What can I say about Jay? Not much that hasn’t already been said, that’s for sure. I am not sure if anyone can think of other 47-year-olds that have such a decisive grip over the music industry. Having begun his impressive career back in 1996, Jay-Z excelled with constant number one albums, including the well-known Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album. His songs have redefined aspects of popular culture time and time again. Casual call-backs to the hard-knock life are often accompanied by talk of 99 problems and dirt off of one’s shoulders. Recent years, however, have seen Jay-Z become a peripheral figure in the scene. His 2013 album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, received mixed reviews, being thought of by many as average at best. He followed this up with his attempt at a music streaming service, TIDAL. Yet TIDAL has been the subject of much ridicule and anger from the public, due to high pricing and exclusivity deals. Safe to say that I approached 4:44 with more than your normal amount of caution. After signing up for TIDAL (a painful endeavor, I assure you), I got down to business. After over twenty plays, I believe I have come up with my verdict for the album.
Jay did not take long to hit the ground running on 4:44. Two seconds into Kill Jay-Z, the album opener, and he was addressing himself in a heartfelt monologue. This track absolutely took me by surprise. I guess I would never have thought that Jay-Z would be rapping in 2017. More specifically, I would never have thought that Jay-Z would be rapping about personal issues and family & friend matters in 2017. Recent years had meant that Jay would contribute to projects with phoned-in verses about his immense wealth, business investments, and sexy wife. This song was different. Jay was a different animal. He mentioned his lackluster years. He mentioned his past mistakes. He even managed to fit in a line or two about his recent feuds with Kanye West. Overall, I was sold. However, more often than not, high-energy album openers tend to be the peak of many artists’ projects, and it is downhill from there. However, Jay kept the pressure on. His risky decision to have the entire project produced by one producer (No I.D.) paid off, as the coherence of the piece was kept intact. The Story of O.J. made sure that my attention did not wane. With one of the best beats of the year and inspiration from Nina Simone, this soulful melody sketched the story of the struggles of black people in America. Jay-Z was forceful in establishing his opinion, stating that at the end of the day, the financial status of black people in America does not seem to matter to others, which means that it would be better to be richer. We move on to Smile. There was so much more to this ballad than what showed on the surface. In this song, Jay talked directly to his mother who, as a lesbian, had to pretend to be heterosexual for most of her life. He talked about the beauty of love and happiness in any shape or manner. Towards the end, I was treated to a long and on-point verse of pure rap which hit all the right notes. Caught Their Eyes, the fourth track of the project, featured vocals by the beloved Frank Ocean. A groovy sound was achieved with Jay bouncing on the beat between choruses.
The album came to a climax with the title track, 4:44. Jay addressed rumours regarding his infidelity and admitted fault. The emotion in his voice was raw and his apology was painfully genuine. The sample continued to scream in the background and would reach a crescendo on every four beats, causing me to experience frisson. But I was not let down easily after this track. Immediately after, Family Feud started. A beat created with bass and gospel vocals, Family Feud addressed the disconnect between rap and today’s culture. Jay weighed in on the upcoming rappers of the current generation and shunned the so-called “old school” rappers for their condescending attitudes toward new trends in hip-hop. Bam was next, and upon seeing that it featured Damian Marley, I knew that I was in for a reggae-inspired track. This was the case, and Jay spoke more about his past history and journey in the world of rap. As the track came to an end, so began Moonlight, which was loosely based on the movie with the same title. Ultimately, the message in this song ended being a personal favourite of mine on the project. Jay spoke about the willingness of certain artists to perpetuate cliché trends in hip-hop, and the willingness of the same artists to undergo any creative transformation possible to belong to a record label. The chorus alluded to the shambles of the 2017 Oscar’s ceremony, in which the film La La Land was announced as the winner of the Best Picture category, only for the creators to find out that Moonlight was the true winner. “We stuck in La La Land, even when we win we gon’ lose,” says Jay. Marcy Me, the penultimate track, told the story of Jay’s adventures in his old prowling grounds and was a low-key yet enjoyable track. The album came to a close with Legacy. This was a song in which Jay talked about his plans to pass on his wealth to his children and keep his privileges for his family, as opposed to letting them dissipate.
I have given a track-by-track description of 4:44, and I think that my opinions are quite clear on the matter. This album is one of the most personal Jay-Z albums to date. Each story told is relevant for what it represents, and there are no songs that are made to be trendy. Nothing is catered toward the radio. There are no fillers or placeholders. There is a purpose to each track. The listener’s attention is drawn to these captivating stories, and never wanes, thanks to the appropriate length of the album. These tracks are right up there with some of Jay’s best as far as production and lyrical quality are concerned. Jay, an older rapper, manages to stay relevant in today’s hip-hop culture, and that alone deserves tremendous respect. I am not a big fan of giving out numbers for albums, but I will say this: sign up for TIDAL to give this album a listen. It is that good.