jay-z-444-july
Graphic: Rachel Kuzma

‘4:44’ is Shawn Carter’s Declaration of Independence

It’s hard to tell whom 4:44—the recently released album by JAY-Z; his 13th studio effort—belongs to.

It certainly doesn’t belong to Sprint, or even TIDAL. At times the project—succinct yet sweeping at just under 40 minutes—plays less like a piece of commerce and more like the solitary soliloquies of a man besieged by his own shortcomings, the tangential memoirs of someone taking final inventory with dispatches painstakingly mumbled into a tape recorder at a stage in life that can be either a beginning or an ending.

Some songs feel like sketches for larger songs that Jay Z (or Jay-Z or Jaÿ-Z) would have blown up with big hooks and sound commercial structure. Others feel as if they don’t belong to us, on record, but to his wife, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter—the kind of songs that serve as a delayed riposte of surrender to her master stroke, last year’s Lemonade. These are conversations that should only exist between partners and families and maybe their therapists—not necessarily the public, not when it’s this raw.

Both Lemonade and 4:44 are notable for their selective transparency and curated vulnerability, mainly because their creators have long equated dignity with privacy, choosing to share the details of their life on their own terms, and almost always with the measured remove of hindsight. (It’s worth noting that 4:44 comes a full four years after JAY-Z’s last album; a hiatus longer than any time between full-lengths ever, including his “retirement” period.) Nevertheless these wife-and-husband albums, which cannot be divorced from one another, feel like the messiness of life spilling out into craft in real-time.

Lemonade was urgent and immediate—it wasn’t Beyoncé breaking the seals on old dusty diaries, but actually going through it: “Beautiful man, I know you’re lyin’/ I am not broken, I’m not cryin’/ I’m not cryin’/ You ain’t tryin’ hard enough/ You ain’t lovin’ hard enough/ You don’t love me deep enough,” she shared on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a song she ended with “This is your final warning/ You know I give you life/ If you try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife,” inverting the kind of threats JAY has made to adversaries throughout his career.

The greatest allure of Lemonade was how clearly it pulled back the luxury drapes in the home of pop’s most prominent power couple. It was a strong admission that all that glitters isn’t gold and a powerful confession on Beyoncé’s part: That she—goddess of goddesses, queen of queens—could not keep her man from straying.

Ironically, JAY, who admits to having asked her to be his by saying “don’t embarrass me,” hasn’t taken in this part of the lesson fully. He equates his infidelities with those of Eric Benét, who famously cheated on Halle Berry, dissing both Benét and Beyoncé in the process, as if Benét was simply a guy cheating on an idea, not a complicated human being falling short in his agreements made to another complicated human being. For his part, Benét wants Jay and everyone else to know that he’s fine.

Where Lemonade used relationship turmoil to dig into the roots of her personal past and musical heritage (see: “Daddy Lessons” or the entirety of the full-length visual album), 4:44 finds JAY apologizing in the only way that men can after they’ve broken a woman’s trust—by promising a better future and being a better man. It’s a cliché, but when JAY-Z says it, you hear the sound of a man trapped, willing to fall on his sword and beginning to publicly acknowledge his partner as a wife, lover, teacher, best friend, and life-support mechanism—not just a trophy partner to have drunk sex with in limousines. On the title track, he admits to being needy, scared, and immature, haltingly asking the scariest question a man in love and wrong about his choices can ask himself: “What if / You over / My shit?”

 

On his sophomore effort, 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, JAY was sadly sarcastic and coolly paranoid.

On “Lucky Me”) he confessed that “I hate all girls with ulterior motives / So I’m 20-plus years old—no sons, no daughters.” Later in the song, he follows up with: “I plant a seed, I give life / Though I can’t see past a girl’s need to call her ‘wife’.”

But like the rest of us, JAY has used the past two decades to grow into a more refined version of himself—one that admits to being in therapy, assumes emotional responsibility for miscarriages, and gives himself permission to cry. A man who admits that “the pain is real / But you can’t heal what you never reveal,” in a way that maybe goes deeper than any of his previous dances with confession (see; “You Must Love Me”). This is the guy who made more quotables about demeaning women than a little bit. The guy who would proudly honk his horn when picking girls up to let them play with his penis in his vehicle; who would brag about taking women to after-hours runs at Waffle House then back to his house before kicking them out after 15 minutes of sex; who would treat girls lucky enough to get a hotel room stay with snacks from the vending machine, but no room service. This is the guy who now says to his wife, and us:  “We more expansive / Not meant to cry and die alone in these mansions / Or / Sleep with our back turned / We supposed to / Vacay ’til our backs burn / We’re supposed to / Laugh ’til our hearts stop / And then meet / In the space where the dark stop / And let love light the way / And, like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face.”

In so many ways 4:44 is a leap forward for JAY-Z, but it’s also the type of album those of us who understood the remarkability of Reasonable Doubt have been expecting Jay to make his whole career—and it’s why American Gangster may have had its moments but amounted to the biggest re-tread in his catalog. Here, he’s not only dipping deeper into his own wellspring, he’s presenting the kind of elixir never shared by a rapper so ensconced in the pop sphere. There are maybe analogs to Nas’ Life Is Good or Scarface’s late-era work, but this is an album only JAY-Z could have made. No other artist contains the constellation of events that makes 4:44 so powerful—if only because no one else is married to Beyoncé, who undoubtedly deserves as much credit for this album as Michelle Obama deserves for Barack’s Presidency, as any woman who has ever pushed and challenged and supported her partner deserves.

Credit also goes to No I.D., who produced the entirety of this album with JAY. In a sense, it’s what Watch The Throne should have been: The greatest rapper(s) ever locking in with one producer for a suite of music along a singular theme. I.D.— who hasn’t had this much control of a single album since Common’s 1994 Resurrection—provides tracks that are powerful, subtle and reverent while giving nary a concession to these songs’ existence beyond their purpose as a statement. More than even Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., 4:44 gives no fornications as to whether or not these songs make it onto terrestrial radio.

One of the greatest reveals of this album is that it’s a vibrant legacy project and JAY—an unrepentant capitalist—doesn’t seem to particularly care if this album makes money. He’s been giving it away for free in various ways, treating it as a loss-leader for Tidal, the streaming service he owns. (It’s the kind of sly move he’d openly boast about in the past, but doesn’t seem pressed to congratulate himself for it here.) The samples have to have been costly (the publishing splits on “Moonlight” most likely include all three Fugees, Salaam Remi, and Teena Marie—due to the use of “Fu-Gee-La”), but they’re also charming and full of subtext, like the use of Hannah Williams & The Affirmations’ “Late Nights & Heartbreaks.”

There’s not as much crate-digging as there is jukebox spinning on the album—the samples from Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway are probably on a Scandal soundtrack compilation or Tidal playlist somewhere. No I.D. has opened up about the recording process and it’s amusing to think that JAY was maybe listening to X-Clan’s “Ooh Baby” or Stevie Wonder’s original and suggested that they chop up “Love’s In Need of Love Today” for “Smile.” It’s also fun to imagine that I.D., Kanye West’s former mentor, purposely flipped Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” as a retort to West’s “Famous,” which featured the same source material and is attributed to over a half-dozen producers. JAY takes at least one semi-shot at West on the album and it’s hard to think that Yeezy didn’t come up as a topic of conversation during the making of this album.

Ultimately, this album is about JAY-Z, a character that’s always stood for himself, knowing he was a stand-in for an innumerable amount of untold stories.

But 4:44 is the first album where JAY’s fully embraced his position as a legend and icon to the degree where he’s no longer preoccupied with proving it. (Being the first and only rapper inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame can do that you.) It’s an album made by someone who has nothing to prove and a not a whole lot left to say—but someone still determined to squeeze the best out of what there is to say while there’s still time. His delivery here is more conversational and reposed than ever—half of the songs have cadences that are more indebted to spoken-word performances than actual rap songs, and JAY is not as impressed with hiding Easter egg rhymes as he has been in the past. He’s not a better rapper than he was on Blueprint 3’s “Venus Vs. Mars” or Magna Carta… Holy Grail’s “Picasso Baby,” but he’s working to be a better man than he was on those records. (To be fair, he raps his face off on “Marcy Me” and makes it seem like an afterthought.)

In that way, 4:44 is the return many of us have been waiting for, from that time JAY retired but none of is believed him. Since then, his albums have been largely marketing affairs—the outright capitalist product placement of Kingdom Come, American Gangster’s movie tie-in conceit, Blueprint 3’s shoring up of Roc Nation, Magna Carta… Holy Grail’s smartphone deal. But 4:44—for all of its marketing practicality—feels like the most vital piece of art-first work that JAY has made since his debut.

He now seems bored with his wealth, but not bored enough to not want more—and not dishonest enough to tell you that money won’t make you happy. He knows that being excessively wealthy is better than being impoverished. He knows that mo’ money means mo’ problems, but isn’t callous enough to suggest that no money means no problems. He also knows that examining marital problems is easier when one doesn’t have to worry about the financial side of mortgage, utilities, and day care as daily concerns—and he takes that freedom to evaluate what’s important in his life.

The first verse of “Smile”—the only acknowledgment on record by Shawn Carter that his mother, Gloria, is a lesbian woman who gave birth to four children—feels like the reciting of the awkward kind of Mother’s Day number that a son pens for his mom. Her sisters and grandchildren gather around her just before the cake is cut in the living room. The party favors are still up, the kids are mixed between restless, bored, and reverent, while the son, embarrassed by his own love, tells her life story through his eyes and professes his unconditional acceptance: “Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her / I just wanna see you smile through all the hate.”

In form, there’s nothing intrinsically strong in those lines outside of the reveal. (And it’s a bit clunky—JAY follows the above lines with “Marie-Antionette: let them eat cake,” a comment the Queen of France never made.) But JAY-Z’s strongest lines have always come from context. Throughout his career he’s deftly weaponized his success and survival, sharing his accolades and accomplishments with a sneer that was all about him, but also all about everyone like him. As he snarled on 1999’s “Come and Get Me”:

I made it so you could say ‘Marcy’ and it was all good
I ain’t cross over, I bought the suburbs to the ‘hood
Made ‘em relate to your struggle, told ‘em ‘bout your hustle
Went on MTV with du-rags, I made them love you
You normally them people wouldn’t be fuckin’ with you
’Til I made them understand why you do what you do
…I represent y’all every time I spit a verse.

It’s been the set of core values that he held for his friends and family. But in the nine years since his marriage to Beyoncé, the definition of “family” has changed and expanded for JAY and his music hasn’t always shown that shift. He admits as much here: “Took for my child to be born / To see through a woman’s eyes / Took for these natural twins / To believe in miracles / Took me too long for this song.”

The general consensus is that JAY-Z’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 is his least good album and through that opinion the album’s become a shorthand for creative failure—but it’s a silly notion. Granted, the relative glossiness of JAY fitting himself into the shiny-suited mold of Sean Combs’ Bad Boy producers, the Hitmen, for almost half of the project’s 14 songs wasn’t the best move. And JAY-Z’s rhyming approach—softly bombastic, full of hidden meanings, and slickly internal—didn’t mesh well with the sheen of bubbly beats that removed all of the emotion from the kinds of grooves he glided over on Reasonable Doubt. But it’s not a bad album—just the one where he showed his hand too clearly.

In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 marked JAY’s first return to rap based on business and life realities. Released in November 1997, it was a response to the void left in rap by the death of JAY’s fast friend, The Notorious B.I.G.. It was also a fiscal decision: having built Roc-A-Fella Records  (with Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke) JAY—who once declared that Reasonable Doubt would be his only album ever—quickly realized he was the at the helm of a company that would not be kept in the black by acts like Christión and Memphis Bleek.

More importantly, Vol. 1 solidified what would become a loose formula for JAY-Z albums—opening with a State of the Union–like address that couldn’t possibly work as a radio offering and ending with a revelatory song about Shawn Carter’s past as it relates to his new station in life. (The formula is not hard and fast: The Black Album’s SOTU was tucked midway through the album as “Interlude (Public Service Announcement);” American Gangster’s closer was a title track that gave little insight into the man behind the lyrics; Magna Carta… Holy Grail opened with the Justin Timberlake–assisted “Holy Grail,” which was as hard a play for radio as JAY’s ever made—but even his The Blueprint²: The Gift & The Curse double album followed the pattern on both discs.)

The bookends on 4:44 are the same. The opening number, “Kill Jay Z” rattles off the things he needs to get off his chest—and it’s mainly the voice in his head and his crafted persona. (One has to wonder if JAY makes “Kill Jay Z” at this time if Kendrick didn’t make “u”  a few years back, or if A Tribe Called Quest didn’t make “Ego” last year.) The closing number, “Legacy,” is the most remorseful he’s ever been when he talks to his children, addressing his future fears of the moment when they will undoubtedly learn about how he nearly destroyed his marriage at some point over the past few years. It’s more of an aural will and testament than a song, and it’s so intimate with family revelations that it returns us to wondering whom this album truly belongs to.

No, 4:44 doesn’t wholly belong to us. It’s here for us at times, but it ultimately belongs to Shawn Carter and his family. We’re just listening in and—keeping in line with a man who once said that “my presence is charity”—it may be the most valuable thing he’s ever given us.

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