There are very few artists who can match the potency of Jay-Z. Not only is he a fresh-to-death rapper and Brooklyn native, but he is also the premiere music mogul, undoubted king of New York, and undeniable rhyme master. Hova has rightly established himself as one of the legends of hip-hop and while he certainly made his name away from the mic, being Beyonce’s husband can have that effect on your career, it is in the studio that Jay really put his own spin on the rap game.
Unlike any other hip hop artist before him, the rapper made sure that his albums weren’t hit singles with a few fillers, they were bodies of work, pieces of art set to be discussed for decades. It speaks to a sense of cultural cultivation that has set out Jay as one of the greats. With such a powerful mind, it’s no surprise that Jay has also picked out some of his favourite books on occasion, proving he not only knows his way around music but literature too.
Announcing himself in 1996 with Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z has become the foreword in class. His rhymes are silky, visually engaging and underpinned by Hova’s natural flow, they are as happy to discuss the usual tropes of hip-hop (making money, getting girls and being a gangster on your block) but he’s also, especially in his later years, used his position to try and open the minds of his audience, something promoted within all aspects of his art — Jay is about as daring and cultured as a rapper can be.
Born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969, the writing was on the wall for Jay at an early stage in his career. The rapper founded his label Roc-A-Fella in 1995 before he later released his debut LP a year later. It showed that while easily considered one of the greatest rappers of his generation, above all else, Jay was a businessman as well as an artist.
With a career that reaches back across three decades, it is pivotal to understand the man behind the music that we understand the peoples, places and things that inspire him, including his favourite books. Brought together by Radical Reads, here we have Jay-Z favourite books of all time.
These could well be just some fun extra-curricular reading or, quite possibly, they could become tomes of your future success. The books are collected from his 2010 autobiography Decoded. “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,” he wrote.
Continuing, Jay notes: “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.”
His selections speak highly of a man who knows that to be the best you have to read the best. It means there are selections from both James Redfield and Gary Zukav, Homer and Dick Gregory and, perhaps most importantly Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. About that title, Jay says: “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 practised—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.”
In his conclusion on the power of words, Jay offers up a reflection of his own life: “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.”
Jay-Z’s favourite books:
- Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
- Purple Cow – Seth Godin
- Nigger – Dick Gregory
- The Odyssey – Homer
- The Celestine Prophecy – James Redfield
- The Seat of the Soul – Gary Zukav