Thoughts on 4:44, and Post-Prime JAY-Z
4:44 is, among other things, a record about the financial freedom provided by Tidal, released exclusively on Tidal, that only people that just realized they’ve been paying for Tidal since The Life of Pablo came out last year, or have Sprint as their phone service, can listen to. Or at least that’s what it was for the first four days of JAY-Z’s latest album, was until it became solely a Tidal Exclusive in the late afternoon on Monday. Now it is just a record about Tidal, released exclusively on Tidal, that only people that are for some reason subscribing to Tidal (even though Spotify exists, so that’s weird) or have enlisted a free trial of the service, can listen to. The release of the record was cryptic in nature, with visual snippets being advertised during the NBA Finals. Somehow, in five days, 4:44 has already resulted in a platinum certification by the RIAA (the Illuminati must be working OT).
Upon listening to this album, there is no immediately detectable radio single, and there was no single released leading up in weeks prior. This is quite the shift of ideology, for as recent as six years ago, Mr. Carter wouldn’t let fellow Roc Nation member J. Cole release an album without a definite radio hit (notably discussed on Let Nas Down). Cole’s two most recent albums were released with the intention of not having a radio-friendly track, and he still has found tremendous success critically, while selling millions of records, and becoming elevated to arena tour performer. Perhaps JAY has realized we are in a post-modern world of music listening, and the need for a pop hit isn’t nearly as great as it used to be.
Following Beyonce’s Lemonade last year, 4:44 acts as an indirect response, as JAY-Z (we’re including the hyphen now) opens up about personal flaws, mistakes (including his infidelity), and yet again lays the blueprint for the next generation, rapping “I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”. The concept of generational wealth is increasingly important to him with the recent birth of his twins, as he advises to build credit instead of foolishly “throwin’ away money at a strip club”. He boasts about how his million dollar artwork has multiplied in worth eight-fold since his purchase, similarly in flow to how his net worth multiplied on U Don’t Know from The Blueprint, and how he “can’t wait to give this shit to my children”. He is in full daddy mode and he wants to make sure we are all aware. This is middle-aged rap at its finest. We should be thankful there were no bars about how he wears his Kangol hats.
This is the album Jay's therapist told him to put out, because he's probably been painstakingly listening to all of his rich-guy problems he discusses on it for years. The issue with doing a 36 minute "album" is that you leave little to zero margin for error. When there are eventual swings and misses, your batting average resultingly goes in the toilet, leaving the listener with an uneven album. Let's be clear though, there are accomplishments found here. He tackles half a dozen problems within the first 3 minutes of the album, addressing how his ego caused them on Kill JAY Z.
There is a certain apologetic tone on title track 4:44, named for the time he woke up to write the song about his marital discord. Having No ID as the sole producer of the project, gives it a very jointed feel musically, even with a great diversity of the samples used. The Story of O.J. is easily the triumph of this album, as the underlying concept, combined with the Nina Simone sample on the production, lyrics, and accompanying visuals, fully realize Jay’s message of black celebrity in popular culture today and the importance of generational wealth. This is the most interesting concept on the album, as he is one of few at the highest level of African American celebrity and wealth who can even give their take on the experience.
JAY raps on Smile, a track dedicated to his mother’s reveal of being lesbian, “y'all thought I was washed/I'm at the cleaners/laundering dirty money”. This is one of the few mentions on the album of trying to turn drug money into taxable income. If JAY is trying to escape his problems then why is he also advocating money laundering to the young hustlers of the day? For the record, there is no greater sign of being washed up than having a bar using wordplay about feeling like a dumbo for not buying property in “DUMBO” 20 years ago. While many Brooklynites have smacked themselves about missed opportunities with the recent gentrification taking place, this is just one of the mentioned “problems” only a current millionaire can empathize with, while the overwhelming majority of listeners are not in that tax bracket, nor have the luxury to feel upset about.
If Jay was philosophically departing from the normal braggadocio, it surely didn’t seem that way with lyrics like “stuff a million dollars in the sock drawer/that's a war chest in case you need your chest knocked off” from the track Bam. This track is the antithesis to Kill JAY Z, putting the listener in an ego equilibrium, as according to HOV, “you needed a bit of ego for us to arrive at this point”. This cognitive dissonance leads us to believe he hasn't truly grown past the core problems of his past, and maybe never will.
Marcy Me is the trip back in time to when he was still occupying the Marcy Projects trying to make it in the world. It is reminiscent to the track FEAR. off Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, painting us a picture of his humble beginnings with the cold line “I’m from Marcy Houses, where the boys die by the thousand”. We even get my favorite bar of the whole album on this joint on the second verse, “Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke/Y’all flirtin with death, I be winkin through the scope”. Paying homage to the ones before him on this record cement his place in the rap echelon, but it's easy to see the present and future in the likes of Kendrick.
If this is in fact the final fade to black of Shawn Carter's Hall of Fame career, it is certainly not a sour note to end on. Sure the album has problems, but for a middle-aged man openly admitting his flaws on them, it is still damn good at times. I still believe he has one final masterpiece swimming around in his lyrical labyrinth of a mind, but only time will tell whether the 47 year old has any more tricks up his sleeve.