The most crafty and evasive MC lays bare his complicated life. This late-career gem is personal and diamond-sharp, confronting the failings and legacy of Shawn Carter and America.
4:44 isn’t JAY-Z’s Lemonade, a response to Lemonade, or a Lemonadecompanion piece. The album is certainly built around a betrayal, but his duplicity, the corresponding apology, and his reassessment are vehicles for his own maturation. Before, he was unfadable, the supreme hustler without error. Fatherhood has eroded some of that cool, but 4:44 deconstructs an entire worldview. This is Hov’s gospel, a Shawn Carter retrospective measuring missteps and triumphs, wondering aloud if his work will appreciate in value, and what exactly is worth valuing.
It only takes JAY-Z 36 minutes to create the historical artifact he’s wanted to make for years, a tell-all document to be hung in the halls of rap about infidelity and outgrowing friends, the way family shapes us and the way we carry those burdens into parenthood, and about evolving into more complete versions of ourselves. But, above all else, 4:44 is about legacy: how Jay will be remembered, what he’s leaving to his children, what he’s done for the culture, and what he’s trying to do for society. Every angle he creates is informed by blackness (on “Legacy” he raps, “We gon’ start a society within a society/That’s major, just like the Negro League/There was a time America wouldn’t let us ball/Those times are now back”), as “The Story of O.J.” states outright in its hook and “Moonlight” insinuates more subtly. Inside these personal revelations, one of rap’s greatest thinkers rediscovers his sharpness.
Jay hasn’t been this precise or proficient in a decade, perhaps because he’s finally interested in disclosing the realest parts of himself. There’s mention of Solange drama and a sneak Kanye diss, but that’s flotsam around the heart of the record. Some of the flows are rough around the edges, and he isn’t as nimble in and out of cadences as he used to be, but he compensates with carefully considered schemes and a fluidity that has come to characterize his work. These are finely-tuned elegies for the old JAY-Z, for the old Brooklyn, for a broken marriage, for rap kayfabe. The closing verses on “Smile” and “Marcy Me” are among the most well-balanced and technically sound in a storied career defined by such performances. He is alternately full of slick punches (“My therapist said I relapsed/I said, ‘Perhaps I Freudian slipped in European whips’”) and full of pathos (on “4:44”: “I apologize, our love was one for the ages and I contained us/And all this ratchet shit and we more expansive/Not meant to cry and die alone in these mansions”; on “Smile”: “The more I reveal me, the more they ’fraid of the real me”). 4:44 may lack the Cohiba panache of Jay’s greatest albums, but it’s by far his most thoughtful one.
That thoughtfulness, of course, comes at a price. Like Magna Carta Holy Grail, 4:44 was originally a Tidal exclusive released in partnership with a company trying to hawk cell phones. As a test run, Magna Carta was beamed into a million Samsung phones as a harebrained attempt to make money and go platinum the day the album was released. The latest collaboration was equally inelegant: new and existing Sprint customers were given a complementary Tidal trial; those who signed up for Tidal without Sprint after the album was released couldn’t at first access it, unless they had the voucher code “sprint,” which came with a download. (Eventually, all Tidal subscribers were given access.) There is a bit of a disconnect between Jay selling his darkest, most personal album to a corporation, and the added contradiction of championing black-owned business while recouping profits for a telecommunications giant.
But Jay is at least aware of the conflicts and tries to reconcile the inconsistencies—he treats the business venture as another hustle. On “Legacy,” he raps of these deals as a means to further his line and benefit his people: “My stake in Roc Nation should go to you/Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too/Tidal, the champagne, D’USSÉ, I’d like to see/A nice piece fund ideas from people who look like we.” The move makes sense given that Jay’s defining principle has always been freedom through commerce. He does make the mistake of conflating his own business conquests with a scalable solution for economic inequality and white supremacy, which is both idealistic and naive. But his sustainable-wealth tutorials never come off as preachy and there are still lessons to be learned about prosperity and advancement, particularly when read as a self-help guide for rap stars.
Though Jay proves himself a more than capable MC, it’s No I.D. who does much of the heavy lifting. As the producer of all 10 beats on 4:44, the Chicago beat-maker builds a dusty soul feel that suits Jay far better than the production on Magna Carta, which leaned unnaturally on the contemporary. The samples aren’t just aesthetically beautiful but profound in context. They speak when Jay is silent, often saying what he can’t. On “The Story of O.J.,” which notes the inescapable shadow of colorism, Nina Simone, whose very melanin informed her politics, sings loudly, “My skin is black.” On the apologetic title track, Hannah Williams makes plain Jay’s shame: “I’m never gonna treat you like I should!” On the inheritance-bearing “Legacy,” which advocates for black independence, Donny Hathaway speaks it into existence: “Someday we’ll all be free.” “Bam Bam” and “Fu-Gee-La” are used as more on-the-nose sonic cues, both women’s voices distinct and recognizable, their echoing words evoking a specific connection to each song’s theme. A chorus of women are the bearers of strength and understanding on 4:44; not just Nina, Lauryn Hill, Sister Nancy, Kim Burrell, and Hannah Williams, his daughter Blue Ivy, Beyoncé and his mother Gloria Carter, who bravely comes out as a lesbian on the song “Smile.” “Love who you love,” Carter says, “because life isn’t guaranteed.” This intergenerational ensemble helps Jay unlock these reflections on honesty, acceptance, and resolution.
Though accompanied by a tasteful visual component, detailed annotations, and eloquent thoughts from Kendrick Lamar, Will Smith, Chris Rock, and more, the person and personhood of JAY-Z remain at the album’s center. 4:44 neatly packs his baggage and then makes a mess unpacking his legacy. It’s true, Jay’s wordplay and legendary pith don’t sound dated when they’re peppered on top of his personal failings and potent ruminations on black financial liberation. He surveys ideas on wealth and success with a confidence that makes even his most clumsy boasts about not going ham on the ’Gram seem sophisticated. Rap’s biggest winner coolly sustains his biggest losses.