Review: Random House Digital Decoded by Jay-Z
Given how brilliantly and widely hip hop artist Jay-Z marketed the print release of his book Decoded late last year, the all but silent iTunes Store debut of the digital version -- something we've waited months to purchase -- came as a shock to us. But there's a reason for that. Published by Random House Digital, Decoded by Jay-Z ($10/$35) is an object lesson in the pitfalls of publishing in a increasingly confusing age of eBooks, web sites, and applications, blowing opportunities to either sate iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch users with an affordable digital version of the printed book, or radically improve upon that book with a dramatically better app-based experience. Instead, Decoded stumbles enough in both execution and pricing that it's hard to recommend despite the quality of its content.
In brief summary, Decoded is a loosely biographical book from hip hop artist and one-man empire Shawn Carter, who has performed for roughly two decades under the stage name Jay-Z. Rather than offering a straightforward narrative story of his life, Carter presents Decoded as a series of short tales that illuminate the contexts in which some of his most noteworthy and obscure songs were written, enabling readers to “decode” lyrics with official and frequently interesting explanations. His aim is to explain why hip hop—at least, great hip hop—deserves to be understood as poetry and art rather than just discounted as the empty boasting of gang bangers, and there’s absolutely no doubt that he succeeds: anyone who has ever doubted Jay-Z’s genius will come to understand his intricate, thoughtful, and poetic layering of lyrics in tracks that have been wrongly derided by shallow thinkers (“Fox News” types, he notes), and the man’s increasingly legendary business acumen shines through in virtually every chapter, too. Make no mistake: this is a great book, and anyone interested in the artist, businessman, or music in general should consider reading it.
But probably not in app form. Random House didn’t turn the print version of Decoded into the eBook people have been hunting for in the iBookstore for months now—something that seemed like a foregone conclusion given that Decoded now appears in the Amazon Kindle store as a $10 eBook, and that Apple recently updated iBooks to replicate the typography and graphic design of specially laid-out books such as Decoded. In other words, the company obviously had the ability to produce as simple or as complex of an iBookstore offering as it wanted, and if a nice digital version of the book had shown up there for $15, we would have jumped on it in a heartbeat.
That’s not what happened. Instead, Decoded debuted as a universal application in the App Store, bearing a $10 initial price tag and some very unusual caveats that have put off initial purchasers. Download the app version of Decoded and you get the ability to read only ten excerpts from the book, which you get to choose from a collection of 36 total chunks of pages. The excerpts are linked to songs—in some cases, only fragments of songs—that the app “decodes” using a pop-up annotation bar on the side of the iPad’s screen, or a screen-filling overlay on the iPhone/iPod touch. Seventeen of the songs include two- or three-minute video clips featuring a relaxed, almost geeky-looking Jay-Z sitting in an office while offering additional details; the $10 app lets you know up front which tracks include the videos so you can focus on them if you want. Once you pick the ten songs and hit a Decode button, the app is unlocked solely for those sections, and the rest are behind a steep pay wall: an additional $25, averaging roughly $1 per song, will give you access to the rest of the content.
Though Decoded is certainly worth paying something to read, the specifics of the App Store version’s pricing and pay mechanism aren’t going to win Jay-Z any additional fans. After buying either $10 or $35 worth of highly song-specific content from this app, you discover that no actual songs are included—just lyrics and explanations. Of course, the app will gladly take you to the iTunes Store to purchase most of the songs for $1 each if you want to listen along with what you’re reading. Nine of the songs, including four unreleased tracks, a mix tape freestyle, a track from the S. Carter Collection, and songs from the American Gangster soundtrack, can’t be purchased from within the app at all. If you have some of the songs in your iTunes library already, the app will discover them, but the idea of “decoding” songs that aren’t included and in some cases aren’t even possible to legally acquire isn’t brilliant, particularly given how much you have to pay to unlock all of the content.
To Jay-Z’s and Random House Digital’s credit, the app does include plenty of quality material, and fans will benefit from reading and listening to Decoded. The full $35 application includes 19 total videos, along with a suggestion that at least one more song—Brooklyn’s Finest, Izzo (H.O.V.A.), Lost One, Young Gz, or I Know—will be decoded in the future based on a user vote from within the app; it’s presumable but not explicit in any way within the app that the additional content will be a free update rather than another in-app purchase. Additionally, though your decoding choices are registered to the device, such that uninstalling and reinstalling the app merely decodes the same tracks again, each installation of the app on a different device enables you to decode whichever 10 tracks you desire. This “trick” owners of four iOS devices to conceivably see all of the content by using multiple installations of the $10 app, an inconvenience that some users might put themselves through to save some money.
Unfortunately, the $35 full Decoded app just isn’t a good value for the dollar, and neither is the $10 limited version. As it turns out, there are now two versions of the eBook in Amazon’s Kindle store—one for regular Kindles, and the other called Decoded (Enhanced Edition), which has been specifically designed for iPods, iPhones, and iPads with added video content. Download the Enhanced Edition and you’ll discover not just the color photos found in the standard version, but also all 19 videos included in the $35 iOS application. The decoded lyrics are also in there, too, with clickable links rather than sidebar or pop-up overlays, effectively offering the same content without the flashy interface to tie it together. Amazon’s price? Each Kindle version is $10.
And unlike the App Store version of Decoded, which has an extremely basic eBook reader built in, restricting iPad users to widescreen reading with zooming capabilities while iPhone/iPod touch users get an extra portrait orientation text reader as an option, the Kindle edition lets you change font sizes to whatever you prefer, and provides access to all of the standard eBook features—dictionary, Google, and Wikipedia lookups that are particularly useful when trying to learn all of Jay-Z’s references, plus full-book searching, and automatic page-saving and bookmark synchronization. In sum, Amazon’s Enhanced Edition of Decoded has virtually all of the printed book’s and iOS app’s content; it’s not as pretty as the app version, but in some cases, it’s easier on the eyes.
What the Decoded by Jay-Z app delivers, then, is an experience that only achieves half of what fans of digital books and Jay-Z’s music would really hope for in a premium-priced application. On the plus side, iPad users get to see Decoded almost exactly as it would appear in print, complete with the original page layouts, photography, and text, plus additional video content that for obvious reasons would be impossible to fully replicate on paper. But as the app’s adaptation for the iPhone and iPod touch suggests, attempting to squeeze an oversized book’s twin-page layouts onto smaller screens isn’t always ideal for the reader, causing plenty of squinting even on the iPad, and merely providing a zoom feature doesn’t really fix the problem. Random House could and probably should have just created a dedicated iBooks version of Decoded, making use of the latest features Apple added to its eBook reading application, and chosen a more reasonable price for the experience. A $35 application needs to do better than this, particularly when the complete original book can be had for $18, and Amazon’s “Enhanced” digital version sells for only $10. Jay-Z fans should consider Decoded to be a must-read, but unless the iOS application falls in price or sees some major post-release updates, our suggestion would be to buy it from Amazon instead.