I always found the first spin through a new record akin to a first date. Sure, you may not know after one night of dinner, drinks and awkward get-to-know-you conversation if you’re going to spend the rest of your life with this person. But you damn sure know if you’re NOT going to spend the rest of your life with this person.
This romantic analogy seemed an apt comparison to that of one’s first dalliance with a new record. Sure, you may not know if this album will live on in your heart for the remainder of your days, but after a spin or two, you have a pretty good idea where this is headed. Or so, I thought.
Jay-Z released his latest, 4:44, in June. It was a bonafide hit from the get-go, debuting atop pretty much every major music chart. Not that such success meant a whole lot; Jay-Z, like fellow hip-hop heavyweights Drake and Eminem, is going to move product no matter the circumstances. It’s why he’s a business man, not a businessman, and arguably the greatest rapper the hip-hop game has ever seen.
I didn’t particularly care for 4:44 at first listen. It felt tired, preachy, almost scaled-back and stripped-down to the point of boredom. Jay-Z, who plays Toyota Center Wednesday night, came off like an old man telling these young hip-hop cats to get off his lawn. Turns out, he was simply an elder statesman trying to offer a lesson to young men and women in the game; save your money, love the one your with, and never (repeat, never) cross Beyoncé.
Now, my reservations about 4:44 didn’t stem solely from a first run through the record. Rather, Jay-Z’s recent track record suggested 4:44 would be another in a long line of comeback records that announced as much but delivered on zero of that promise. Jay-Z managed to do something rare in 2003 when he released his retirement opus, The Black Album – namely, he went out on top via one of the best hip-hop records ever produced.
But, like many an artist or boxer before him, the erstwhile Shawn Carter wasn’t content in retirement, which brought us subsequent releases like Kingdom Come (the only truly bad Jay-Z album ever recorded), the R. Kelly collaboration Unfinished Business (yeah, no), American Gangster (ambitious and decent), The Blueprint 3 (a disappointment, considering The Blueprint 2 may very well be the best hip-hop record of all time), Watch the Throne (a fine effort, but neither Jay-Z nor Kanye at their best), and Magna Carta … Holy Grail (a perfectly fine record, but nothing special).
Now, for those who stay in the game long enough, missteps will happen. Eminem had Encore and Relapse. Metallica had St. Anger. Weezer had the second half of its career. Hell, Bob Dylan has the entire 1980s. Point being, it happens.
So it was with trepidation that I introduced myself to 4:44, which probably explains why the album felt cold and a bit calculated at first listen. Well, that and the fact that it was a direct response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade album from the previous year, an album that viciously dissected Jay-Z as a womanizing scamp.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z are the first couple of master marketing, so to release a pair of personal albums – in conjunction with corporate partners like Sprint and their very own Tidal streaming service – felt a bit forced. And, to be fair, it kinda was and remains as much, but that shouldn’t discredit that 4:44 is one of the best Jay-Z records ever put on wax. In fact, were it not for the aforementioned Blueprint 2 (a perfect record, no matter the genre), one could argue 4:44 as Jay-Z’s best album to date.
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4:44 is a lean album (ten tracks, a shade over 35 minutes in duration) that doesn’t waste one breath or beat. It welcomes back a revitalized Jay-Z. Perhaps it was (allegedly) almost losing his marriage and children over various infidelities. Perhaps it was the emergence of artists like Drake and Kendrick Lamar, who have supplanted Jay’s status in the modern hip-hop pantheon. Maybe it was Jay-Z taking on a rare underdog role and showing everyone who felt he’d lost his fastball over a decade ago. Or perhaps it’s simply because Jay-Z is arguably the greatest to ever grab a mike.
Whatever the reason, 4:44 is Jay-Z not only at his hip-hop peak, but delivering a message of maturity and responsibility to those he feels badly need it. It’s a once-broken man who has returned from the brink of personal failure. It’s a man who was smart enough to grab onto something before he lost it for good.
There isn’t a “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” or “Can I Get A…” on 4:44, tracks that caught fire on radio and in clubs, but there doesn’t need to be. Jay’s new material isn’t made for radio; it’s made for the soul-bearing, introspective crowd, those who can appreciate a man who found his place in life and acknowledges his mistakes. That’s how you get tracks like “The Story of O.J.,” “Kill Jay-Z,” “Smile,” and “Caught Their Eyes,” easily among the most personal tracks Jay-Z has ever recorded.
Whether 4:44 ends up being Jay-Z’s actual retirement album is almost inconsequential at this point. Sure, the album would certainly make for a fitting end to one of the greatest runs in the not only the annals of hip-hop, but pop music, period. Or it may just set the table for more Jay-Z music to come. Perhaps he can top himself one more time. With 4:44, he’s already proven as much.