What more is there to say about Jay Z? Over twelve studio albums, rap’s biggest success story has masterfully told tales of hustle, struggle, and the African-American experience. However, his last effort, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, saw Jay become bogged down in extraneous luxury rap and contemporary trends. The question then became: Did Jay Z himself have anything left to say? The answer is a resounding yes, but only by allowing his thirteenth record, the Tidal-exclusive 4:44, to function first and foremost as a Shawn Carter album.
In that sense, the 47-year-old rapper sounds more vital than he has in almost a decade as he ditches the technically impressive yet hollow braggadocio that became tired coming from someone of his stature. Instead, 4:44 is all about his legacy, as a man, as a father, and as an artist. Part of that legacy involves confronting the ego that led to his failings – from stabbing his brother over a stolen ring to his infidelities in his marriage to Beyoncé. While much of that ego came from his hard knock upbringing, here Jay realises he has to own up. This theme is everywhere, in both his apologies and attempts at reconciliation, to his musings on losing friends, (including a Kanye West diss) to once again, the legacy he will leave on his family and the world.
Jay’s wisened perspective is one where the personal and political are one and the same. On album highlight ‘Smile’, his mother Gloria Carter comes out as a lesbian in a stirring monologue at the song’s end, but Jay also ruminates in the third verse on the industry’s abusive treatment of black artists, lopsided incarceration rates, and the destructive effect of the War on Drugs on African-Americans. Taken together, he suggests the wider the gulf to freedom, the more liberating it will be when that freedom is finally, painstakingly achieved. Throughout the album, Jay muses on black financial liberation through his own business success, and on the closer, his daughter Blue Ivy asks, “Daddy, what’s a legacy?” as he reflects on his troubled youth. These tracks typify a disarming and soulful honesty from Mr. Carter that culminates in his most thoughtful record. More than a response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, it is Shawn’s manifesto.
This is Jay’s first record to be wholly produced by one person, the Chicago-bred No ID, who brings chopped up soul samples to 2017 in a naturalistic fashion. Kanye’s mentor actually does much of the heavy lifting, as his production not only beautifully accents Jay’s flows but also carries the album’s themes in a way the lyrics cannot. On ‘The Story of O.J.’, a song explicitly about blackness in America, Nina Simone sounds unapologetic in singing, “my skin is black.” No ID also flips the Sister Nancy song ‘Bam Bam’, and ‘Fu-Gee-La’ by the Fugees, as well as Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and the Alan Parsons Project. Each function as sonic cues that are not only painterly in composition but speak to Jay’s place in the lineage of black artists.
Aside from his mother’s poem, Jay is ably assisted by Frank Ocean, Damian Marley, and Beyoncé, yet the focus remains squarely on Shawn Carter’s person and personhood. Some of his cadences may not land the way they used to, and the occasional cultural reference may fall a little flat, like on ‘Moonlight’ which alludes to this year’s Oscars competition between the titular film and La La Land. At the same time, Jay proves he can still battle with the best of them: “Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke / Y’all flirtin’ with death, I be winkin’ through the scope.” It’s in these contradictions that 4:44 stands tall as a retrospective, adding another fine note to the legacy of Jay Z the artist.
Released June 30th via Roc Nation.