Whew — where to start with Jay-Z’s “4:44”?
Well, you all might not need me to contextualize this album, but let me give a bit of background to set the mood.
Shawn Carter, 47, released “4:44,” his 13th studio album, four years after the disappointing and heavily-commercialized “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” Many figured he was done and at the tail-end of his 21-year hiphop career. Jay’s a legend, so if he hung up the mic, nobody would be disappointed (his back catalog is top-tier hiphop, for the most part).
The Carter family has reportedly gone through tough times, with Beyonce’s “Lemonade” thought of by many as an album to get back at Jay-Z for cheating on her, and that their marriage was possibly on the rocks. Solange’s mini-brawl with Jay in an elevator didn’t help the Brooklyn MC’s case, either. However, there are many fans of the mindset that this is all smoke and mirrors to garner attention for their respective albums. It’s a business, after all.
On the intro track, “Kill Jay Z,” we’re getting a Jay that’s aware of the flack thrown at him. He’s rapping as if he’s speaking to himself in his head. But listen closer — Jay is touching on issues deeper than the surface.
“You almost went Eric Benét/
Let the baddest girl in the world get away”
Oh … now I’m curious, and my ears have adjusted for the lyrical ride Jay-Z’s ready to take me on for 10 tracks.
The year’s been full of trap beats and booming production, so it’s encouraging that the 47-year-old rapper went the Jay of old route: storytelling. It’s straight bars from the moment “Kill Jay Z” begins and “Legacy” ends. That’s not to say the production is lacking, though. No I.D. is a veteran hiphop producer who’s worked with the likes of Kanye West, Rhianna, Big Sean, Drake and plenty more. The vibes he brings reminds me of Jay’s concept album, “American Gangster,” which remains one of his best.
In a New York Times article, No I.D. explains how he chose the samples for each beat on “4:44.” Mind you, he produced every track, the first time Jay-Z has used only one producer on a studio album of his. Here’s a quote from No I.D. from the NYT article.
“I asked him, ‘What do you listen to? Because I’ll sample some of it.’ He gave me this playlist and we began to make pieces of music out of the music that he listened to. My philosophy was scoring his reality, his lifestyle and his taste.”
The intimacy of “4:44” is felt throughout, but most notably on “Legacy,” where Jay expounds on parts of his past previously unknown to many fans.
“You see, my father, son of a preacher man/
Whose daughter couldn’t escape the reach of the preacher’s hand”
Whew, this is the heaviest Jay has gotten with his lyrics in several years, including his explanation of his mother, Gloria, being a lesbian. He beautifully adds on “Smile”:
“Society shame and the pain was too much to take/
Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/
Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her/
I just wanna see you smile through all the hate”
It doesn’t stop there, as the Brooklyn MC explains that, yeah, he cheated on Beyonce, and it wasn’t just once or twice.
“Look, I apologize, often womanize/
Took for my child to be born/
See through a woman’s eyes/
Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles/
Took me too long for this song/
I don’t deserve you”
Throughout this short album, there were moments where it hit me: This is a grown man spilling some of his life’s darkest moments, things that otherwise would go private in the majority of households. And here he is, releasing his 13th studio album that gets back to the core of why we love him.
There’s a grit in his voice that we haven’t heard in quite some time. You feel the emotion behind these lyrics, for instance, found on “Bam” (ft. Damian Marley):
“Sometimes you need your ego, gotta remind these fools/
Who they effin’ with, and we got FN’s too/
Before we had A&R’s, we had AR’s too/
We the only ones really movin’ like y’all say y’all do”
It’s not like we’ve never heard Jay-Z boast about toting guns and selling drugs, but I think this time we find a better connection thanks to the context of the album.
There’s no room for error with a short track list. After the first, second and third listens, I find it hard to nitpick with “4:44.” This is Jay-Z’s best work since “The Black Album,” which was released 14 years ago. I can’t think of many rappers who have lasted as long as Jay and released an album of this quality late into their careers.
If you didn’t think Jay-Z was a legend before this album, “4:44” solidifies his stake as hiphop royalty and one of the best of all-time.