4:44 Album Review: “The Maturation of JAY-Z”
“What more can I say to you?? You heard it all…”
Shawn Carter posed this thought to the listener on what was slated to be his classic retirement album, The Black Album back in 2003. And for what it’s worth, it seemed like a legitimate question at the time. What else could this guy actually give us? That was his eighth album and he had dropped an album every single year of his career since his seminal debut album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996. So many rappers don’t even make it to three albums. He spent so many verses waxing poetic about his former life as a drug dealer, his new life as being the best MC and a super sharp business (…man), touched on pivotal moments from his past like growing up without his Pops or shooting his brother or fighting Eric, who made him tougher, engaged in verbal spats with rival MCs with whole songs or as little as half a bar, put on his whole crew in the glorious Roc-A-Fella Dynasty days, had a few classic albums under his belt and even snuck in a low profile relationship with the hottest chick in the game. Not too bad for a guy who says he only made his first album to impress his friends.
Fast forward 14 years and not only is Shawn Carter still rapping at an elite level, but he delivers his most personal and therapeutic album to date, 4:44. Life is funny like that. 2 Chainz has a record from his second album called “Live and Learn (It Will),” where he raps “Live long enough, it’ll happen to you.” 4:44 is the embodiment of that bar in so many ways. So much has occurred in JAY-Z’s life over the last few years that has really only played out in either TMZ articles, Beyonce’s Instagram page, on stage or as blog post think pieces.
Things such as having his first three kids, his wife releasing an album that sounds like a woman on the other side of Usher’s Confessions album, an elevator scuffle with sister-in-law Solange, the apparent falling out of tight relationships with people like Kanye West and the rekindling of damaged relationships with people like Beanie Sigel. Aside from a show here or there or a few special guest verses, Hov hasn’t been too visible or vocal since his last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, released in 2013. And maybe that was by design (“If it wasn’t for these pictures, they wouldn’t see me at all,” he rapped on MCHG standout “Oceans”), or maybe it wasn’t. This 4:44 album came with no formal announcement from Jay. No interviews. No conversation about artistic direction. Only some fliers in major cities, a commercial and Tidal ads. In fact, it’s the least he’s ever promoted an album of his. EVER. Interesting move for a 47 year old dropping his first album in 4 years in a very much so “What have you done for me lately” culture. After sitting and living with 4:44, it’s clear that Jay had a LOT to say and there was no need for any distraction. Just listen.
The album begins with “Kill JAY Z,” which lets you know off top that you’re dealing with a different Hov than the one you heard last. First of all, notice the fact that the hyphen is back in his name on the album, but is missing in the title of “Kill JAY Z.” Jay started styling his name that way on The Blueprint 3 back in 2009, and this is basically as if to say “Everything that THAT guy has been on? FUCK that.” just off the title alone. Any question you could have about Jay based on anything I talked about in that last paragraph is answered in short and sweet ways on this intro. And there’s no pride being taken in it. It’s almost like an 8 Mile technique where he’s looking in the mirror and telling you (and himself) everything that’s wrong with him. A complete stripping of the very same ego that Jay has built his career off of. Whether it’s admitting to cheating on his wife, issues with Ye, provoking to Solange, knowing he needs to be a better father, it’s all there and it’s all real. “Cry, JAY Z… I know the pain is real, but you can’t heal what you never reveal,” he spits. This isn’t the first time Shawn has tried to off Jay. Go back to the brutal ending of his “99 Problems” video or his Vol. 3 track “There’s Been A Murder” where he ends every verse with “Back to Shawn Carter, the hustler. Jay-Z is dead.” However, something feels different about this time.
After starting the album out with a bang, things cool out over a jazzy knock with a Nina Simone sample, coordinated by No I.D. (who bodied this entire album on the production). The record is eyebrow-raisingly titled “The Story of O.J.” and has Hov kicking million dollar game about the Black dollar, being smart about the Black dollar and knowing who you are in this society as a Black person (“Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga/Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga…..still nigga.”) While incorporating advice in lines like “Please don’t die over the neighborhood that your mama renting/Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood, that’s how you rinse it…,” he goes back and forth from rapping to what feels like talking to the listener. For the next record, “Smile,” his mom, Gloria Carter, is credited with a feature and her voice is heard for the first time since the previously mentioned Black Album.
On this record, Jay reveals “Mama had 4 kids, but she’s a lesbian”, and declares his support for her in the following bars. In all the times Jay has spoken about his mom, he never once alluded to that fact. This is big in the scheme of this album because it’s an early showing of Jay willing to go places on this album that he’s never gone to in his 20+ year career. Throughout the rest of the song, specifically the third verse, Jay spazzes out lyrically. He even makes a point of mocking his critics mid-blackout (“Oh y’all thought I was washed! I’m at the cleaners/Laundering dirty money like the Teamsters”). Vintage Jay. And Ms. Gloria Carter wraps everything up very nicely with a beautiful poem at the end.
Things really get real smack dab in the middle of the album on title track “4:44.” In front of a gut-wrenching sample, Jay is rapping like a man that is racked with shame. Even the flow sounds broken, but at the forefront are the words that are coming out. The whole song functions as an apology to Beyonce as well as his fear of having to explain his actions to his kids one day. Jay gets real heavy here, blaming himself for his wife having still-borns (“I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it”), addressing a lack of appreciation early on (“I said ‘Don’t embarrass me’ instead of ‘Be mine”), and a direct admission to infidelity (“You did what with who?? What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate?”). Keep in mind that this is the same guy that once rapped “I pause for nothin, y’all be frontin, me give my heart to a woman??/Not for nothing, never happen, I’ll be forever macking”. Rory from The Joe Budden Podcast described hearing this song as being parallel to “Watching your dad cry for the first time”. It’s a level of vulnerability and pain that just doesn’t feel familiar in a Jay-Z record. Granted, he’s been open and honest about mistakes and regrets in past records, this is a different level. Only midway through, Jay is openly showing the listener his growth.
The next record, fittingly titled “Family Feud,” features Beyonce and quickly lightens the mood with a bounce that lives in the glory of Jay’s Blueprint days. Jay briefly speaks on the divide in his household with clever Godfather references, but speaks more on the generational divide in Hip Hop culture and his desire to see that culture progress, even if he’s at the very top. “Nobody wins when the family feuds. What’s better than one billionaire? Two.” With Beyonce singing like an angel over top of a Clark Sisters sample, “Family Feud” is absolutely a standout record. “Bam” with Damian Marley follows that and there’s not much else to say other than the shit is fire. Over a classic reggae sample, Jay jumps out on the track with “FUCK ALL THIS PRETTY SHAWN CARTER SHIT, NIGGA HOV!!” and everything is lit. Hov’s last bars on the record involves a clever hair scheme that I feel like not a lot of people caught: “I press the head of ya team with one *finger curl*/I’ll line ya all up with one finger *wave*/Make niggas *weave*, niggas is out here fake/*Lacefront* to the back, don’t front/Y’all gon make me *wig*, Ima give y’all what y’all want.” The record is so, so dope.
To close the album out, there’s “Marcy Me,” which may have grown to be my personal favorite on 4:44. The flow is as tight as it can possibly be as Jay takes a quick walk down memory lane through Marcy Projects supported with vocals from The-Dream to close the record. As soon as that record ends, Blue Ivy Carter makes her first appearance on the album to set off the last song “Legacy.” “Daddy, what’s a will?” she asks as a Donny Hathaway, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” sample kicks in and Jay leaves her and the listener with his verbal will.
Simply put, 4:44 is an amazing body of work. It’s JAY-Z’s shortest album and in the same breath it might be his most potent as well. If you’ve had the privilege of being a JAY-Z fan since the 90’s or even the early 2000’s, the level of growth, experience and wisdom displayed in this album should be astounding to you. Because there’s no way Jay is making this album 10, maybe even 5 years ago. And that’s not to say that his previous work should be looked at as childish, but more so as pieces in a story of human growth. Every Jay album sounds like a snapshot of exactly where he was at in life at the time, and this is another case of that. Self analysis, cultural analysis, food for thought on smart records like “Caught Their Eyes” and “Moonlight,” business savvy, declarations of love, etc. It’s all there. Maybe now, low-key, Jay finds himself asking the same question from The Black Album, “What more can I say to you??”. And again, that feels like a legitimate question. “Marcy Me” and “Legacy” gives me the same feelings of goodbye that “Allure” and “My 1st Song” did. Selfishly, I really hope this isn’t Jay’s last album, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make perfect sense for it to be that. Whether it is or it isn’t, 4:44 is without a doubt another amazing body of work in an amazing catalog in the greatest rapper of all time’s Hall of Fame career.
Overall Rating: 4.5
Cultural Impact: 5
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