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Is JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’ the First Instant Classic Since ‘GKMC’?

Five years ago, Kendrick Lamar defied the trends and expectations of the digital era when he resuscitated the promise of the classic hip hop album with his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. With it, K. Dot breathed new life into the album format and set a new bar for what could be done with the medium, despite the current piecemeal, on-demand, single-driven reality we’re living in. In the years since its arrival, ambitious artists have been held to the GKMC standard the same way previous generations were held to Paid in Full, Criminal Minded, The Low End Theory, Illmatic, Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, 808s and Heartbreaks and so many more. As we celebrate this seminal release all week, MASS APPEAL asked some of our favorite writers to explore the works of other major artists of the modern era to see who else, if anyone, has delivered a new classic. —Ed.

In order for an album to arrive at the height of classic, more than anything else, it needs time. Time allows the composition to maturate, repurpose or reaffirm itself throughout the succession of years and eras. Normally, an album becomes classic by its sound and message maintaining its stroke long after its birth year. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On sounds like both 1971 and 2017. Cover your eyes and drop Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in any year; it will thump with the same savage beauty; ditto for Tupac’s Makavelli. Instant classics also depend on the oxygen of time, just not in the same way as albums forced to wait for their crowning. This decade, there were two instant classics in the rap world. Both required the times, more than time. First was Kendrick Lamar’s debut—no other rookie’s debut resonated so deeply, so visually, so stylistically evolutionary since Nas’ Illmatic. K. Dot gave his Coast what Escobar gifted the East 17years prior. The second was JAY-Z’s latest, 4:44.

While 4:44 wasn’t empowered through the process of aging, it will continue to rely heavily on age. The age of its listeners, to be exact. June 30, 2017, the birthdate of JAY-Z’s most recent and possibly most anticipated body of work, is a marked day in the latter years of Generation Z, an era labeled inaccurately by hip hop as “millennials.” Gen Z begins in 1995. According to Jay, his last classic album (if 4:44’s status is considered still pending) was 2003’s The Black Album. Meaning anyone who was born in the late ’90s was seven years old or younger the last time Hov had a classic.

Although the culture of hip hop has ripened enough to permeate White House speeches and dominate charts via new media and technology, the youth remain its pulse. Kendrick may share an audience with JAY-Z, but Cardi B and Future are tops today because of music lovers, born after 1995, who only know their youth, whose formative years were scored by Drake, Nicki, Kanye and Beyoncé. Understand this: The oldest Gen Z fan became legal just last year. Is there any better manual for a rap fan to walk into adulthood with than 4:44? Who better a counselor of empowered cool than Shawn Carter?

4:44 couldn’t have arrived at a more fitting time. Trump is president and the driving force for the anti-Obama half of America. Racism is as alive as it was during the Civil Rights era. Black kids are still being murdered simply for wearing melanin. But those kids are more woke than ever. They had a Black President for all, if not nearly half, of their life. Black culture is more triumphant (and lucrative) than ever—hip-hop music is #1 in America, took the Film of The Year Oscar, Emmys for all brown writing teams and lesbians of the same hue. Summer ’17 was the perfect landscape for a colossal voice to compose a composition premised in Black Power—politically, culturally and, of course, economically. Jay offered financial advice for hustlers both young and old, straight and crooked.

His single “The Story Of OJ” sacrificed one of his own to highlight the relentless loom of White Supremacy. Bad boys were ridiculed for not moving in silence (ex. flashing cash on social media platforms). Instructions were dispensed to artists and civilians alike: invest your money, put it back into your community, hire and empower your own. Name another rap album that pushed generational wealth for brown people and went #1.

“Fuck living rich and dying broke”

Not that 4:44 is all fiscal accountability and village responsibility. It was not only Shawn Carter’s most personal work to date, but arguably the most transparent musical expression from any street legend. Which other rapper, at this stage in their career, reveals his family’s molestation history or his mother’s same-sex preference on the same album? Then takes on the titanic accountability of admitting that he cheated on the world’s biggest pop star? It wasn’t Carter’s infidelity that surprised, but the detailed specificity of his wrongs’ consequences—Bey’s stress-induced miscarriage, the fear of being forced to admit failure to his only daughter. 4:44 was as cathartic for Jay as it was nourishing for its listeners.

“You can’t heal what you never reveal”

(What’s up JAY-Z?)

“You know you owe the truth to all the youth who fell in love with JAY-Z”

The universal takeaway was that if hip hop’s King can fuck up this royally, be this human, and still stand as a legend, then there’s God, and hope, in all of us humans. Once again, Jay did that, so, hopefully, you wouldn’t have to go through that.

Many may read this eager to pounce with the point that Jay made another album this decade. Yet, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail was and remains an inarguable non-classic. Before 4:44 was even a concept, Jay, himself, ranked it directly in the middle of his previous albums. MCHG never reached the upper echelon of Carter’s catalog for a couple reasons. The first is the misfiring of the actual body of work.

By summer ’13, Jay was an entire era removed from his last album. It’s fair to say that there was more intrigue for his twelfth album than anticipation. He was coming off a “Suit & Tie” on a private plane flex with Justin Timberlake, but that wasn’t the heartbeat of 2013 hip hop. Not many were Picasso or Tom Ford shopping. And for all the G-6 posturing, the music still felt like Jay was attempting to be of and above the times all at once (“I don’t pop Molly… Clap!”)

This bleeds into the main (and ironic) reasons why MCHG doesn’t beam so bright today: age and time. That year flushed in the new school’s new leaders. Beyond K. Dot and Drake (who dropped his third album some months before MCHG), Gen Z had a smorgasbord of rap flavors to pick from—Hov’s protegé J Cole was ascending, Chance the Rapper was breaking through, A$AP Rocky reached the mainstream, Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler were carrying Eminem’s baton in skillful IDGAF fashion. Even the misfits and outcasts had alternative sets like Run the Jewels and Childish Gambino as options. Eminem’s bite wasn’t as gripping and Yeezus was a little overbearing. Somewhere in the middle lived Magna Carta Holy Grail—at times, buried.

This is why 4:44 will forever occupy a special place in JAY-Z’s heart. It ended his nearly decade-and-a-half drought. Only after he doubled down on his story, legacy and future—he and his people’s. Only after he scaled back the floss to allow for equal parts confessional and lecture. Some cuts, like the title track, saw him stretched horizontal on a tufted leather couch, while others pictured him upright behind a professor’s podium, or seated behind the crispy doors of a chauffeured Maybach schooling a young runner. Jay finally accomplished what he set out to on MCHG: find a language that spoke to Generations X, Y and Z. That language would be spoken word. 4:44 will go down in history like a Maya Angelou audio book for ages 12 and up. It balanced out the teenager’s diet of trap and savage rap with been-there-done-that wisdom and entrepreneurial aspiration. Messaging this humbling couldn’t be delivered by a father or uncle. In order for it to be properly received, it needed to come from someone cooler, yet still familiar. Like a “Big Brother.” Jay’s advantage was that he is all of the above. That is called generational wealth.

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Ranking the Songs From JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’


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