My 403 read Jay-Z’s book Decoded for class a few weeks ago, not long after our unit on Language Poetry in 370. I was really struck by what I thought were some important similarities between Jay-Z’s work and Bernstein’s poem “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” as well as Jay-Z’s and Lyn Hejinian’s visions for their respective media. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about hip-hop, so I’ll use Decoded as a cipher for understanding some wider generic conventions. I’ll focus on “Barbarism” and “Lives of the Toll Takers” as a way of understanding Language Poetry and its goals.
Hejinian’s the hippie-feminist at the top of this page. Charles Bernstein is a poet, professor, theorist, and scholar. Jay-Z is this glamorous former-crack-dealer-from-the-projects and, well, Jay-Z. They write in different time periods to different audiences. But I’m not sure they write to entirely different ends. I think comparing them yields surprising results.
First, I think it’s useful to examine their politics. In “Barbarism,” Hejinian sums up the Language Poetry project in distinctly political terms: “The pervasive hypocrisy of the 1950s and 1960s was operating in several strategic forms: as outright lies…as deceptive metaphors…and, finally, in the more subtle form of a complete failure to examine political language and indeed any language at all, thus establishing the pretense that language is ‘natural’”(323-24). On the same page, Hejinian lists the major contentions of Language writing, many of which relate to the social structures of language.
Jay-Z gets political in Decoded, too, albeit in a less theorized way: “America, as I
understood the concept, hated my black ass” (154). He describes the poverty and racism in the same projects that yielded hip-hop music, and contends that hip-hop “was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens” (155). He also argues that the “War on Drugs” was a patently racist endeavor, designed to imprison young black men. Though Hejinian and Jay-Z express their projects in vastly different ways, they both focus on challenging accepted conventions of language as a way to challenge the received (and corrupt) social order. They both achieve this goal, in part, with an emphasis on word-play and punning.
We all talked about, and hopefully enjoyed, the wordplay in “The Lives of the Toll Takers”; my favorite was “rhymes may come and rhymes may go, but there’s no crime like presentiment.” Or, in an anticipation of MasterCard, “A picture is worth 44.95 but no price can be put on words.” We talked about how the disruption of these idioms and cliches shows that our received language, just like our received social order, is not natural or necessary. Based on the principles of Language writing, Jay-Z’s forwardly political “American Dreamin’” challenges the received social order in both form and content.
Specifically, American Dreamin’ disrupts conventional images and idioms through coded references to drugs – references Jay-Z does, indeed, decode in Decoded (33-34). One of the first lines in the song states, “We need a place to pitch, we need a mound.” “‘Pitch’ was slang for a hustle,” Jay-Z explains in a footnote, though the reference to baseball seems the most obvious. This is just one example of a song full of wordplay, and he references the wordplay in the lines “The ironies are/ And at all costs better avoid these bars.” In the annotation, Jay reveals that the “ironies” are a self-conscious reflection on the ironies (or, as Hejinian might say, hypocrisies) of life in the underclasses, as well as a reference to the song’s wordplay, and a play on words itself – the “iron” of the next line’s prison bars. Another example are the rapidly rhyming lines, “Survive the droughts? I wish you well?/ How sick am I? I wish you HEALTH/ I wish you wheels, I wish you wealth/ I wish you insight so you could see for yourself.” Jay takes the idea of “well-wishing,” perhaps most often seen on a Hallmark card, and disrupts it in several ways: “The well is a literal place to store and draw water,” he explains, “so I’m wishing my fellow hustlers the foresight to stash, to be resourceful…to have a place from which to draw.” He also surprises the listeners by wishing them “wheels” and “wealth,” which may not typically be part of the Hallmark-card variety of well-wishing. Finally, Jay contends that the use of “insight” refers not just to perception but also to “sight in, the ability to see beyond what’s visible, to see even within your soul.”
Jay’s line-by-line decoding in Decoded shows that his lyrics are often layered with meanings and connotations intended to simultaneously call to mind several disparate images, often images that disrupt one another (the conflation of selling crack with the Great American Past-time, for example). Considering hip-hop’s stated political and social aims, I think some of these rhymes, intentionally or not, actually fulfill the goals of Language poets.