JAY-Z Airs and Owns His Grievances
With '4:44,' JAY-Z delivers his most personal body of work yet
Three seconds into 4:44, there’s a call to kill Jay Z. It’s quick and painless. Five seconds later you hear the word “fuck Jay Z,” and it becomes clear what’s happening, and the MC/mogul himself confirms it in a personal note. “Jay Z” represents a combination of ego and arrogance that can’t exist on 4:44, especially if Shawn Carter the human is going to lift the veil from his personal transgressions and embark on a journey of self-revelation and accountability. Sorry, Jay Z had to go. It’s no coincidence how the Roc Nation head’s name is styled in album opener’s “Kill Jay Z” song title, but written as JAY-Z in the artist’s credit. The dash is back, this is Hov speaking.
Now that that’s out of the way, there’s a laundry list of things for him to address, and JAY wastes no time getting into them. On “Kill Jay Z,” Jay speaks candidly about Kanye West’s 2016 breakdowns, which apparently left the frequent collaborators at odds. “You walkin’ around like you invincible/ You dropped out of school, you lost your principles/ I know people backstab you, I felt bad too/ But this “fuck everybody” attitude ain’t natural.” Then, JAY gets to the details. “You gave him 20 million without blinking/ He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinking?” The damage that JAY himself has inflicted is also a topic of conversation. “You stabbed Un [Rivera] over some records” he raps, exasperated by his own mistakes.
The album, released at midnight on Tidal and iHeartRadio platforms, plays along multiple plot lines. An arc exists that explains the rhyme and reason behind JAY’s business and music industry maneuvers over the years, and how they relate to his will to leave behind the proper legacy for his three children—one that emphasizes the importance of ownership and the insulation of the Black economy. But it’s also about the raw processes that comes from reaching a level of vulnerability that allows for things like forgiveness for infidelity, and the evolution that’s still possible. On the album’s title track, JAY bares all in the spirit of his wife Beyonce’s Lemonade, which all but accused JAY by name of being unfaithful. On “4:44,” JAY mentions a threesome and acknowledges the pain his affairs inflicts on a family. He mentions the burden of trying to maintain an image in the wake of personal quagmire, and realizes that his quest for security is partially rooted in repairing the holes that he tore.
On Magna Carta Holy Grail, JAY’s last album, his tone was different. He was still in the “look at me” stage of his billionaire quest. But on 4:44, he isn’t just looking to wow the competition, he’s looking to educate it. In the past, we’ve seen him cut Drake down subliminally, as a reminder of who occupies the throne. On “Family Feud,” he serves the Toronto star, who recently called himself the ‘new Jay,’ an earnest reminder as opposed to another cloaked diss: “All this old talk left me confused/ You’d rather be old rich me or new you?”
JAY’s come close to losing it all in the past—he expresses as much on “4:44”—and it’s helped him streamline his mission. This month he shouted out Joe Budden and Mobb Deep, rap beef isn’t just beneath him, it’s counterintuitive. The V12 engine purchases aren’t the focus anymore. Doing right by his community is. Doing right by his hue. Impeding that mission leads to tracks like “Caught Their Eyes,” a Frank Ocean-assisted missile that revives vivid imagery of Hov’s Marcy beginnings and evokes a defense of his known relationship with Prince. “Now Londell McMillan he must be color blind/ They only see green through them purple eyes.” McMillan, also the owner of The Source, has been accused of negotiating on Prince’s behalf without having the late musician’s best interests at heart, including a $30 million deal with Universal Music Group that the entertainment giant is now seeking to renege. It’s widely believed that Prince preferred his catalog to rest with JAY-Z’s Tidal.
Easier said than done, goes the proverb. For JAY-Z, the reverse may be true. For years, especially in recent months, we’ve seen him dedicate resources to protecting the Black narrative and highlighting injustices that deal with more than just police brutality—the war on drugs, the corrections industry. On 4:44, he’s finally able to delicately illustrate the template he’s been trying to conjure and delivers quite possibly his most personal body of work yet. The “D’evils” that helped get him into the game have now been exorcised, and 4:44 is the blueprint to how he did. Follow it at your own risk, but understand the reward that awaits you on the other side.