“I’d spend free time reading the dictionary, building my vocabulary for battles…I wasn’t even in high school yet and I’d discovered my voice. But I still needed a story to tell.” Jay-Z‘s 2010 memoir Decoded doesn’t just tell the stories behind his favorite lyrics, tracing Shawn Carter’s roots in the Brooklyn projects to becoming one of the most prolific and influential rappers of our time – it makes the case for rap as a form of poetry, and presents an ode to the musician and mogul’s lifelong love of words.

Jay-Z writes: “Rap 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—love of crew, love of family, even romantic love.” By recognizing rap as art, he argues, MCs can use their words to touch on deep truths: “Since rap is poetry, and a good MC is a good poet, you can’t just half-listen to a song once and think you’ve got it. Here’s what I mean: A poet’s mission is to make words do more work than they normally do, to make them work on more than one level. For instance, a poet makes words work sonically – as sounds, as music…The other ways that poets make words work is 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. The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly obvious and subliminally effective at the same time.”

Ending on the unique power words have to bring people together, he writes, “The story of the larger culture is a story of a million MCs all over the world who are looking out their windows or standing on street corners or riding in their cars through their cities or suburbs or small towns and inside of them the words are coming, too, the words they need to make sense of the world they see around them. The words are witty and blunt, abstract and linear, sober and fucked up. And when we decode that torrent of words—by which I mean really listen to them with our minds and hearts open—we can understand their world better. And ours, too. It’s the same world.”

Read on for a list of Jay-Z’s favorite works, and complement with his conversation with Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber at the New York Public Library on the release of Decoded.


Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

“This book is about the principles of timing and repetition—about preparing yourself for luck, really. He talks about a hockey team, and how the players born in January had a year up on the guys born in December. They were fortunate that their birthday was early, but they also practiced—they put the work in. The book resonated with me because I was born at a time when there was an influx of incredible music into the culture, and I was lucky that my mom and pop were huge record collectors. In my house, I had music by Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Prince, and the Commodores, and I’m listening to it every single day.” -JZ

Purple Cow by Seth Godin 

“This is straight marketing advice: Your product has to be a purple cow—it has to be distinct to have any success. You have to be clear on your product: What are you? What are you putting out there? For years I never did an ad for [my company] Rocawear, because I cared more about the quality than the face in front. I hadn’t read this book back then, but when someone puts words to feelings you have, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what it is.'” -JZ

Nigger by Dick Gregory

“I don’t know who turned me on to this autobiography, but his sense of humor and the hardships he went through stayed with me—especially the scene where he started running home from school. It led to his joining the track team, which led to a scholarship to college. Running opened up a whole world for him.” -JZ

The Odyssey by Homer (also rec’d by Bob Dylan)

“This epic poem was kind of difficult for me to get through, but it has a beautiful rhythm. I got lost in reading about Odysseus’ struggle to get home and his longing for someone so strong, as his wife was, waiting for him. That’s like a dream—that kind of strength, love, loyalty.” -JZ

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield

“This is the other book I live by. It’s fiction—a guy travels to find a secret book that has a series of principles. The story is a metaphor for life: I could go left or right, I could be stuck, or I could keep advancing. Some people are happy where they are. I tried to hire a guy once, and I said, ‘Don’t you have ambition to be bigger?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m good.’ I had to respect that, but for me that was the wrong relationship.” -JZ

The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav

“There are two books that I absolutely live my life by. This is one of them. Growing up, I was always curious about religion. This book made the most sense to me; it’s about the way you live your life. I believe in karma and doing the right thing even if it may not advance you as far as you want. If every single person felt the same way about karma and intention, then the world gets fixed tomorrow. But temptation gets in the way. Zukav is right: It may take lifetimes to learn.” -JZ

(via O Magazine)


Books by Jay-Z

Decoded (2010)

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