‘4:44’ arrives at a time in which JAY-Z is more scrutinized than ever, an impressive dilemma considering he has more number-one albums than any solo artist. He’s built a calculated dossier of songs founded on composure and on stature, from the authenticity of a drug-dealing past to pioneering moves in music and in business. The records that peek behind his curtain can be counted on one hand, yet the world expected a tell-all to slake the thirst for more ‘Lemonade’. The final product devotes but one song to the elephant in the room, though its undercurrent is everywhere. ‘4:44’ is built upon a grand admission, that of mortality, unleashed in the title of the introduction, in its very first words: “Kill Jay Z”. Unlike any previous JAY-Z album, ‘4:44’ chooses to pick at this breach in our host’s image, a study approved and conducted by the man himself, and one that wisely extends beyond the confines of a single relationship. JAY-Z has been selectively honest, so on his thirteenth studio album he welcomes his own vulnerability, greeting all those in his tabernacle with his most transparent project to date.
“I apologize, often womanize / Took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes”
This from the rapper who gave the world ‘Big Pimpin’. JAY-Z in 2017 is unable to dip his pen back into several of the inkwells that gave him life, and it’s been an impediment to his art since the thud of ‘Kingdom Come’ eleven years ago. Excluding ‘American Gangster’, an opportunity to revisit a life of crime via the concept album, JAY-Z’s been stuck in fantasies come realities, an outwardly disengaged world of Picassos and Paris that seemed to eat away at his inspiration. Songs like ‘The Story of O.J.’, ‘Caught Their Eyes’, and ‘Legacy’ are proof that Jay has found his way again, insightful efforts that give context to the paintings, to the TIDAL, and to the champagne, doing so while wrapped around some superior concepts (race integrating into culture, vigilance and trust, writing one’s will). He’s convincingly padding his creative reputation across the ten tight tracks, reassuring fans he can keep up in the age of accelerated flows as well with verbal assaults on ‘Smile’ and ‘Marcy Me’, which has more internal rhymes and allusions (‘Hamlet’!) in its first verse alone than most trending rappers will pack into their entire careers. In an album spawned from what should be his darkest time, JAY-Z reignites a playfulness that has him awkwardly crooning the encouraging hook to ‘Smile’, recording ‘Moonlight’ with a stuffy nose, and delivering the most deadpan line of his career with a humble “okay”.
“I’m letting you down every day… Why do I keep on running away?”
The return to form is bolstered by the classical production, a series of beguiling beats entirely crafted by maestro No I.D. They mostly hearken back to the ‘Blueprint’ soul Jay instituted and perfected with Kanye West and Just Blaze, incorporating heavier kick drums and deviations from the looped samples when the need arises. No I.D. and Jay are a chicken-egg situation, with Nina Simone vocals giving way to a chorus of racial labels, and Donny Hathaway singing, “Someday we’ll all be free” to end a lesson about bloodlines, in addition to the entire album; it’s unclear who inspired whom among the two giants as each track progresses. In tandem, they bare their chests for a rare album-length collaboration, baiting the audience for a dagger of a remark about dominating samples or truncated song lengths, something that might have a chance of landing were the music not so genuine. The MC is back in his comfort zone after several LPs of programmed mishmashes that did a disservice to his diction, and it ironically makes him the least lethargic he’s sounded in years. None of that is to say the voice we hear isn’t strained, delicate, or eerily organic, a combination of Jimmy Douglass’s mixing and the dusty backdrops. It’s an aesthetic decision that takes some getting used to, but one that’s cushioned by this resurrected energy.
“If I wasn’t a superhero in your face / My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes / And the mask goes away”
“Hall of Fame Hov” grants ‘4:44’ a spot in hip-hop history by inviting slivers of common sense and humanity into a genre oversaturated with extravagance and antagonism. Embracing his mother’s homosexuality on ‘Smile’ and offering apologies for every female-related transgression on the title track are simple acts, but seen in a whirlwind of violence and backwards hate openly encouraged by an army of mostly men, by flawed human beings in and out of the music, they’re minor milestones. Hov is a nickname derived from God, representing a fixture admired by the young and old. Hip-hop’s most mythical figure is brought down to a mortal level: he’s a scholar dissecting a rift in the community on ‘Family Feud’, an aging entertainer showing frustration at his stunted surroundings on ‘Moonlight’, and a father and husband and son throughout. ‘Bam’ is a digression full of compromises, ‘Marcy Me’ a reflection foretelling eventual evaporation. ‘Legacy’ is the swan song Shawn Carter didn’t get on ‘The Black Album’, JAY-Z’s short-lived retirement album, and he uses it to do everything from geek out to Wu-Tang Clan to preach his keys to progression and respect as an African-American. JAY-Z’s eulogy comes at the beginning, whereas the conclusion is effort, love, and death begetting more life.
“We’re supposed to laugh ’til our heart stops / And then meet in a space where the dark stop / And let love light the way”
It’s all still developing. People involved with the album have teased more tracks on the way in a ‘Life of Pablo’-style update, while TIDAL continues to roll out visual “footnotes” and promises of a star-studded companion film in the vein of ‘Lemonade’. JAY-Z draws from those around him, a quality that’s made him as much a successful student as he is a “master teacher”, a designation Kendrick Lamar recently tweeted. The ‘4:44’ we have at this moment in time is an unexpected highlight from an artist who’s seen and done it all before, a businessman (you can add even more emphasis on the “man” now) who fooled us into believing he had nothing left up his sleeve.
‘4:44’ is, at the time of this writing, exclusive to the TIDAL streaming service via Roc Nation/UMG Recordings Inc.