Written by: The Bro
The King Is Back
By the time Jay-Z released his debut album in 1996 he was in his late twenties, having spent the late 80s and early 90s as somewhat of a hip hop apprentice under Jaz-O and later the Notorious B.I.G. Always a few years older than his peers, in a genre fueled by the young, Shawn Carter adapted to his environment like a seasoned hustler. In later years that knack for adapting to changing environments brought commercial success at the cost of critical acclaim. His previous two albums, Blueprint 3 and Magna Carta Holy Grail, tallied up big sales while sounding forced and unauthentic. There were highlights on both albums but overall it finally felt like Hov was playing a young man’s sport and not succeeding.
Enter 4:44. On his 13th studio album, Jay-Z has crafted an unapologetically wizened, mature album that largely eschews the sound of rap’s current climate. The album is part victory lap, part motivational speech, part relationship therapy; all dipped in group economics and sprinkled with samples chopped to oblivion.
The title track, aptly titled Kill Jay-Z, serves as a confessional concept track in which J Hova is deconstructed. The track sounds like therapy at gun point, as Shawn Carter struggles within himself to let his guard down, and even cry. It’s certainly a surprising development from a man who once made the song cry instead of shedding tears. Ironically, Jay-Z’s trademark perfect flow is deconstructed as well, resulting in one that feels off, even rusty at times.
Financial literacy and group economics take center stage on The Story Of OJ. Over a Nina Simone sample, produced and re-arranged by No ID with the delicate hand of a surgeon, much of the album’s theme becomes clear. “Financial freedom our only hope,” Jay declares while lamenting the careless spending of his youth and detailing some of his asset portfolio. Cars depreciate in value; throwing money in the sky at a strip club has no return (at least not a financial one). All childish games, as Jay-Z once said, and now he’s quite grown. Grown enough to focus on investments with an actual return. Real estate. Art.
Just as calling Beyonce’s landmark Lemonade album a “break up album” would be a disservice to the album’s celebration of the black woman experience in America, calling 4:44 a “break up album response” would also miss the mark. The title track puts relationship strife at center stage, as Jay confesses his sins with a level of introspection and honesty he has never reached before (“I apologize, often womanize/Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes”). The song feels like a personal peek into something a stranger isn’t supposed to witness.
The marital focus continues on Family Feud, as the man who once described himself as the Michael Corleone of microphones takes a look in the mirror.
A man that don’t take care his family can’t be rich
I’ll watch Godfather, I miss that whole shit
My consciousness was Michael’s common sense
I missed the karma that came as a consequence
On the production front, every track is handled by the legend No ID. Even familiar samples are flipped and chopped in unexpected ways, and nearly every beat has a fluidity to it that breaks beyond the typical sample loops found on many mainstream rap releases. Some of the audio surgery results in portions of beats sounding unappealing or weirdly mixed, but overall the canvas No ID provides is impressive.
It wouldn’t be a Hov album without shit talking, and the Damien Marley assisted Bam provides plenty of lines that spray in multiple directions, from DeHaven to social media frauds. Meanwhile, Marcy Me puts storytelling prowess on display with effortless mastery, with a Hamlet quote thrown in for the hell of it.
Overall, 4:44 is the work of a master, not only showing he hasn’t lost a step but also pulling out a new trick or two. While there are some missteps (namely the flow on Kill Jay-Z and the singing attempts on Moonlight), Jay has finally managed to produce a deeply personal album without some of the issues that marred Kingdom Come. The album feels like a journey to financial and personal success, with Hov leaving behind crumbs for listeners to follow, like a hip hop Hansel.