I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of JAY-Z. One of the biggest reasons for this is that his music is currently only available online on TIDAL and for purchase on the iTunes store and my primary way of listening to music is streaming on Spotify. However, I’ve listened to JAY-Z songs over the years I’ve been listening to hip-hop because well he’s JAY-Z. He’s one of the most well-known figures not just in hip-hop but in pop culture in general. I mean even my dad who doesn’t listen to much music used to listen to JAY-Z. He is one of the best-selling musicians of all time and Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album and The Blueprint are regarded as among the best hip-hop albums ever. I’ve listened to songs from all three albums but I doubt I’ve listened to any of them in full. I loved his collaboration album with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, in 2011, I think this was the year I started to listening to music properly and not just watching music videos on MTV. So in 2013 when Magna Carta Holy Grail was released I was excited, I remember downloading the leak and then listening a couple of times and not again. It was not a bad album, just utterly mediocre and not what I expected from a legend such as JAY-Z. When I heard the rumours that JAY-Z was working on a new album a couple of months ago I anticipated it I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised but ready to be disappointed again. I can confidently say that 4:44 did not disappoint.
A lot has been made of 4:44. Some have seen it as a response to Beyoncé’s seminal album Lemonade which was released last year and in which she strongly implied that Jay-Z had cheated on her. Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s relationship has been in the public eye since at least 2003 when Beyoncé released her debut solo single “Crazy in Love.” Many have also interpreted Solange’s infamous attack against JAY-Z in an elevator in 2014 as a response to his cheating. All of this has been speculation (though it seemed more than likely) until JAY-Z confirmed he did cheat on Beyoncé on the title track “4:44.” “4:44” begins with a sample of “Late Nights & Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams & The Affirmations. Williams sings “do I find it so hard / when I know in my heart / I’m letting you down every day” reflecting how JAY-Z feels about cheating and letting down his wife and kids. JAY-Z begins the first verse with the line “Look, I apologize, often womanize /
took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes” clearly admitting his infidelity and taking his children for granted. The sample forms the chorus and No I.D.’s, who produced the entire album, production is simply amazing. The song and the entire album manages to use old soul samples while sounding fresh, modern and different. And JAY-Z’s flow on this song doesn’t miss a beat, he has a distinct voice which sounds effortless on the beat. It’s almost like he’s just talking or confessing but paired with the production it’s extremely effective. JAY-Z is brutally honest and vulnerable on the song “my heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes / and the mask goes away / and Santa Claus is fake.” With these lines JAY-Z likens himself to Santa Claus, a fictional figure which parents tell their children exists but are really just themselves pretending.
Some critics and people have described 4:44 as the first grown rap album and others have made comparisons to Nas’ 2012 album Life Is Good. It’s easy to see why. Hip-hop is still a relatively young major genre unlike rock which has been around since the 50s and 60s, hip-hop came around in the late 70s and did not become popular or commercial until the late 80s and early 90s. Therefore, a lot of well known rappers in the “golden age”, many of whom started young, are only in their 40s such as Nas, DMX, Ice Cube, Eminem and the recently deceased Prodigy. Biggie and Tupac, the martyrs of hip-hop, would only be 45 and 46 respectively today. At 47, JAY-Z is definitely considered an “old head.” The debate about the state of hip-hop has been going on for a while now. Nas made an album called Hip Hop is Dead in 2006. In 2017, the truth is hip-hop is a better place than it has ever been. In a recent study by Nielsen, hip-hop/R&B combined was the most consumed genre in the United States for the first time ever. Hip-hop shapes pop culture more than any other genre today and JAY-Z has been a big part of its cultural status. JAY-Z started out as a drug dealer and is now worth $810 million just behind P Diddy as the second-richest hip hop artist. He’s a businessman and is friends with the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. JAY-Z has inspired a lot of rappers including the current most important rapper Kendrick Lamar and although his influence has gone unnoticed in recent years it’s still huge and he proves it on this album. On “Family Feud” for example, JAY-Z examines his status and role as a father in his family and as a father figure in hip-hop. The track is backed by beautiful Beyoncé vocals and great production from No I.D. He sends shots but in a friendly way with the lines “all this old talk left me confused / you’d rather be old rich me or new you?” referencing the “old head” debate as well as bragging in his typical Hov persona. As well as that, the line “and old niggas, y’all stop actin’ brand new / like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh” commenting on his contemporaries judging young rappers such as Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert for their unique fashion choices whilst ignoring the fact the Tupac and other rappers also dressed in a not so hyper-masculine way.
On the brilliant album opener, “Kill Jay-Z”, JAY-Z talks about killing his ego. He says “fuck JAY-Z, I mean, you shot your own brother / how can we know if we can trust JAY-Z?” referring to the incident when he was 12 when he shot his crack-addicted brother. By talking about killing his ego JAY-Z shows that he is self-aware of the danger of being too egotistical, he expresses his doubt and vulnerability by rapping in the third person and talking about the things he’s done. And his wordplay and imagery is extremely sharp, for example the lines “let go your ego over your right shoulder / your left is sayin’, “Finish your breakfast!” / you egged Solange on” refers to his song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, his inner conscience, the Eggo waffle brand and the term “egged on”. “The Story of O.J.” is a highlight on the album. The production is soulful and No I.D. brilliantly reworks a sample of Nina Simone singing “Four Women” which was about the effects of slavery on black women. Nina Simone sings “Skin is, skin, is / Skin black, my skin is black / my, black, my skin is yellow” which is repeated throughout the song. JAY-Z talks about a lot of different issues such as slavery, financial responsibility, black ownership, capitalism and commercialism on this single track. The chorus “light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga / rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga / still nigga, still nigga” is straightforward and effective in highlighting the sad truth that no matter your status, your wealth, your position if you’re black you’re still just a “nigga” in America. Despite his wealth and status JAY-Z will be treated as inferior by a racist and by the racist institutions that are still upheld in America he’s still a nigga. The interlude before the first verse perfectly sums it in one sarcastic line “O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” followed by a long pause then “…okay.”
JAY-Z listening to this song then hearing that O.J. will be released from parole later this year.
Another highlight is the delightful “Smile” which has possibly my favourite beat on the entire album and a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” He talks about his mother coming out as a lesbian and how he feels about that: “mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian.” The song ends with monologue from his mother, Gloria Carter, “living in the shadow / can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?” It is an important revelation because homosexuality and other LGBT identities are topics which aren’t talked about as much in black communities especially among the older generation. As well as feature spots from his mother and wife, the two most important black women in his life, JAY-Z also gets help from Frank Ocean on the chorus of “Caught Their Eyes” and Damian Marley on “Bam.” “Bam” also samples “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy which Kanye West, close friend and now possible rival, also sampled on “Famous” on The Life of Pablo. On “Moonlight” JAY-Z references the snafu at this year’s Academy Awards when La La Land was falsely announced as the best winner before Moonlight was correctly identified as the true winner: “Y’all stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gon’ lose.” It was a bittersweet moment and served as a metaphor for black joy overcoming impossible obstacles but still not allowed to express happiness fully. At 37 minutes and 10 tracks, 4:44 is an album full of highlights. There isn’t a single bad track on it. JAY-Z has a great flow and wordplay throughout the album, the production is incredibly soulful, the vocals match the beats perfectly and the lyrics are well-written exploring a wide variety of issues which should be discussed more often. It’s yet another example of black masculinity being expressed through vulnerability and I hope this becomes the norm. By killing his ego JAY-Z has produced a brutally honest and vulnerable record, his status and legacy still intact.