Jay Z boxes from an awkward position, especially when cornered. He’s a self-professed lefty (see 2001’s “Renegade” and 2009’s “Thank You”) who has commonly loaded up his punches with a slickness behind them. Black power meets entrepreneurship; corporate partnerships footing the bill for his next major “event” moment. Last Thursday was another event, the long-awaited release of his 13th solo effort, 4:44. Listening sessions were erected across the country through a partnership between Tidal and Sprint. Billboards stretched along city buses and web space. iHeartRadio played the album all day on Friday. On the outside, Jay-Z had drummed up anticipation for an album with no singles, a black album without the name to go with.
Only this go-round, Jay Z wasn’t coming out from a position of strength. He was doubled over on the canvas and hearing enough whispers and yells to get up.
“He’s too old to release an album,” fans contended. “We don’t want to hear a Lemonade response,” they chided after his wife's mammoth blow that put him in a rare place of vulnerability last April. Lemonade tore away at our idea of what a perfect marriage Jay Z and Beyoncé had. In effect, the world had come down upon Jay Z the same way you hiss at an athlete still hanging on beyond his prime. In the three years since Magna Carta … Holy Grail, he didn’t have much of a choice; he was going to have to dive into a place of emotional taxation. The only person that could represent him? The truth.
For a man nearing his fifth decade on Earth, Jay Z has never sounded as fraught, or pained or haunted, as he does on 4:44. The soulful slices of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sister Nancy, the Clark Sisters and Donny Hathaway, supplied by Chicago producer No I.D., underscore it. Without him doing more than making beats or being Jay’s in-studio therapist, 4:44 doesn’t feel the way it does. The title track, confessional and uncomfortable in many ways, would lose its luster. The contention in Hell before Heaven of “Family Feud” wouldn’t float with new life. Jay Z needed only one voice to help guide him through this; two if you count the main A&R in his life, his wife.
If you’ve listened to Jay Z confess something before, it was usually in hushed tones, broken statements pieced together with vivid detail and shuffled away. For every revelation, there was little time to actually grieve and process it. He shot his brother Eric when he was 12 and ruefully cursed himself on 1997’s “You Must Love Me” from the first of the Volume trifecta. The moment stayed off wax or off his conscious for nearly 20 years. He stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera at a Q-Tip listening party back in 1999, feigned innocence on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” before copping a plea and getting probation. Losing friends, his father, all of these different wounds would sit on songs since 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, the album that was supposed to be a one-off and be little nuggets. 4:44 draws you into therapy the moment “Kill Jay Z” kicks in, because Hov is recanting all of those stories.
Every little dig, every little gossipy murmur or Twitter rumor gets aired out, each situation sounding like a boldface, two-word headline. Hov turns into auxiliary mode, filtering out his gripes. The Solange fight in the elevator, Kanye using his Saint Pablo tour to lash out, almost losing his marriage, it all pours out of him in a way not heard since “What They Talkin’ Bout” from Blueprint 3, when former friend Damon Dash had gone estranged. Shawn Carter’s book of disclosures isn’t done in a biblical sense; there’s a happy ending at the end of all this fire and brimstone. But the man from Marcy Projects said it plain as day: “You can’t heal what you never reveal.”
The long criticism about Jay Z was that he never got too personal into his life, especially the more he became internationally and globally recognized. Maybe it was the corners that numbed him, selling drugs to people who held a place in his heart. He had to become remorseless, maybe. “Regrets” from Reasonable Doubt was about the drug game, that’s obvious to any lifelong decoder of lyrics. But it’s clear that life and even a little therapy have pushed Jay to reveal more, to let some family secrets breathe in the air and gain their own freedom. “They got me fightin’ ghosts,” he rapped once. Those ghosts weren’t the careers and legacies of his dear friend The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Those ghosts were his own infidelities and secrets.
“Smile” reveals that for all the love that Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves had while making love under that sycamore tree, it wasn’t pure. Complicated yet strong, Hov’s mom bore four children but hid her sexuality due to perception and fear. To her son, she was a "thespian" for playing a role that wasn't truly her, "Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/ Don't matter to me if it's a him or her." The album's closer, “Legacy,” opens another subject, the one of his grandfather, Adnis Reeves Sr., molesting his daughter — Jay’s aunt. No “Meet the Parents,” rather, keeping the family close bears its own pain. Last year, Jay bore into this briefly on 2016’s “spiritual” before later letting on that he needed a “shrink.” The Carter Family were leaving breadcrumbs in the wake of Lemonade and while one party conducted itself with rightful anger and wonder of how a fairy tale could be cracked, the other half hounded and chased to get everything back.
At times, 4:44 exists in two separate spaces. There’s the ego of Jay Z, rap’s big draw who can still challenge himself and sit on a throne as the greatest MC of all time. That’s the man who compared himself to Michael Jordan, the guy who cannot find peers in rap unless they’re within arm's reach on the Forbes list. That Jay-Z lives, flirts, breathes and climbs high on “Bam,” where he preens about stuffing a million dollars in a sock drawer and how his friends either scrapped from low heights or prison bids to become multimillionaires. The old corner kid on “Marcy Me,” before gentrification ripped up the area and turned his old stash spot into something different. The wordplay is still witty, layered and nuanced throughout, a Jay trait that's never waned. His flow attempts new steps and numbers, still not out of pocket and far too nimble. It’s Ali in Manila; the feet are dancing and moving because that’s natural, the punches snap off harder because there’s desperation to them.
Not since The Black Album have there been this many “run and tell your friend” one-liners on a Jay Z album; 4:44 also sports Hov's most cohesive production since American Gangster. That’s all ego talking, though. Then there’s Shawn Carter, husband, father, philanthropist who pens guest columns trying to re-engage the public on issues of humanity; that part of him emits loudly throughout the album. Jay Z is a heartless, cold individual who would kidnap your baby, spit at your lady. Shawn’s different. Shawn admitted he’s never been in love, he needs a do-over. 4:44 didn’t kill Jay-Z but it made him look more like Michael Corleone in Godfather 3.
The bulk of 4:44, from Frank Ocean casually whipping around solipsistic on “Caught Their Eyes” to the closing notes of “Legacy,” is about reality and openness. There is a realism in Jay-Z’s world that most will never recognize. The riches, the family, the boasts that are more subtle fact than grandiose posing. The same can be said for lying and infidelity. What a liar makes in his world as real is only real to him as the rest of the world sees the truth. The liar has to keep recreating a world in order to feel it. No one knows for certain when Beyoncé discovered Jay had stepped out on their marriage, the fact that it happened stands too tall to ignore.
It’s here where the cheater justifies his actions with grief, with pause and ultimately the walk back to the solid ground of forgiveness. Jay places self-blame on everything from Beyoncé's miscarriage in 2013 (“I apologize for all the stillborns/ 'Cause I wasn't present, your body wouldn't accept it”) to sleeping with multiple women (“What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate?/ ‘You risked that for Blue?’”). It is the direct response to Lemonade’s “Sorry,” right down to the unanswered calls. Jay has been writing about Beyoncé since 2002, whether directly or indirectly. She’s been writing about the turmoil and “normalcy” of their love affair throughout her career; all of the big singles blocked our view of the drama. Their anniversary song, “Die With You,” is as close to a vision of her happiness as one may get. Relationships, much less marriage, are all about figuring out what the reality is. Jay created one for himself while his wife walked in lockstep, believing it to be another.
Losing it all will make you write songs at 4 a.m. The ramifications of life after your biggest flaw becomes public knowledge became too much for Jay to hold in. It makes the biggest man send off paragraphs of text messages and erratic phone calls to his lover. Owning up to the faulty logic of raising a daughter making you more aware of the traumas of women and so on. “Song Cry” this couldn’t be; “I fucked up” is about as flippant as “Don’t embarrass me.” Shawn Carter had to bottom out. True, sticking to codes of black wealth, the building blocks of Marcy and smacking down both visible and invisible foes remain. But there’s a far bigger villain in the world of Jay-Z: Hov himself.
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It is far too early to assume that 4:44 will be ranked as a Top 5 Jay-Z album. Fans have already readjusted their rankings the moment their first run-through was complete. But, there’s fascination to the idea that maybe this would be Hov’s crowning artistic achievement. Because 47 is around the age where if a man has achieved much, he’s getting a gold watch and a send-off into the next phase of his life. Here though, Jay is still running laps around the field, so aware of his position that even throwaway lines about Future’s co-parenting with Ciara invite scrunch faces for how tough they are. He hasn’t slipped, much like many old professionals who are firmly entrenched in fields that are supposed to employ “young men.” The old adage holds that rap is a “young man’s game,” but this is starting to become more of a fallacy every day, exposed by those artists willing to improve and challenge themselves with every release.
Right now, the most sustainable, fun rap records are being made by men who either crossed 30 recently (Kendrick Lamar) or did so years ago. Jay is right there with them now. For many, Reasonable Doubt marks a moment in time, a piece of music that had a certainty to it yet little appreciation until the world heard inferior moments. 4:44 is an adult-contemporary rap album from a rapper who became the definition for a contemporary artist around Vol. 2. One where the main star is him at his most honest and fractured. He’s too busy concerned with three things: reaching a billion dollars and becoming a better husband and father. Rap plaques were done the moment “Hard Knock Life” carried him to superstardom.
Twenty-six years after the first grand opening, Jay-Z is at that point where his career may not end with two ceremonial free throws like his basketball idol, MJ. It may not end like Kobe, battered yet still willing to turn the volume up one final time to give fans one more memory to sear into their brains.
Instead, he’ll walk off like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, right down to the lights going out during his final swing.