Jay-Z’s “Decoded.”

After reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of Jay-Z’s autobiography, “Decoded,” I am more convinced than ever that what we are seeing in him is less a powerhouse rapper and more a artist of talent so great we can’t measure it during his lifetime.
I am reminded of a story told by John Chancellor to David Letterman back when Letterman was hosting Late Night (oddest introduction to a Jay-Z related thought ever, but bear with me).
During his time as a foreign correspondent in Europe, Chancellor and a number of other American reporters headed to a restaurant for dinner. As they ate, more of their colleagues arrived and joined them. And then more. And more. Tables were pushed together. More food ordered. Liquor, well, how could there not be liquor? At the end of the evening the check was brought, and the dozen or so poor, American reporters realized that among them they didn’t have enough money to cover the bill. As they looked at one another and tried to figure out what to do, an older gentleman at a nearby table called over the waiter, scribbled something on a napkin, said something to the waiter who nodded and returned to the reporters’ table. Taking back the check he told them that the bill had been covered.
The reporters, understandably confused, asked how.
The waiter held up the napkin, a formless scribble on it with some kind of signature below.
Still not understanding, the reporters asked again, how?
The waiter gestured to the man at the other table and said, “That gentleman is Pablo Picasso. And this drawing has just paid for your dinner.”
Picasso saw a group of people having fun and didn’t want money to keep them from losing the moment. Did the drawing pay for their good time? No, Picasso’s presence paid for it, his body of previous work paid for it, the weight of his talent on history paid for it.
I feel like Jay-Z is that kind of artist. Even when he’s not doing what he’s known for, he’s doing it. During his life he’s given acclaim and people try to use him as a foil or a jumping off point or a yardstick. The reality is that it will be generations beyond us that measures his real success and failure. For us, all we have is the weight of his talent on history. We see it, we feel it. I have a lot of respect for it.

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