Jay-Z Says Oprah, Belafonte Are Inspirations During 'Decoded' Reading

Jay-Z, Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber in conversation at the NYPL on November 15th, 2010 in New York.

Jay-Z held a book reading/signing at the New York Public Library last night (Nov. 15), moderated by Dr. Cornel West and the Director of the "Live" program at the NYPL, Paul Holdengraber. Dubbed "Jay-Z In Conversation With Dr. Cornel West and Paul Holdengraber," the Brooklyn rapper took the hour-and-a-half session to further break down his lyrics and the inspiration behind them as they appear in his book "Decoded."

Video: Jay-Z at NYPL

"I've said it before, my goal is to make the lions roar. Well, guess what? Tonight my goal is to make the lions rap," Holdengraber said as he introduced Jay-Z to loud claps from the audience, which included Lupe Fiasco and Harry Belafonte. "It's a great honor tonight to have Jay-Z... We're making the books dance and this heavy institution levitate."

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Jay-Z kicked off the conversation by discussing the passage about growing up with music, particularly Michael Jackson, and how when his parents split when he was about 11 or 12, they also split the record collection. "Our house was like the 'Good Times' house -- it was the house around the neighborhood that everyone went to because we had all the records and because I had super cool parents," recalled Jay-Z, adding that his parents had "their names on the individual records to keep tab of who bought what. It filled my house with joy, emotions and feelings. It gave me a wide range of music, too, which is why I have no prejudices today. It was all about good music. Now, on my ipod I have Miles [Davis], Thom Yorke and Ol' Dirty Bastard."

Video: Jay-Z at NYPL

Holdengraber admitted when he first picked up the book, he wasn't sure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised. "I approached the book with a euphoria of ignorance. I wasn't ready to be bowed over, partly because I grew up listening to various versions of the flute. But, that's what's so striking about 'Decoded,'" he joked, saying that he now believes "Decoded" is one of the top ten books of this decade and that it should have the honor of being archived at the library.

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Throughout the discussion, the main message Jay-Z kept stressing was that, at our core, we are all the same, except different circumstances shape our lives. "At the core, we are all humans. If you take our colors away, we have the same emotions," he said.

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Jay-Z said "Decoded" gives "context" to his life story and the circumstances of his own life and used the Denzel Washington movie "John Q" as an example. He explained how the clip is about a man who takes a hospital emergency room patients hostage out of desperation because his son is ill and needs a new heart. "If I told you that, you'd say 'there's no eason on Earth why anyone should be in there with a gun.' But given the context, you understand why people make the choices they make."

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Appropriately, Dr. West asked Jay-Z soon after, after 11 No. 1 albums, "where are you now?" Jay-Z replied, "music saved my life... My job is to push the culture forward. That means more to me than having 11 No. 1 albums, although that is very fun."

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Jay-Z addressed both Belafonte and Fiasco at one point, sharing a story about growing up and having a photo of Coretta Scott King taped to his wall in which Belanfonte also appeared. "It was a beautiful picture -- I mean, because you can see struggle and worry in her face. But then there's you, sort of like her protector," he said. "I remember looking at that picture, like, 'This guy is a musician or a movie star. Why is he there?' It made me realize that we as musicians have a greater responsibility. You were one of those inspirations for me, so, thank you."

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Jay-Z also credited Oprah for being a force behind "Decoded." "When we met we talked about language and the N-word and we walked away from the conversation saying we will agree to disagree," he said. "But we also understood who were were and realized we had more things alike than dissimilar. That's what my music is a conversation."

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His anecdote about the song "99 Problems" was one of the highlights of the evening, as Jay-Z explained that in the line "I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one" he wasn't necessarily referring to a female. He said the second verse is a story of a man who is driving around with drugs in his car and is "completely in the wrong" but gets pulled over not because of the drugs, but because he is Black. The cop says, "Are you carrying a weapon? A lot of you are." Used to breaking the law, the driver tells him "I know you can't go in my trunk or my glove compartment without a proper warrant," which prompts the cop to ask, "Are you a lawyer or something?" He tells the driver to sit around and wait for a K9 unit, but he knows "if that happens, we're in trouble, cause they bring the dogs and they can sniff the drugs." But, the K9 unit is on another call and the cop allows the detained driver to drive off.

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When they are a couple of blocks away, they see the K9 unit speed pass them in the opposite direction with the sirens on, and, thankful they've missed it by just a couple of minutes, Jay-Z raps while pointing at the K9, "I got 99 problems but THAT bitch ain't one."

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Jay-Z also talked about how Biggie's death made him question God -- who he asserted he believes in -- said fame is more a "challenge than a burden," broke down his appreciation for Lauryn Hill's song "Zion" and for Scarface after recording the song "Can't Be Life" and encouraged those that have grown up without a parent to "have that conversation and let the anger go."

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In related news, Jay-Z is set to make a return to the "Oprah" show next month from Australia while touring with U2, reports Chicago Now.

"Decoded" hits shelves today.