Word: Jay-Z’s “Decoded” and the language of hip-hop

From The New Yorker:

Book Jay-Z grew up absorbing many of the rhymes that Bradley and DuBois celebrate. He was born in 1969, and raised in the Marcy Houses, in an area of Brooklyn from which Times Square seemed to be “a plane ride away.” (Nowadays, some real-estate agents doubtless consider it part of greater Williamsburg.) “It was the seventies,” he writes, “and heroin was still heavy in the hood, so we would dare one another to push a leaning nodder off a bench the way kids on farms tip sleeping cows.” He was a skinny, watchful boy with a knack for rhyming but no great interest in the music industry, despite some early brushes with fame—he briefly served as Big Daddy Kane’s hype man. Besides, Jay-Z had a day job that was both more dangerous and more reliable: he says he spent much of the late eighties and early nineties selling crack in Brooklyn and New Jersey and down the Eastern Seaboard. He was no kingpin, but he says he was a fairly accomplished mid-level dealer, and though he hated standing outside all day, he found that he didn’t hate the routine. “It was an adventure,” he says. “I got to hang out on the block with my crew, talking, cracking jokes. You know how people in office jobs talk at the watercooler? This job was almost all watercooler.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “But when you weren’t having fun, it was hell.”

Early recordings of Jay-Z reveal a nimble but mild-mannered virtuoso, delivering rat-a-tat syllables (he liked to rap in double-time triplets, delivering six syllables per beat) that often amounted to études rather than songs. But by 1996, when he released his début album, “Reasonable Doubt,” on a local independent label, he had slowed down and settled into a style—and, more important, settled into character. The album won him underground acclaim and a record deal with the very above-ground hip-hop label Def Jam, which helped him become one of the genre’s most dependable hitmakers. He was a cool-blooded hustler, describing a risky life in conversational verses that hid their poetic devices, disparaging the art of rapping even while perfecting it:

Who wanna bet us that we don’t touch lettuce, stack
cheddars forever, live treacherous, all the et ceteras.
To the death of us, me and my confidants, we
shine. You feel the ambiance—y’all niggas just rhyme.

More here.