We all know JAY-Z is one of the best to ever do it. He’s a modern day Shakespeare, the first rapper ever inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an extension of the late, great Notorious B.I.G. As an executive he’s given us Roc-A-Fella Records, Rihanna, Kanye West, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Just Blaze and Young Guru — to name just a few. He’s an incredibly successful businessman (or a “business, man”). And of course he married one of the most dominant artists to ever walk the face of the earth.
But ‘4:44’ isn’t a JAY-Z album, it’s a Shawn Carter album.
JAY-Z has given us a peep behind the curtain of his life on a few occasions — hidden gems like ‘Soon You’ll Understand’ from his often slept-on 2000 album ‘The Dynasty: Roc La Familia’ — but he’s never been as candid about his personal life as he is on ‘4:44’. On 2001’s ‘Song Cry’ he went as far as admitting “I can’t see ‘em coming down my eyes, so I gotta let the song cry,” but with this confessional 13th album, the mask is finally off and he’s shedding the tears himself.
This isn’t merely fodder for more gossip about the Carters, but words of wisdom, a lesson to be learned by generations to come. He kills his own ego on opener, ‘Kill Jay Z’ before offering “a million dollars worth of game” on the empowering ‘The Story Of O.J.’ which sees him preaching the pursuit of financial freedom over living a superficial “high life”.
Like a life coach championing black capitalism, Jay raps, “Y’all on the ‘Gram holding money to your ear / There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here.’ John 4:44 sees Jesus pointing out that a prophet has no honour in his own country, and it seems that this was a clear inspiration to Jay as he continues to prove himself as a God level MC whilst offering up gems for those that will follow in his footsteps.
Recruiting Chicago veteran No I.D. as sole producer and reuniting with longtime friend and hip-hop’s most celebrated engineer, Young Guru (for the first time since 2009’s ‘The Blueprint 3’) the album’s core team provide one hell of a triangle offence. It’s largely thanks to the support of No I.D. that JAY-Z allowed himself to be so candid. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the producer recalls telling Jay: “I think people need to hear what they don't know,” giving him the push he needed to be so candid on record.
The title track is arguably ‘4:44’’s stand out moment. It came after No I.D. pressed Jay to address what it’s like being a man of his stature, his responsibilities, what it’s like being married to a superstar, and the infidelity rumours sparked after the infamous elevator scuffle with Solange and then the content on Beyoncé’s last album, ‘Lemonade’. Giving Jay a beat that sampled ‘Late Nights & Heartbreak’ by Hannah Williams and The Affirmations, a song that focuses on infidelity, Jay found himself waking up one day at exactly 4:44am and it was at this point he wrote one the most important songs of his career.
The crux of the album has Jay apologising to Bey and his daughter Blue Ivy in the form of a lyrical love letter. While admitting his faults he transforms from Superman to Clark Kent with a refreshing vulnerability. No man is perfect and Jay knows this, in order to wipe the slate clean he needs to destroy and rebuild.
On the following track ‘Family Feud’ Jay calls a cross-generational meeting backed up by vocals from his wife. Addressing the divide between old heads and new school rappers, it’s a moment all in the name of culture. Whether it’s addressing femininity in hip-hop — “And old ni**as, y’all stop actin’ brand new / Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh” — or celebrating others achievements within the culture — “What’s better than one billionaire? Two / I’ll be damned if I drink some Belvedere while Puff got CÎROC” — Jay calls for the expansion of black culture but explains that it’s going to take everyone coming together in order to achieve it.
From front to back ‘4:44’ is an education. Whether it’s urging people to be wary of their surroundings (‘Caught Their Eyes’) — on which Jay even calls out Prince’s lawyer for allowing people to capitalise on the singer’s death — or encouraging today’s artists to keep it fresh and creative no matter what (‘Moonlight’), Jay becomes the elder statesman that still has a lot to offer his contemporaries.
At just ten tracks in length, ‘4:44’ is short and to the point. Shawn gives JAY-Z a look in on the Sister Nancy-sampling ‘BAM’ - on which he proclaims “Fuck all this pretty Shawn Carter shit n**a, HOV!” - before closing out with a pair of reality rap crescendos, on the piano-driven ‘Marcy Me’ (a nod to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’) Jay gets nostalgic and takes listeners back to where his hustling mentality was birthed — The-Dream closing out the track with a slick and epic appearance. A verbal will, ’Legacy’, ends proceedings as Jay lists his assets and where he wants them to go once he passes. Over a bed of horns he also urges the black community to free themselves from mental institutionalisation.
‘4:44’ is a deceptively multi-layered listen, revealing more and more to the listener upon multiple listens. So much is economically packed into Jay’s bars, there’s no way it can be digested in a single listen or written about in a single review. It’s reality music, and while obviously tailored around the life and times of Shawn Carter, offers so many narratives that the common man can relate to in astounding measures.
Words: Will Lavin
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