paper trail

Nov 16, 2010 @ 2:00:00 pm

Jay-Z at the New York Public Library, photo by Jori Klein.

Bookworms and b-boys (and girls) were buoyant last night at the New York Public Library’s Jay-Z appearance with Cornel West. Fans showed up hours before the 7pm event, giddy with anticipation at seeing the music biz's "number-one supplier." Jay-Z is promoting his lavish new autobiography, Decoded, which mixes memoir and a labyrinthine self-deconstruction of his lyrics. Tickets were notoriously hard to come by, and those lucky enough to have them weren’t above gloating (“We’re all VIPs!” someone in the general admissions line shouted during the long wait to get past the security area). Inside the normally hushed Celeste Bartos auditorium, the mood was an odd combination of library colloquy and hip-hop concert: The crowd a mix of fervent Jay-Z fans and those more familiar with the LOC than the HOV’. But an A-list celebrity like Jay can easily bridge such divides, and his charisma enthralled the audience after the packed house had been warmed up with soul songs (Marvin Gaye, James Brown), Jay-Z’s Black Album track “December 4th" (featuring a recording of Jay-Z’s mother talking about his childhood), and a Louis Armstrong tune. The moderator, the NYPL's Paul Holdengraber, said he was experiencing a “euphoria of ignorance” about hip-hop. He quipped that he grew up comparing the merits of various versions of The Magic Flute, and drew a noticeable blank when Jay-Z mentioned the rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, saying, "You will lose me at times." But Holdengraber said that he loved what he had learned from Decoded, and his new-found enthusiasm for Jay-Z's work was genuine and infectious, as he gamely and capably steered the conversation with Jay-Z and West, reading selections from Decoded, and pronouncing Jay-Z to be a major poet, a statement that garnered roof-rocking applause.

During the wide-ranging, nearly two hour discussion (which was live blogged at The Guardian), Jay-Z answered questions from West and Holdengraber honestly and eloquently. He spoke about growing up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn (as described in the song "What More Can I Say:" "I remember vividly/What these streets did to me"), and the thrill of discovering rap: "It made language new." Jay-Z repeatedly stressed the importance of context in understanding hip-hop culture, explaining that that was the main reason his lyrics are annotated in Decoded. He cited the song "99 Problems" as an example, because the word bitch features prominently in its catchy chorus. Jay-Z told the song’s story, which is about “driving while black,” and offered the not-quite-convincing explanation that "bitch" refers to a dog in a police K-9 unit, adding, "I was being provocative . . . it struck me as deeply funny that people thought I was talking about women." (Perhaps not as funny to women who would love to see that degrading word banished from pop-culture.)

The trio also talked about God (Jay-Z is a believer, opining that all religions are "praying to the same God," though he admitted a moment of doubt when the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered), fame ("It's more of a challenge than a burden"), Obama imitating Jay's famous gesture, and how Jay forgave his father for leaving his family, an encounter chronicled memorably in the song "Moment of Clarity." Jay-Z gave Harry Belafonte, Lupe Fiasco, and some old friends in the front rows shout-outs along the way, but there was no sign of his wife, Beyonce. The evening ended with Jay-Z's “Empire State of Mind,” a song that catpures both the beauty and grit of NYC, blasting on the PA. The audience bobbed their heads and clapped along. Wrapping up, Holdengraber asked West if he had any more questions for Jay-Z, and West, obviously moved by the music, simply said, echoing the chorus: “I am inspired." Kudos to the city's finest cultural institution for bringing together a Princeton professor and a poet from the projects to inspire us all.