The 13th album of his illustrious career, 4:44 isn’t Jay-Z’s Tea– a response to Lemonade, or a Lemonade companion piece. While the album is certainly built around a betrayal, but his duplicity, the corresponding apology, and his reassessment are vehicles for his own maturation as a father, husband and business, man. Before, he was Hov, 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, where he’s measuring missteps and triumphs, wondering aloud if his work will appreciate in value, and what exactly is worth valuing.
If you know anything about Jay’s groundbreaking career as a rapper, label owner, entrepreneur and the aforementioned “business, man,” it’s that the Brooklyn native rarely has had time for apologies. He’s kept reinventing himself in varying degrees of gangsta rapper, pop star and wise veteran: brushing off pretenders to his throne on 2001’s The Blueprint, canonizing himself on 2003’s The Black Album, turning retro storyteller on 2007’s American Gangster, topping the pop charts with 2009’s “Empire State of Mind” and turned his soaring wealth and fame into luxury boasting on 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail.
But this one is different. On 4:44 the God MC attempts to bridge the gap, and become the cool uncle that Hip Hop needs. Instead of taking the new breed to the woodshed, he simply pulls them to the side and lets em know that “Hov did that– so hopefully, you won’t have to go through that…”
“Financial freedom my only hope/Fuck living rich and dying broke,” he raps on “The Story of O.J.” However, he now seems to acknowledge that self-help strategies are not a bandage for the world’s ills. On the same song, he riffs, “Rich nigger, poor nigger, house nigger, field nigger/Still nigger.” Elsewhere on “Family Feud,” he argues for black unity at home and in the community and raps, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two/Especially if it’s from the same hue as you.” It’s not exactly a progressive call for economic justice, but it’s a far cry from “Niggas in Paris,” where he and Kanye raved at being the rare black faces in a sea of lily-white plutocrats, or when he bragged about velvet rope exclusivity on Drake’s “Pound Cake” (“Less is more, niggas, there’s plenty of us”).
On the title track, Jay reveals something that we all know– relationships are hard. Black relationships are harder. This is not because black people are more broken or more pathological than any other group. We are not. But we grow up in a world that says we are. Shaped by racism and its multigenerational assault on black families, black people often have had steep mountains to climb to find our way to each other. Think about how hard it is to find love and make a relationship work when you don’t have the added pressure of trying to be a representative of your race or trying not to perpetuate racial stereotypes of your people as romantically unstable, promiscuous, and prone to broken families. There is also the trauma of dealing with housing, food, job insecurity, and neighborhood violence that plague many black folks who don’t have the luxury of vacationing until their backs burn.
You might expect a morality tale like this to come from a place of respectability—but this is not Shawn Carter’s version of To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s owning up to the hubris that he displayed in the past like boasting about his sexual conquests on “Big Pimpin” or “Girls, Girls, Girls” have come back to haunt him as he attempts to raise his daughter Blue Ivy and respect his marriage vows to Beyoncé. It might seem vulgar to connect the romantic exploits of two celebrated stars with the history of black oppression in America, but Jay-Z juxtaposes them to show the difference between selfish love and true self-love. “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” An appropriate quote, since Jay-Z’s 4:44 also happens to be his most LGBTQ-positive album. Reasonable Doubt had the lyrics: “Too many faggot niggas clocking my spending / Exercising your gay-like minds like Richard Simmons.” But this album has a song dedicated to gay Best Picture winner Moonlight and “Smile” features a duet with his mother Gloria Carter, where he pulls her out of the closet as a lesbian. To truly love yourselves and others selfless, without ego, is to love every aspect of a human—including their sexuality.
Sonically, these No ID beats are lovely and remarkable, but they’re not going to annihilate your car speakers anytime soon. That’s not where Jay is right now. He’s not trying to evoke that screaming out the sunroof, “death to y’all” mood anymore. Instead, he’s doing something that I never expected to hear Jay-Z do. He’s offered himself up, completely and without reservation. He’s let us hear his internal monologue. He’s treated the entire world– or at least that exclusive portion of the entire world who has either Sprint or Tidal, as his therapist. I cannot possibly overstate how weird this is. If you’re old enough, you remember a different Jay-Z, the Jay-Z who became king of New York through sheer sneering cold unemotional arrogant confidence. 4:44 is a a brave, thoughtful, rewarding piece of work. We’re richer with it out in the world, as it proves that a man nearly 50 can still rule Hip Hop while being true to himself.
Looks like we’re being formally introduced to Shawn Carter, the husband and family man– Jay Z is dead…