Words About Music
Writer’s note: This review NOT brought to you by Sprint, Samsung, or any corporation. Fuck corporations and death to capitalism.
Rapper, mogul, capitalist, and business/man JAY-Z scarcely needs an introduction. If you don’t already know him as the owner and founder of Roc Nation, partner of multiple brands, and husband of also-brand Beyoncé, then surely you know him as one of New York’s greatest and most essential contributors to the hip-hop genre. Whether it’s his brilliant debut, “Reasonable Doubt,” or some of its highly acclaimed follow-ups, like “The Blueprint,” “The Black Album,” and “American Gangster,” JAY-Z has earned his status as one of the best to get behind the microphone.
Unfortunately, he’s also earned his status as a rapper who’s retired a million times, put out some extremely weak records, and willing to brazenly shill his music out to corporations for personal profit. His biggest humiliation was 2013’s “Magna Carta… Holy Grail,” an album which famously went platinum the day it came out, but only because Samsung bought a million copies from JAY-Z that would be distributed automatically on whatever their newest phone was at the time.
Financial success? Yes. Critical success? Definitely not. That describes a lot of JAY-Z’s dealings with the music industry over the past several years, whether it’s his abysmal collaborative records with child rapist R. Kelly or his numerous attempts at pop crossover joints. Then, there was the whole “Lemonade” thing, with the narrative on Beyoncé’s latest and greatest project centering on the revelation of JAY-Z cheating on his beloved wife. At the time, I didn’t believe that that was meant to be the takeaway of the album, and in many ways, I still don’t. It seems like such an obvious cash-grab, coupled with the deeper thematic elements of “Lemonade” and Beyoncé’s pre-Hov relationships being marred with adultery.
And yet, here is “4:44,” the dark, personal, I’ve-got-nothing-to-prove new record from JAY-Z, on which he admits that he’s been unfaithful in his relationship to Queen Bey and that he nearly threw the relationship away over someone possibly named Becky. While I’m still not convinced, it’s a compelling narrative, and JAY-Z’s performance throughout this album is noticeably reserved, reluctant, and sorrowful. And while my hopes for this record were very low, I was shocked from the get-go by how well-crafted and well-written this album is. Entirely produced by No I.D., “4:44” is a grand statement on love, family, sexuality, racism, and many other societal and interpersonal ills.
It’s also a fucking good album. Like, the best full project JAY-Z has put out in a decade. It’s that good.
The album’s 10 song tracklist kicks off with the evocative, attention-getting “Kill Jay Z,” which sets the stage for the album’s theme of self-deprecation and redemption. Even before getting into the track, one who pays attention to Hov’s trials and tribulations and rebrandings will notice that, while this latest era of music is being stylized as JAY-Z (all caps, with the hyphen), his previous record was stylized under the name Jay Z, like in the song’s title. This song is JAY-Z killing himself figuratively, taking an axe to his previous iterations and alter-egos, making references to numerous altercations he’s been involved in over the years, whether it’s stabbing bootleggers in the late ’90s or getting in a shove-match with his sister-in-law in an elevator. He even brings up his short-lived fiscal beef with Kanye last year.
It’s a surprising opening track, commencing with JAY-Z contrasting his relationship with Beyoncé to Eric Benét’s short-lived relationship with Halle Berry, whom he cheated on multiple times. “N—a, never go Eric Benét,” he raps at the end of the track, mocking himself and the speed with which he nearly lost “the baddest girl in the world.” I love the line here where he says, “In the future other n—as playin’ football with your son,” referencing rapper Future and the fact that his ex-fiancée Ciara is married to football star Russell Wilson, who now definitely plays football with the child Ciara and Future have together.
Next comes the Nina Simone-sampling “The Story of O.J.,” one of the best songs JAY-Z has put together, bar none. It tackles racism and how the establishment doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor; if you’re black, you are automatically at a direct disadvantage, even in these times where we are allegedly past the overt racism of the pre-Civil Rights era. He mentions some missed financial opportunities, as well as a joke about how his subscription-based streaming service, TIDAL, hasn’t been quite the success he’d hope it would be. “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine/But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99,” he raps, as if this is the pitch we all needed to hear to really cement the oncoming TIDAL wave. He uses this track to exaggerate racist myths about black people, drawing a parallel to similarly racist myths about Jewish people, like the stereotype that us Jews own all the property in America. Even if this bit of the song does make me a bit uncomfortable as a Jewish person, I understand the grander context, and I ultimately come away from this song amazed that JAY-Z was able to regain his charisma and hunger for writing great lyrics and crafting excellent hip-hop songs.
The next song is called “Smile,” and it features some outspoken lyrics against homophobia, focusing specifically on JAY-Z’s mom, Gloria, who is lesbian. I love the Stevie Wonder-sampling beat on this track, and I love that JAY-Z puts together a long stream of lyrics that flow wonderfully from one bar to the next. He uses this song to “wax poetic/’Bout bein’ back in the Lexus,” black enterprises, and how marijuana legalization has not yet had a positive impact on people of color, who are still being thrown in prison for mere crimes of possession, sometimes even being killed for it. It closes out with a short poem by JAY-Z’s aforementioned mother, indicating a positive outlook on life and the future.
Frank Ocean joins the party on “Caught Their Eyes,” delivering a deep, anxiety-ridden hook in between JAY-Z’s bars addressing a dispute with Prince’s estate over the issue of Prince allowing JAY-Z to host his music on TIDAL before his 2016 death. While this album can ultimately be chalked up to rich people problems, brought to you by Sprint, I do love getting these personal insights into the life of the industry’s biggest and most ambitious success.
The personal becomes intimate on the title track, which ends the first half of the album. Over a soulful Hannah Williams sample, Hov raps about his insecurities in his longterm relationship with Beyoncé, from its humble beginnings to last year’s musical revelations about his supposed infidelities. It’s another self-tear-down for JAY-Z, and it was probably the hardest track to record on this entire album. He mentions all his personal flaws and regrets with the relationship, chalking it up to his toxic, masculine ego, and his inability to see life through a woman’s eyes until the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. I love the production and the raw feel of this song. It sounds like it was recorded in the middle of the night, with JAY-Z delivering the song with serious conviction and intensity.
Beyoncé joins her husband on the next track, the aptly titled “Family Feud,” which details separation in hip-hop, specifically the generational gap between older rappers and the much-loathed new strain of rap stars. JAY-Z once again raps about personal wealth, reaffirming his relationship with Beyoncé after the apologetic tone of the previous track. I’ve also got to give JAY a shout out for the “Pill Cosby” line, which is pretty great.
JAY-Z returns back to his love of flexing and bragging with “Bam,” which features a fantastic hook from Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley. He uses this track to contrast the low-income communities and tenement yards of yore with today’s jewels, chains, and mansions. He also demonstrates his attentiveness toward current pop culture with references to Rae Sremmurd, Bobby Shmurda, and Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation.” It’s the album’s banger, and it’s one of the year’s best examples of the fusion between American hip-hop and Caribbean reggae and dancehall.
“Moonlight” is another reference-laden track, especially with its hook which sends up the infamous mishap at the 2017 Oscars, where “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as Best Picture instead of the actual winner, “Moonlight,” a film which centers on the intersection between the black and LGBTQIA+ communities. It’s less than 2.5 minutes, so it isn’t the most memorable track on the album, but it’s a humorous interlude that indicates that JAY-Z was working on this album even a couple months up to its actual release.
I love the song “Marcy Me,” with its emphasis on JAY-Z’s childhood, growing up in the Marcy Homes projects of New York City. The-Dream comes through with a lovely outro on this track, but the main focus is the lyrical component, which looks back in time at the ’80s and early ’90s, before JAY-Z had his breakthrough as a rap superstar. This track is immaculately produced, features a direct quote from Hamlet, and a reference to Lil Uzi Vert.
After looking back on “Marcy Me,” he looks forward to the future on the album’s final track, “Legacy,” which is basically a verbal will, letting his family know who’s getting his hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth when he inevitably passes on. I love the soulful, somewhat glitchy beat on this one, and it’s certainly an uplifting song for its loving focus on taking care of his children and his desire to use Carter wealth to make the world a better place for generations to come. One can only hope he makes good on those promises.
And that’s “4:44,” a short, yet substantive release from one of the most extraordinary, famous, ambitious hip-hop figureheads of all time. In a world where I never expected to enjoy another project from JAY-Z ever again — hell, I didn’t even think he’s put out any music anymore — I am pleasantly surprised by this album. My main gripes with the album have nothing to do with JAY-Z’s lyrical game, his delivery, or even the production on here. It mostly comes down to my innate dislike for rich, privileged narratives, even if JAY-Z built his wealth after coming from poverty. Capitalism is an ill, and it won’t be destroyed by allowing more members of oppressed, marginalized groups to get a piece of the exploitative pie.
Personal beliefs aside, though, this is a brilliant album. JAY-Z has, like I said before, regained his charisma in full, making the case once again for JAY-Z the rapper instead of JAY-Z the mogul. Was this album put together to sell cell phone plans? Of course it was. After all, we are in late-stage, neoliberal capitalism where we can’t open our eyes in the morning without being bombarded by consumer culture. However, the music on this album more than makes up for it, with No I.D.’s soulful, unique, expertly crafted, sample-based beats composing a compelling sonic foundation for this record. Additionally, JAY-Z once again sounds at home. He sounds like he’s making music, not selling a product, even if he is definitely trying to sell a product here. At least he’s finally put out a product worth buying in this era where JAY-Z is more readily conceived of as less of a businessman and more of a business, man.
SCORE — 8.50 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Kill Jay Z, The Story of O.J., Smile, 4:44, Family Feud, Bam, Marcy Me, Legacy