Released: 30th June, 2017
For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I missed the entire build up towards Jay-Z’s latest album, 4:44. Suddenly, sometime in July, I came across an article praising Jay-Z’s latest project and, with a mixture of guilt and anticipation, I played the track that had received particular praise – the titular track, ‘4:44’. I was not a fan. The flow seemed clumsy, haphazard and the material being discussed seemed too personal and I had lost touch with the latest gossip surrounding Mr. Carter’s marriage. The production seemed alright, but I figured Jay-Z was destined to join the ranks of former legends who had lost their touch. A few months later, towards the end of 2017, I watched the music video for another track, ‘The Story of OJ’ and that alone was enough to get me to give the album a second chance.
My opinion changed, of course, though not so much that I was astonished by my first impressions. 4:44 is an intimate, personal album; a recounting of sins; a public repentance for mistakes made. There is little place in 4:44 for Jay-Z trademark cocky flow, no space for self-aggrandizing lines about expensive cars and the bling-bling life – that Jay-Z makes space for these things despite it all, should surprise absolutely no one. Still, it’s all done tastefully and in good humour, and with veteran producer No I.D brushing the dust off an eclectic set of soul samples, the album creates an atmosphere that creates a cosy swirl of quiet introspection and classy grandeur. This is certainly no album for the club or the gym; it’s an album for an autumn walk, a quiet evening by the fire with a glass of bourbon.
The album opens with ´Kill Jay Z’, in which Shawn Carter turns a critical eye to his superstar persona. The steely, hardened shell of Jay Z protected the more sensitive and observant Shawn Carter earlier in life and career but Shawn finally admits to himself and to his listeners, that perhaps it is time for Jay-Z to retire so that Shawn can become a better husband and father.
In ‘The Story of OJ’, the critique broadens beyond Jay-Z himself, to perils of the materialistic pursuits that Jay-Z himself both espoused and pursued in his youth and his career. While I personally loved this song and especially the video that accompanied it, I can see such sentiments being viewed with cynicism especially coming from a figure like Jay-Z. Does Jay-Z, who made his fortunes from promoting that materialistic lifestyle, have the moral authority to now mock the newer generation for doing the same thing? The counterpoint, of course, is that such a message might have more of an impact coming from someone who pursued and promoted that lifestyle to its fullest extent; an admission that even at its best, that lifestyle leads to an emptiness on a spiritual level.
It’s a sentiment that Jay-Z continues to explore in ‘Family Feud’ which builds further into that idea of intergenerational wealth and the importance of a clan staying together. It seems that Jay-Z really is following the mob boss lifecycle – first coming up through the streets, then making his fortunes while crushing all opposition, and then thinking about establishing his own clan and legacy.
The tracks ‘Bam’ and ‘Moonlight’ both feel a little odd within the context of the album. In the former, Jay-Z momentarily casts aside Shawn Carter to once again don the mantle of Hov. The song is considerably more upbeat though lyrically stays close to the album’s themes of how Jay-Z’s priorities and perspectives have changed. Some might feel it’s a little jarring in how upbeat it is but I found the return of an older Jay-Z style and sound quite welcome and even a little nostalgic. ‘Moonlight’, which follows right after ‘Bam’ is significantly less energetic and a little boring, especially as a follow-up to ‘Bam’ on the track-list order. Lyrically, it isn’t without merit, but musically is just lacklustre.
Comparisons between this album and Nas’ Life Is Good are understandable; they share the thematic similarities of two of the genre’s greatest artists reflecting on their lives, careers and musical legacies. However, 4:44 is certainly the superior project and a great deal of the credit goes to the thematic cohesion between the songs of the album and No I.D’s production. No I.D’s sound is well-known to anyone familiar to the genre but here, he brings a style that is richer, and yet less aggressive than is normal for hip-hop production.
Coming back to my first impression of the album then, I can see why I would reach the conclusion I did after listening to small snippets of a single song. This album does not feature Jay-Z flowing at his absolute finest; there are no songs which come close to the technical dexterity he showed on The Black Album or The Blueprint or even American Gangster but in a way, this would not have been the right kind of album for such displays. In a way, 4:44 felt like a private performance, a gathering in Jay-Z’s living room, as he talks about the various issues on his mind through rhyming prose. The impression he gives off in this album is he is not concerned with the odd line or two that don’t quite align in terms of the rhyme scheme and that he is comfortable letting the beat ride and melodies fill the empty space. Songs like ‘Kill Jay Z’, ‘4:44’ and ‘Legacy’ exude a maturity that I didn’t know I wanted from a hip-hop album till I heard them. More than anything else, however, I find myself simply relieved that Jay-Z is still capable of making interesting music without trying to keep up with the latest trends – something that many of his contemporaries struggle with.
The Story of O.J
This is some grown-man dad rap, and as I get older, I can really appreciate the value of the life-lessons that Jay-Z talks about, even if some of it is pretty obvious.
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