By Mister B
It’s amazing how the world can still be taken by surprise, even in 2017. One month ago, while the hip-hop community was still basking in Kendrick Lamar’s ascension to the throne with DAMN, we had no idea what Sean Carter – aka Jay-Z – was up to in his somewhat-second-retirement phase. As least that’s what it looked like. Then, out of nowhere, we got messages popping up: 4:44 was coming. It took hip-hop about two weeks to even figure out that Jay-Z was dropping something that would once again be exclusive to Tidal, his music streaming service. Based off what we’ve heard from his last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, most of expected Hov to give us something nice to nod to, bounce to, brag to, and pounce all over the new wave of trap rappers with. What we got was a beautiful flip of the script.
The 13th offering to hip-hop by one of its most acclaimed emcees and artists, 4:44, Jay-Z brings us a look into his life like never-before-seen or heard of. We’ve normally been used to Jay Hova as the ultimate businessman in hip-hop: from kingpin on the block, to rising to hip-hop‘s crown after the passing of his friend and mentor The Notorious B.I.G., to creating successful ventures such as Roc-A-Wear, Roc Nation, and the aforementioned Tidal, even his marriage to pop ultra star Beyonce and the creation of their new family, Jay-Z has been the poster child for “making it” in this life with what he was given early on. For the most part, he was never afraid to let us know, championing fashions, trends, and how we moved and applied cultures to our own lives.
4:44 takes all those success and balances them against everything we thought we knew (or had speculations about), and for the very first time, Sean the man take the stage and leaves Jay the rapper behind on the mic…..and the world has given it an astounding reception. As this is led by No I.D. producer’s acumen, this album gives us a real “Soul on Wax” tour.
So, what on this album that’s so special?:Honestly, what isn’t? We’ve been waiting for this version of S. Carter since he came out of “retirement” to give us personal growth and reflection, not just financial and cultural dominance. Jay begins this immediately on “Kill Jay Z”, as he talks about finally shedding the darkness he’s seen, and coming out publicly with his own demons; with his friends (with a few bars at his “lil’ brother” Kanye for good measure) and his own infidelity (LOL @ shots at Eric Benet, ”Nigga, NEVER go Eric Benet”). “The Story of O.J.” gives us a further driving point from Jay’s eyes that no matter how successful you are, if you are black, you’re “still nigga” around America, and takes a aim at wondering why the black community is so far behind, economic empowerment wise, and why the Jewish community has attained true power and independence in this country.
(Side note: if you live in New York City, you should already know this. We see it everyday. Why the media decided to get their panties in a bunch over Jay saying this only further explains his point.)
On “Smile”, Jay takes the hate he knows that is covered up by smiles, and exclaims that despite it all, why he’s way on Mt. Rapmore when it comes to this game, and why people see what they only wish to see. This track is also noted for Jay allowing his mother, Gloria Carter, to showcase her own coming out as a lesbian, which is beautiful in its own right. As the soul tour continues with “Caught In Their Eyes”, Frank Ocean makes a gracious appearance.
The album’s deepest track, “4:44”, goes much deeper into Jay’s previous mentioned cheating on Beyonce, and how as a nearly 50-year-old man, he’s realized just how much he’s hurt her, as well as how the lives they’ve created, summing it up with, “You did what with WHO?/what good is a ménage à trois when you have a soul mate/You risked that for Blue?”
By the time we get to “Family Feud”, he’s able to understand that when they all combine talents and resources in the Carter-Knowles household, it really is no ceiling to what that family can achieve, also re-affirming that he’s with his family, telling the home wreckers out there, “leave me alone, Becky.” Using the “Bam Bam” sample from Sister Nancy, Damian Marley drops by on “Bam” for a nice reggae/hip-hop crossover track guaranteed to get a club amped up this summer, while still letting Jay be the young Jay that we got to know and revere. (“I be skippin leg day, I still run the world/I press the head of ya team with one finger curl”) The album wraps up with three tracks, “Moonlight”, “Marcy Me” which is a wonderful pass through memory lane, and “Legacy” on how the spoils of his work will be seen throughout the generations with this game almost assured to reincarnate itself in his kids.
There’s way too much to cover in the 10 tracks listed, but Jay has really laid it out there for the listener to get a better understanding of what has driven him in ways most of us never thought.
Could there have been more done here?: The problem with a concept album is sometimes that it can get so personal, that it encapsulates the whole project, and there’s no room for a time out. I honestly felt that 10 tracks was a bit light, and that something could’ve been done for the clubs, a la one of the many chart-topping hits we’ve grooved to from Marcy’s own. (Maybe someone along the lines of “Grown Man B-I” or something.) This is the first Jay-Z album where there’s not a real dance track here, and it just feels so…..incomplete. Other than that, there’s no real downsides, here.
Album Cohesiveness: 9.5/10
Replay Value: 9/10
Final Thoughts: 4:44 is a great coming-full-circle vision on how one S. Carter has turned his gifts to what he’s said for years; as a gift and a curse. Yes, it’s brought him status, power, fame, and fortune, but it’s also brought him trials, tribulations, and pain. By broadcasting all of this in 30 minutes or so, he’s able to hopefully give the next generation a road map to success and how to avoid the pitfalls of his own setbacks….all for $9.99.
Do I feel that this album will get him hip-hop’s crown back from K. Dot? No. And it shouldn’t. Because it simply no longer matters. That’s the point here: he’s worn that crown, and many rappers have kissed that ring. He’s lane to glory is always paved. 4:44 is about what happens after your prime is past and your present hold a new chapter. As this album is very similar to Nas’s Life Is Good, both are able to bask on past triumphs, reflect on present relationship troubles, and give their own view on parenting challenges. Jay’s comes with much more glamour and style, because, well…..he’s Jay. But him even peeling the onion of his this far back puts 4:44 at least in the Album of the Year conversation. If this is Jay’s final offering to the world of hip-hop, I’m just glad he’s saved the autobiography for last, because this is his most truest work since one could say all the way back to the beginning, when Reasonable Doubt gave us a young emcee from Marcy projects and the promise of greatness he showed back then.
Favorite Tracks: The Story of O.J., 4:44, Marcy Me