Kevin Mazur, WireImage
"Any music without context is a lie," he said in front of a packed audience inside the Library's Celeste Bartos Forum last night. "If I tell you that N.W.A. said 'F--- tha police,' you would look and say those guys are gangster rappers. They shouldn't say things like that, until the Rodney King beatings, which gave it context."
The artist was interviewed by the Library's director of public programs, Paul Holdengraber, and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West in talking about 'Decoded,' which covers Jay-Z's life and the meaning behind some of his lyrics. Holdengraber commented that Jay-Z set the record straight about his songs and made people realize that reading the lyrics is important.
"For me, we're all complex human beings," said Jay-Z. "Nothing is simply black and white. There are multiple reasons why we arrive at such decisions. It's impossible without context to tell a story because you'll be telling some sort of lie. For me it was very important to give these stories context and not just give excuses to everything we've done."
Jay-Z also recalled his earliest encounter with the music as a youngster in the late '70s growing up in the Marcy Houses. "[Rap] made the language new. It took words that we knew everyday and gave them different meaning and we can tell our story that had never been told before. I was mesmerized from that point on
During the conversation, West brought up religion and how the death of the Notorious B.I.G. had shaken Jay-Z's faith, to which Jay-Z responded: "I believe in God and I believe in things happening for a reason. When certain things happen in life, it kind of shakes your foundation of what you believe, like a baby being killed. I don't think that's against religion or blasphemous. I think you have to question everything about life.
"Biggie was the most charismatic person. He wasn't a troublemaker at all. He was a funny, charismatic guy. For him to die so senselessly in L.A. -- I spoke to him that night and he was so happy to be in L.A. after the whole East Coast-West Coast thing. He had this sense that everything was great. You see this happen in movies -- when everything is just fine, [you] hang up the phone, and one hour later he's no longer with us."
Another topic during the interview was a discussion about Jay-Z's parents, including his father, who abandoned Jay and his family when the artist was around 11 or 12 years old. It was years later that the two reconciled before Jay-Z's father died. Jay-Z later discovered that his father's brother died.
"My father would go out at night and looked for the guy who killed [his brother]. My mother would say, 'You have a family here.' He said, 'That's my brother.' He really got depressed, started drinking and doing drugs. Without that context, just him leaving, I had this anger. Slowly I got to know why. I can understand a bit of what happened to him.
Holdengraber asked Jay-Z that if he had a child, what type of world would he prepare him or her for. "A complex world that, at the core, we all share the same fears," said Jay-Z. "To just try to find your own voice and who you are, and not to follow in any footsteps. 'What are the questions you have?' 'What are you going to do to change the world?' 'How do you feel?' Just being an individual."