Last night at the Brooklyn Museum, a couple hundred literary types, rap nerds, and life-long fans gathered to see Jay-Z wax poetic on his new memoir, Decoded. It was a homecoming of sorts for Hova, a victory lap around his old borough. The front row held a coterie of his friends and family, including the diminutive figure of “wifey” Beyoncé, clad in fur and seated snugly between an enormous bodyguard and Jay-Z’s mother. The small, wood-paneled auditorium felt distinctly middle school-like, as if Jay-Z were a popular student body president about to make a speech. As he took the stage with Charlie Rose, he warned his hosts, who were taping his appearance for a later television screening, “You might have to bleep this.”
Jay-Z’s exchange with Rose started off with stories his fans are already familiar with — his fight to the top, his father leaving, and his introduction to hustling crack around the Marcy Projects. He credited his mother with an introduction to music, describing days when “the house would smell like Pine-sol, with the windows open and the curtains blowing, and my Mom would be playing the Temptations or King Tut III.”
Rose, who played the sort of dorky straight man to Jay-Z’s composed cool guy, had a few moments that verged on the cringe-worthy — reading some of Jay-Z’s lyrics out to him, to which Hova replied, “Yeah, OK,” and mispronouncing Beyoncé’s name. He asked Jay-Z what the deal was with kids and baggy pants, a question that seemed absurd, considering that Jay-Z traded in his XXXL T-shirts for expensive suits long ago. (The answer: “It’s for hiding weapons… and other things. I don’t want to give everything away.”) When he asked Jay-Z about Tupac — a name he sounded out as “two-pack” — Jay-Z stopped him, to the audience’s enormous delight. “Can I explain this here tonight? White people — and I can say this because I’m so not racist — call Tupac ‘two-pack.’ If it was ‘two-pack’ it would have a ‘K’. You’re not the first, but after tonight hopefully you’ll be the last.” Charlie Rose responded with a fist-bump.
Probably our favorite exchange, though, was one centered around the 1999 stabbing of Lance “Un” Rivera, which Jay-Z explained as “a guy from Fulton and a guy from Marcy… two big dudes that had a good fight… He was stabbed but he went home without taking an aspirin.”
Rose: “So who stabbed him?”
Jay-Z: “What? Come on, Man. I can’t do that.”
Suffice to say, Rose’s prowess as an interviewer doesn’t translate to detective work. But biographical details aside, some of the most interesting moments of the night were when Jay-Z shifted from rapper and subject of adulation to cultural critic, placing his work — and rap in general — in the oral storytelling and poetic tradition.
A few more choice quips from the evening:
On how he responds to accusations of rap being misogynistic: “Well, there’s a point to that. In life, some of it is misogynistic, and some of it is crap. But no one should make a blanket statement about an art form or a race or a generation without knowing what it’s about. Most artists get a deal at 16 or 17 and they don’t get to grow. Rappers grow as artists from album to album.”
On whether Soulja Boy and Wacka Flocka Flame should be regarded in the same vein of hip-hop as him: “Look, it’s all hip-hop still. Some music is just better than others.”
On the possibility of a future “little Jay-Z or little Beyoncé”: “I think it would be great. I believe in the universe. When the time is right, when the wine is cold. You won’t find out about it in US Weekly, though.”
Photo Credit: Adam Husted/Brooklyn Museum