4:44 (released June 30, 2017)
Sometimes it feels great to be completely, utterly wrong.
When Jay Z announced his 13th solo album 4:44 as an exclusive to Sprint and Tidal users, I took the project as nothing more than a quick cash-in to drive subscribers to his streaming service. And although I enjoyed his 2013 Magna Carta Holy Grail release more than most critics, it’s been nearly a decade since we’ve heard a truly great Jay Z album. I figured his best days were behind him.
Wrong on both fronts.
Of course 4:44 is a transparent stunt to boost Tidal’s numbers. That’s just good business. But this album is no mere cash-in – it’s by far the most raw, honest album in Jay Z’s catalog.
And it almost feels wrong to label this a mere Jay Z album. Jay Z is a man who built an empire by flaunting his excess publicly but keeping the most intimate details of his private life locked out of view. 4:44 instead feels more like the oral history of Shawn Carter, a flawed son, husband and father who isn’t afraid to lead us into his closets and show off his skeletons.
Jay Z would have never made this album. It’s too revealing. Too real.
The album opens with “Kill Jay Z,” where Jay essentially assassinates his own ego. For the first time, Jay opens up on longstanding issues with nearly everyone – from Kanye West (“You gave him 20 million without blinkin’/he gave you 20 minutes on stage, f*** he thinkin’?”) to Solange (“You egged Solange on/knowing all along all you had to say you was wrong”) and even Lance “Un” Rivera (“You stabbed Un over some records/your excuse was ‘He was talking too reckless!’”).
And yes, Jay even addresses the Lemonade-flavored elephant in the room – the infidelity that helped fuel Beyonce’s last album – all while making my man Eric Benet the Internet’s newest meme in the process.
Never go Eric Benet.
Yeah, get ready for the avalanche of flimsy think pieces and annoying “hot takes” from dirt-obsessed bloggers about the Carters’ love lives. There’s enough drama floating around 4:44 for Wendy Williams to make another crappy Lifetime movie (the infamous “Becky” is alluded to several times, along with talk of scandalous threesomes) but don’t be distracted. You have to dig through the dirt to find the album’s true lessons.
The title track serves as Jay’s public apology: “I never wanted another women to know something about me that you didn’t know/I promised, I cried, I couldn’t hold/I suck at love, I think I need a do-over.” Jay finally shakes off his machismo for something much more appealing – maturity.
4:44 isn’t just Jay’s moment of clarity, it’s a teachable moment for a generation of fans who have followed his lead.
“The Story of OJ,” erases divides in the black community with one fiery chorus: “light n***a, dark n***a, faux n***a, real n***a, rich n***a, poor n***a, house n***a, field n***a, still n***a, still n***a.” Doesn’t get more clear than that.
Black leaders get called on the carpet on “Family Feud” (“Al Sharpton in the mirror takin’ selfies/How is him or ‘Pill Cosby’ s’posed to help me?”) while Internet gangstas get suplexed on “Moonlight” (“I don’t be on the ‘Gram going ham/giving information to the pork, that’s all spam/please don’t talk about guns that you ain’t never gon’ use/y’all always tell on yourself/I’m just so f***in’ confused”). Jay even fires back against exploitative music execs on “Caught Their Eyes” while defending Prince’s legacy – “This guy had ‘slave’ on his face/you think he wanted the masters with his masters?”
The albums deepest moments emerge when Jay shines the spotlight on his own family – a topic that’s been relatively taboo in his 20-year career. “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian/had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian” he unveils on “Smile.” “Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate/society shame and the pain was too much to take.” The track’s sorrow – and subsequent triumph – are driven by No ID’s soulful production. In fact, the entire album includes chopped-up soul samples of familiar track from The Fugees, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway on the album closer “Legacy.”
“Legacy” might just be the most important song on 4:44. Jay buries the days of “Big Pimpin’, spending cheese” for good by imploring black communities to build instead of ball:
We gonna start a society within a society
That’s major, just like the Negro League
There was a time America wouldn’t let us ball
Those times are now back, just now called Afro-tech
Generational wealth, that’s the key
My parents ain’t have s***, so that ship started with me
My mom took her money, she bought bonds
That was the sweetest thing of all time
He’s showing you how to do this, son.
If you step into 4:44 expecting the club bangers or oversexed hits that made Jay a mainstream mainstay, you’ll be very disappointed. There’s nothing resembling a radio hit here – in fact, the lack of at least one standout track is the album’s biggest drawback. Everything is very good but nothing is exceptionally great. Still, 4:44 is miles ahead of anything Jay has released since 2007’s American Gangster.
We’ve spent the last 20 years hearing Jay Z’s story. Thanks to 4:44, we finally hear Shawn Carter’s. It’s about time.
Best tracks: “4:44,” “Kill Jay Z,” Caught Their Eyes”
4 stars out of 5