OK, so 4:44 by Jay-Z, his 13th album in a canon of seminal albums (Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, Vol. 3, American Gangster), and misses like The Blueprint III and Magna Carta…Holy Grail.
Remember the interview Sway conducted with Jay for his All Eyes interview series on MTV?
In said interview, HOV confessed that he wanted to leave while still on top critically and commercially, and young — he was 32 at the time, and recently announced his longterm relationship with breakout sensation Beyoncé.
Going out at his best was probably a revolutionary idea in a long line of plays to insert himself as a curator of hip-hop, brokering to the world such as producers like Timbaland on Big Pimpin and the Neptunes on “Give It 2 Me”, and co-signing cult street rappers Beanie Siegel, Freeway, and UGK…and not vetoing Kanye West’s career away.
Jay’s ability to meld into what’s happening now continued with guest appearances on Slim Thug’s “I Ain’t Heard of That” and Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’”, but aside from his soundtrack work on 2007's American Gangster, his post-retirement albums failed to strike a chord with audiences the way previous albums had.
It feels like when Jay consciously tried to refit himself into the landscape, he scored memorable gems, but fell short of his mark. Letting ‘ye take the reins on Watch The Throne makes sense for Jay in preparation for a new marriage and child while his partner slowly careened off his apex.
The subsequent backlash he met from fans after announcing his streaming platform Tidal to footage of his elevator altercation with Solange — roughly around the same time as his former partner Dame Dash’s rise as rap’s curmudgeonly step-dad — reads like a person whose relevance had been forgotten in the midst of his wife’s worldwide fandom.
His quieter presence and rap’s changing landscape didn’t help either (Young Thug famously admitted in 2015 admitted that he wouldn’t bother with a new Jay-Z album despite acknowledging him as an idol).
But here on the song 4:44, it seems infidelity is the best thing that ever happened to Jay. Rappers in 2017 invite listeners into their world through bearing their faults, drugs, probably other drugs, when not sloppily crooning about what and where wit’ yo bitch. 4:44 finally gifted married with kids Jay with a plight fans could digest AND a vehicle for all the nouveau noir motivational speeches he’d been attempting to deliver to the masses. Good thinking to release “Shining” and that single where Beyoncé is wearing a swimsuit top on the cover while cruising with Jay first. 4:44 is a more digestible album for it.
There have been a myriad of think pieces and click bait articles centered on the title song and video for “The Story of OJ” and the alleged over simplifying of how to acheive new black exceptionalism, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.
As much as 4:44 centers around Jay’s rededication to improvement of self and community, it also reveals Jay’s chagrin at newcoming rappers and fans overlooking his impact on the culture he’s still bent on nurturing more than 30 years after his debut.
“Kill Jay-Z” briefly addresses his fall out with Kanye West several months after news broke regarding ‘ye slandering Jay and Bey during one of his infamous concert rants. “Smile” is a retort against detractors he’s paved the way for that stings when considering how often he’s worked with artists supposedly outside of his purview (Ross, Odd Future, Future, and Juvenile are among several examples).
“Caught in the Eyes” features frank ocean apparently in competition with the dream over who’s the Nate Dogg of the black bourgeoisie. Here, Jay rakes on his campaign to make Tidal a haven for artists via a line about Prince’s lawyers selling tickets to tour his house, and there’s a line where Jay says “Don’t big bro me, don’t big hoe me”, eerily echoing Xxxtentacion’s reason for not disclosing his age on the No Jumper podcast, revealing Jay’s own, still present adversity from oligarchs in the music industry or fields he’s involved in now.
“Moonlight” directly addresses the where and when wit’ yo bitch era personified by rappers like the Migos, mockingly so. ..taking issue with the homogeneity and pretentiousness of upcoming rappers with lines like “Stop walking around like you made ‘Thriller’”, essentially portraying certain members of their generation as spoiled kids. Titling the song “Moonlight” in response to the “la la la” refrain is a sharp, almost hilarious comparison of the Academy Awards Best Picture debacle and the obstacles rappers and black creatives in general still face after achieving an unprecedentedly large platforms to reach audiences. Migos’ shocked reaction to ILoveMakonnen’s homosexuality comes to mind while listening, and begs the question whether or not current listeners are free-thinking as advertised.
Just to play Devil’s Advocate, Jay’s line about rappers using the same flows is valid, but doesn’t acknowledge how some of these true school offenders have chiseled out their own sounds from the shit heap — 21 Savage, Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, even Xxxtentacion’s takes on Thug’s and Uzi’s deliveries are inspired and balanced out by his wide spectrum of material.
“Bam” featuring Damian Marley is probably the best Drake diss ever to grace ears. Here, Jay asserts himself as the genuine article to a slew of imitators, but the vintage reggae sounds and Damian’s appearance strongly point to Drake as his target. Lines like “We the only reasons moving like y’all say y’all do/Writes still really moving like y’all say y’all did” both sound like an attack and parody of Drake. There’s also a moment in the song where Jay name drops people who aren’t necessarily famous or notable with an aire of presumptuousness like Drake that bound to wiggle out smiles. Standout line: “Niggas be skipping leg day/just to run they mouth/I be skipping/just to run the world”.
No I.D.’s production on 4:44 is flawless, calling back to Jay’s initial ascension with songs that emerged from the chipmunk soul wave like “Song Cry” and “Girls, Girls, Girls”. It’s a surprise that Jay hadn’t curated an entire album with a producer of choice before given how collaborative albums like Covert Coup and Piñata won acclaim for Currensy and Freddie Gibbs, respectively. Jay is a master of form, and while he’s never as innovative here as he’s been in the past, provided the right drive, he hasn’t sounded better and more vital since the Black Album. Cut back to Watch the Throne, where Jay’s cool mogul talk lost out to ‘ye’s impassioned gripes against the white establishment’s assassination and appropriation of his character.
If Jay never releases another album, no worries, but 4:44 is both great closure to a storied, illustrious career and segue into his present activism and community work.