What Jay-Z and Stephen Sondheim Have in Common

As collections of lyrics-with-commentary that double as autobiographies, Jay-Z's Decoded (written with journalist Dream Hampton) and Stephen Sondheim's Finishing The Hat belong to the same subgenre of music books. On the surface, that's all they have in common. The rapper's closest brush with musical theater seems to have been lying about having seen Annie to gain permission to sample "It's A Hard Knock Life." (Though he's now reportedly working with Will Smith on an update of the show). Meanwhile, the Broadway auteur's connection with hip-hop is, let's face it, nil. (Sondheim's sole comment on the genre is less dismissive than you might expect: "[R]ock and rap and country...reflect the immediacy of our world.")

There are genuine differences between the authors, beyond race, class background, and core audience. Sondheim's passionate commitment to "true rhyme" and correct syllabic stress couldn't be farther from the torqued flow that allows Jay-Z to end successive lines with "monster," "Iran-Contra," "sponsored" and "concert" ("Blue Magic"). But there are also similarities. Both books are heavy on technical, craft-conscious footnotes and assessments of major forebears (whether Oscar Hammerstein II and Dorothy Fields or Rakim and Biggie Smalls). Both lyricists are masters at creating character—Jay-Z's, he writes, being "a first-person literary conceit"—through diction and detail. And both touch on a wide and surprisingly similar range of topics:


This isn't to say that Sondheim doesn't also write love songs, or that Jay-Z doesn't brag about his Maybachs. But even when they do, there's an unexpected link: both treat the search for external gratification, whether romantic or material, as an aspect of the search for self. Many of Sondheim's shows, from Company to Passion are clear-eyed assessments of how people use their relationships to complete themselves, and how little love resolves; the hustlers that populate Jay-Z's songs have only become more voracious, and more angst-plagued, as they (and he) have risen from the block to the boardroom. For many artists in their respective genres, "falling in love" or "getting paid" are the end of the story. For Sondheim and Jay-Z, they're only the beginning.

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Franklin Bruno is a writer and musician based in Jackson Heights, Queens. He is the author of Armed Forces (Continuum), and a member of The Human Hearts and The Extra Lens.

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