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Wait – is Jay-Z good again? 4:44, reviewed

Miriama Aoake listens to Jay-Z’s new album 4:44 and finds the rapper full of introspection, self-criticism and, ultimately, black empowerment.

A couple of weeks ago, Jay-Z was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by Barack Obama, unanimously nominated by his industry peers. He was the first rapper to receive the honour. The following week, his wife Beyoncé gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl (though yet to be confirmed by the couple). Last week, Hov released his 13th studio album, 4:44, available exclusively to stream on Tidal, for now. With a series of headlining performances to follow, the cogs of Jay-Z’s 2017 are just beginning to churn.

In considering 4:44, we have to take Jay’s post-Magna Carta Holy Grail comments into account. In a 2013 interview, he argued that the internet was diluting the importance of music criticism. Clickbait journalism, he said, has created a race among media outlets to have the first take – not necessarily the best. After months or years spent crafting a project, its worth is decided within 24 hours of release. Jay called bullshit. As such, you should take this review as a preliminary response to an album whose significance is still tbc.

Track one: sirens signal the rapper’s return with ‘Kill Jay Z’ and producer No I.D cuts a sample from the Alan Parsons Project’s ‘Don’t Let It Show’. Addressing himself, Jay acknowledges his mistakes in marriage, in business, in his past and, primarily, his ego. He cites his children as the motivation he needs to kill his former self, to become the husband and father his younger self disregarded with impunity. There’s been a lot of speculation about the lyrics which reference men who have committed the same mistakes. Eric Benét who “let the baddest girl in the game get away”, split with Halle Berry in the mid-00s, reportedly due to infidelity. Jay warns of a future in which “other people [play] football with your son”, musing on Ciara’s split from rapper Future and her subsequent marriage to Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. For the sake of his marriage and family, Jay-Z commemorates the death of his former self.

‘The Story of OJ’ grapples with black emancipation through financial freedom, gifting “a million dollars-worth of game for 9.99”. Jay gives lessons in investment while mocking the culture of rappers who pose while “holding money to your ear, there’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here”. He’s challenging the disparity between the image of wealth and actual material wealth – perhaps including the empire Jay is the head of – for its false representation of the black economy. But I was disappointed by the anti-Semitic stereotypes here. While there is a strong Jewish presence within the entertainment industry, employing such stereotypes to discuss the Black struggle for economic freedom is damaging.

‘Smile’ follows, riding a gospel undercurrent and sampling Stevie Love’s ‘In Need of Love Today’. Jay himself describes the song as taking the good with the bad and having two choices in times of hardship; letting yourself be consumed, or allowing those experiences to be a tool for self-education, for the betterment of your future. Jay emerges as the master of his aesthetics, “that boy”. Then he does something extraordinary: he essentially gives his mother, Gloria Carter, the platform to come out as gay. She leads the outro with spoken word, revealing that it’s time to be free, and “love who we love, because life’s not guaranteed”.

Frank Ocean makes an appearance on ‘Caught In Their Eyes’, as Jay assumes the stage to criticise the misuse of Prince’s estate. He directs the brunt of his anger at Prince’s former advisor, Londell McMillan, calling him greedy, surprised that he “ain’t auction off the casket”. Jay recalls Prince’s resistance to label control in 1993 and his conversations with him surrounding his desire for autonomy over his catalogue, spitting “this guy had slave on his face, you think he wanted the masters with his masters?”. No I.D weaves Nina Simone’s ‘Baltimore’ to the song’s flesh, reinforcing the exhausting need, within the industry, to be aware of one’s surroundings.

‘4:44’ seems to be the pinnacle of the album, both in Jay’s own opinion and particularly with the Beyhive. The number 4 is significant for both Queen B and Jay-Z. Beyoncé was born September 4th and Jay December 4th, a date memorialised on The Black Album. Blue’s middle name is a play on the Roman numeral, Ivy. The couple tattooed the number on their wedding fingers, as an alternative to rings. They married on 4 April, 2008. It has been four years since Jay’s last release. Jay claims he stirred and woke at 4:44am to pen the track, describing it as his greatest song to date.

The Beyhive is humming, as the track seems to confirm the claims of infidelity in Lemonade. Jay apologises, mourning the death of B’s innocence, the loss of miscarriage and falling short of his own self ideal. Jay confesses, “like the men before me, I cut my nose off to spite my face”, a response that affirms B’s claim on Lemonade, that “in the tradition of men in my blood / You come home at 3am and lie to me.” Jay Z holds himself accountable, digressing from the tradition representations of black masculinity and attempting to reconcile the damage that he, and men like him, repeatedly inflict on black women. The problem though is in the song’s reception. Despite the incident with Solange in the elevator, the probing of black womanhood on Lemonade, it took Jay-Z’s pen to confirm the validity of Beyoncé’s testimony.

‘4:44’ segues into ‘Family Feud’, a raw conversation on the disjunction within hip-hop culture. Using elements sampled from the Clark Sisters’ ‘Ha Ya (Eternal Life)’, Jay-Z leads a gospel-esque call and response with Beyoncé. The hook, “nobody wins when the family feuds”, is a testament to Jay’s recent induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He says “a man that can’t take care of his family can’t be rich”, comfortable in his role as an equal provider. To Jay, the rift between old school and new school, exemplified with Joe Budden’s bitterness towards emerging talent, must be remedied for unity and prosperity within the culture.

On ‘Bam’, Jay recruits Damian ‘Jnr Gong’ Marley. It’s a boastful, fun and surprising track, reminding those who follow that he can still “Bobby Shmurda anybody you heard of” in 16 bars or less. ‘Bam’ breathes life into the rift with Kanye and responds to his public rants. Taking a tough love approach, he tells Ye “you dropped outta school, you lost your principles” and that he is “skippin’ leg day just to run [his] mouth”, playing on lyrics from West’s ‘30 Hours’ (“I hit the gym, all chest no legs”). It’s a nuanced depiction of ego that gives Jay a space to demonstrate his maturity.

‘Moonlight’ emerges from the 2017 Oscars, where white mediocrity conflated the celebration of black excellence. Jay raps “we stuck in lala land – even if we win we gon’ lose” over No I.D’s reshuffle of the Fugee’s defining ‘Fu Gee La’. It’s a wry critique of label management stifling young black talent, with Jay questioning the wisdom of signing record deals. It’s a commentary on the culture and the shape of the future it’s sculpting, both optimistic and pessimistic.

‘Marcy Me’, revisits themes of nostalgia evident within The Black Album. Returning to the “streets in my artery”, with the Dream singing the outro in homage to Marvin Gaye, Jay’s lyrics pay tribute to the Bed-Stuy projects that birthed his dreams. Jay is constantly humbling himself, reflecting on, and appreciating his 30 year career, expanding beyond Brooklyn to the global stage.

The final cut, ‘Legacy’ opens with a question from Blue Ivy, “Daddy… what’s a will?”. Blue has featured on the last two Beyoncé albums, and ‘Glory’, a celebration of Blue’s birth in song. Blue has helped heal the damage done by Jay, though she is not the entire focus of the lyrics here. Over a chopped Donna Hathaway sample, Jay records a verbal will, speaking directly to Blue and her younger siblings. He wrestles with the need to preserve and secure intergenerational wealth to dismantle the inheritance of poverty which he was born into. He instructs Blue to “fund ideas from people who look like you” to invest in black potential and expand the black economy.

What emerges from 4:44 is a nuanced, complex commentary on personal experience and the aspirations of hip-hop culture. The spectrum of themes, ranging from black supremacy, black excellence, financial freedom, black-owned business, accountability, remorse, nostalgia, and black love, will take years to dissect and digest in full. Jay has adopted Beyoncé’s process of utilising art to express the fragmented self. It’s a creative licence which permits the evolution of, perhaps, the greatest rapper of all time.


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