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ALBUM REVIEW: "4:44" by JAY-Z

Roc Nation
"4:44" is the new album from JAY-Z.
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4:44 proves a lucky number for JAY-Z, as he drops his 13th studio album this week

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Let the public tell it, JAY-Z is washed up. It didn’t help public opinion of him that after dropping a largely disappointing 12th studio album Magna Carta Holy Grail, his wife Beyoncé aired out his infidelity for an entire album.

MCHG was not Jay at his best or at his worst. It was an average effort from the most accomplished rapper of all time. The narrative then became that Jay used to be the king, but now he’s some 47-year- old that is trying to stay relevant in a genre that embraces their greats before discarding them as soon as they falter or age.

Hip-hop is historically a young man’s sport. Growth in age or a switch in content isn’t welcomed or deemed profitable.

A Twitter search of Vince Staples’ new album, a West Coast rapper who decided to drop an album consisting of mostly dance and house production, shows that a majority of hip-hop fans hate it and want him to stop rapping over “weirdo beats.”

Even the universally acclaimed album from Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly, is still lampooned by hip-hop fans for being “too weird” and “unable to play in the club.” As if that constitutes what makes a well-crafted rap album.

JAY-Z’s new album isn’t for those people. That’s not even trying to be on a pedestal saying this is the superior type of hip-hop and those people that don’t get it are peasants.

It’s just an album that will resonate with those that have either followed him for a majority of his career or are interested in someone of his status speaking very candid and introspectively about some of his past mistakes. Something that rarely, if ever, comes from someone as far up on the totem pole as Jay is.

He realizes that he is 47 and doesn’t want to leave things unspoken, especially when the emotions are fresh to create something that bleeds with authenticity

To the average listener, JAY-Z is the guy that rapped over a beat that sampled a track from Annie or rapped about how many problems he has. He isn’t known through the scope of the mainstream as a conscious rapper or an introspective one at that. His near limitless catalog has touches of it everywhere that foreshadowed 4:44 to display wall-to- wall vulnerability that we haven’t seen for longer than a track or two on previous albums (cc “You Must Love Me,” “Regrets,” “Soon You’ll Understand,” etc).

4:44 feels like a 36-minute therapy session with producer No I.D. providing the bed of instrumentals that Jay uses to feverishly rap to. A stream of consciousness ranging from the treatment and observation of the black man in America (“The Story of OJ”), his infidelity (“4:44”) to finally an accomplished man looking back on how any of his success even came to be (“Marcy Me”).

Before unleashing his most revealing body of work to date, Jay must destroy any preconceived questions and destroy his public persona. “Kill JAY Z” is ego death in the face of public scrutiny, similar to how Kanye West played with the concept of killing egomania on 2010’s “POWER,” which dropped after he became America’s favorite punching bag. Jay airs out his grievances towards several high-profile incidents he’s never commented on. By the end, it’s no longer JAY Z the near-billionaire rapper speaking anymore for the duration of the album, it’s Shawn Corey Carter. Remove wealth. Remove cultural grandeur. He’s a husband and father of three with brilliant untapped ideas that have laid dormant for years.

In an unorthodox move for Jay, he taps criminally underrated producer No I.D. to cover the entirety of production on the album. Very minimalistic sample-based production that is the polar opposite of the stadium knock that Jay has become synonymous with.

No I.D. only wanted to do the project if Jay were to dig into topics he previously skirted past. He gave Jay 10 beats that are incredible in their own right, but also don’t overshadow Jay. They get out of Jay’s way and let his flow do the talking.

“The Story of O.J.” details classism and racism among the black communities, of which don’t make a difference in a racist’s mind frame. Referencing O.J. Simpson’s status pre-murder trial to utterly deface his own race for the allure of Hollywood’s falsified smiles. Being of a glitzy culture that will embrace your color when you play by their rules, but will throw everything back once you get caught up. Don’t believe me? Ask Tiger Woods.

Capitalism is embraced (“Financial freedom my only hope / fuck living rich and dying broke”) while noting the flawed philosophy of ultimately selling your life and your experiences as an artist only for a “nice first-week release date.” A sample of Nina Simone singing about her black skin on one of Jay’s more sociological pieces is the musical topping of a track that will continue to spawn various analyses.

Braggadocio raps taps into the ideology of men acting hard and not showing emotions — hell, it’s what Jay made an empire and a dynasty on. Prior to marriage, back when he couldn’t fathom “giving his heart to a woman,” it’s truly who he was. It was never a fabricated front. It’s what Brooklyn birthed him to be. This isn’t any sort of fault — dozens upon dozens of classic hip-hop albums were created with this mentality. Jay even touched upon this concept of unequivocal male masculinity on 2001’s “Song Cry.”

The fault in Jay’s career post-marriage and especially after the birth of his first daughter, was that he kept this image in his music, but it felt more like a façade. Marriage and childbirth shouldn’t necessarily make you switch your whole style up, but there was a noticeable disconnect with the audience on his last album.

Yet no one expected a track like “4:44,” one of the most sincere pieces of self-loathing and justifiable regret since Kendrick Lamar’s “u.” The Hannah Williams sample ignites chills and goosebumps as her voice is heard screaming throughout the extent of the track; providing a musical personification of Jay’s outcry herein. Instead of peppering the entire album with referencing to his infidelity, No I.D. pushed Jay to drop everything into one staggering admission of guilt.

Lines such as “I apologize for all the stillborns / because I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it” is disheartening, with Jay’s voice sounding audibly troubled and grief-stricken. He even shocks himself with the idea of the day when his children find out the pain he caused their mother and having no explanation worth giving.

Jay is 21 years removed from his classic album Reasonable Doubt. Artists usually have a roll of material they churn out that feels like everything is gold and they can’t lose.

Jay’s run of ’96 to ’03 was nothing hip-hop has ever seen before or since. Even when artists fall off after their “classic” period, fans still support them because they gave them so much enduring material. Jay has had missteps (Blueprint III ) and high achievements (American Gangster) since returning from “retirement” in 2006, but him being in pure classic writing mode on 4:44 is unfathomable.

Throughout the album, Jay is in an unbelievable zone of upper echelon wordplay and multi-layered metaphors. The third verse on “Smile” supplies up a staggering amount of lyrical flexing on over 60 bars. Lines such as “My therapist said I relapsed / I said, ‘perhaps I Freudian slipped in European whips’” exemplify the line of conscious and braggadocio that Jay walks brilliantly for all 10 tracks.

It has an arctic level of constant cooing and hard low end sprinkled throughout with Jay revealing his mother is a lesbian and crying when she finally found love — even against “society shame and pain.” It ends with his mother reading a poem about how freeing it is to be out of the shadows and reminding the listener to love who they love because life isn’t guaranteed.

Necessary steps in Jay’s life had to happen for this album to have its appropriate impact. 4:44 dropping in 2009 wouldn’t have resonated properly because it required everyone to look upon with condescending eyes for it to successfully work.

There’s the connection of artist to the audience that can sometimes make the lines between acquaintance and observer blurred. For those that have grown up with Jay, every album feels like a damaged postcard we get every few years. We want to know what his thoughts are on certain subjects and stay for the usual lines that make us feel invincible when a beat drops or a line digs into you. We find the lines that describe your lives at a particular time and end up defining those moments.

Shawn Carter has always been the reticent teacher with Reasonable Doubt being a pseudo street bible. He taught the listener what he went through, how to move when you’re in a position like him and how to ultimately learn to live with yourself and your choices.

4:44 is chock full of bars that will make your bank account blush, sure, but it offers something that previous albums were missing. Instead of offering advice, it opens the door for audiences to his life. Not JAY-Z the hustler, not JAY-Z the rapper, Shawn Carter the person.

It’s no longer a one-way mirror for the audience. His display of unapologetic humility at times reaches past the audience because, for the first time, he’s looking for answers.

The relationship between audience and artist now genuinely comes full circle. Jay has always been open and honest in his music, but it was always controlled by what he chose to speak about. A serenity is felt as Shawn Carter and JAY-Z have become one. It was never a question he was the most accomplished rapper of all time, but now it shouldn’t even be a question that he is the greatest of all time.

With 4:44, he leaves an album that will continue to educate and unearth meanings with time. With its age will come more revisits that will continue the conversation offered inside the lines. Like all great music does.

Welcome back, Carter.

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About the Author

Kevin Tudor

Born and raised in the mean streets of Yukon, Oklahoma, Kevin is currently majoring in...

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