Jay-Z, 2009. Photo courtesy of Matthew Harrison via Creative Commons license.
Rap and hip-hop are musical genres charged with masculine swagger and bravado. Which is why, when pressed, so many players in the genre fail to show vulnerability and express their feelings. Then again, rap stars aren't just rap stars anymore. They're successful businessmen and moguls. Case in point: Jay-Z, part owner of the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, which opened this past week with his eight sold-out concerts. A consummate performer and one Mr. Beyoncé Knowles, Jay-Z is also a celebrated author; he released his memoir, “Decoded,” in 2010. The book drew strong critical success, and it was even lauded by Oprah, who gifted her audience with copies. "Oprah was a big reason I wrote this book," he told a New York audience in 2010. "We had conversations about language and the N word and while we didn't agree, we left that conversation with a better understanding."
In “Decoded,” Jay-Z tells his story through his lyrics -- and nothing is sacred. In one passage, he recounts a miscarriage his girlfriend of five years suffered in the early nineties. In another, he discusses the lessons he learned from watching MC Hammer make -- and then lose -- millions of dollars. It’s an unprecedented glimpse into the mind of one of today’s most influential artists.
Here are four more must-read rap and hip-hop memoirs:
"Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me" by R. Kelly
Marrying an underage girl, creating a rap soap opera, becoming one of the best-selling R&B artists of all time...is there anything R. Kelly hasn't done? His memoir "Soulacoaster" offers a glimpse into his bizarre world. From the death of a girlfriend, to a gunshot wound as a child, to illiteracy and molestation -- what hasn't this guy been through? “Kells” apparently found the strength to persevere through faith in God and the support of a rather prognostic high school music teacher, who told him, “The spirit of God is on you, son. You are going to be famous. You are going to write songs for Michael Jackson.…You are anointed.” Let's hope she had some money riding on that. One caveat: you won't find much juicy dirt in “Soulacoaster” -- this is the guy who wrote "I Believe I Can Fly," after all.
"E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography Of DMX" by DMX
Not familiar with DMX? Maybe you missed his powerfully charged hit song "Up In Here," or failed to catch him on VH1's "Celebrity Couples' Therapy," where he painfully revealed a childhood filled with abuse. No matter, his memoir "E.A.R.L." will catch you up on DMX's dark history. The rapper makes no bones about his criminal past, chronicling violent robberies he committed in his youth and his periodic incarcerations. Published in 2002, it's a frightening look into DMX's world, and one that foretells of his troubles over the next ten years.
"The RZA: The Tao of Wu" by RZA
Some might say that producer and musician RZA is the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan -- the glue that holds the proverbial rap collective together. Which is why it makes sense that the RZA's memoir would serve the double purpose of autobiography and spiritual guide. "Tao" is written as a sort of manual to living, and outlines RZA's "pillars of wisdom" -- his seven-point plan for success structured around seven key turning points in his life. RZA is an equal opportunity spiritualist -- cobbling together wisdom inspired by Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Bruce Lee. He is thorough in his coverage of the facts, too, offering details on his attempted murder charge and an insider perspective on Wu Tang recordings.
"Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money and God" by Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons isn’t a rapper, per se, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most important figures in the hip-hop world. That’s because Simmons is the founder of Def Jam records, the label behind monumental hip-hop groups like Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. Simmons founded the label with friend Rick Rubin in the early eighties, and grew it from a small record label to the foundation for his entertainment, fashion, and food empire. His memoir isn’t simply the story of Simmons, but the story of hip-hop as told through Simmons’ impact on it.