Michael Jackson and Prince, both of whom he thought had retreated from their African-American identities in order to cross over to the masses.

Jay-Z writes passionately about his early support of Barack Obama and what his presidential win meant to him as both a black man and a hip-hop artist. He shares stories about his mentors (Russell Simmons), his friends (Eminem, Bono), his early influences (Notorious B.I.G.). Dishing a bit of dirt, he explains why he stopped drinking and promoting the Cristal champagne he name-checked in so many of his songs. He’s full of surprises, too. We learn that “99 Problems,’’ and its famously unprintable chorus, isn’t about what you might have previously thought.

As for why Jay-Z was so fixated on becoming a rapper, his answer is succinct.

“It’s simple,’’ he writes toward the end of the book. “Rhymes can make sense of the world in a way that regular speech can’t.’’