Books of the Year: Pop
Robbie Williams offers a glimpse inside his head, while Jay-Z pretends to have been to Morocco
Sunday 12 December 2010
At first sight, Jay-Z's Decoded (Virgin, £20) looks like a bit of a cop-out. An earlier collaboration with co-writer Dream Hampton was abandoned after Jay-Z proclaimed it "too revealing", which suggested that in this case "Encoded" might have been a more appropriate title. And as early as the fourth sentence ("Housing projects can seem like labyrinths to outsiders, as complicated and intimidating as a Moroccan bazaar"), Hampton breaks the golden rule of the celebrity co-author, which is never to write a sentence which the reader won't be able to imagine the book's nominal author saying.
However, once the differing styles of writer and subject start to mesh, the resulting hybrid becomes more than the sum of its parts. And as an insider's analysis of how, from Biggie Smalls onwards, the heritage of the civil-rights struggle and the hustler's quest for material advancement came to be unified in the person of the gangsta rapper, Decoded will be impossible to better.
From the moment Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat (Virgin, £30) refers to Noël Coward as "a writer whose lyrics I cordially but intensely dislike", it's clear the reader is in for a feast of professional bitchery to make the most hardened battle-rapper blush. The clarity of Sondheim's analysis of masculine and feminine, perfect and false rhymes make it an essential read for would-be grime MCs as well as devotees of A Little Night Music.
In Keith Richards' Life (Weidenfeld, £20), the Dartford war-baby who "couldn't buy a bag of sweets till 1954", and has been making up for it ever since, pulls no punches regarding his songwriting partner's genitalia ("I know he's got an enormous pair of balls, but it doesn't quite fill the gap does it"). But it is fascinating to compare Richards' memories (blustering, still emotionally raw) of the interaction between his then "old lady" Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger on the set of the film Performance with the crisply devastating account Barry Miles gives in his excellent, racy yet responsible overview, London Calling: A Counter-Cultural History of London Since 1945 (Atlantic, £25).
Enter Night (Orion, £20), Mick Wall's biography of Metallica, confirms this grizzled veteran to be as engaged and waspishly authoritative a chronicler of metal's most hirsute behemoths as Barry Miles has been for the Beats. The band's Danish playboy drummer Lars Ulrich "was regarded as special from the day he was born", Wall writes. "It was a view he would quickly grow to share."
Chris Heath and Robbie Williams's You Know Me (Ebury, £20) won't quite solve the mystery of what was going on inside Robbie's head during his recent X Factor performance with Take That, but it certainly contains some clues, and perhaps the whole truth might be too disturbing to take in at one sitting.
David Toop's Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum, £14.99) uses the spectral intangibility of sound as the springboard for a leap into the haunted netherworld between music and silence. It's the mark of a genuinely challenging read that the mind should find itself taking a breather during extended quotes from Virginia Woolf, but this fourth in Toop's series of meditations turns out to be the most illuminating yet.
And finally, anyone who still has a coffee table will find Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s (Soul Jazz, £25) the perfect thing to put on it. The cover art of Cesar G Villela contained therein applies Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "the excess of detail in a composition is called visual noise" to gorgeously pristine effect.
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