JAY-Z was a hustler, still is in some way but not in the traditional grimy sense. Every JAY-Z album from his debut to his initial retirement album in 2003 was hinged on this basic JAY-Z tenet. The early pages of his memoir, Decoded, are dedicated to the explanation of this accurate description of the man. Hustling was his life’s story and that featured prominently in his music, it had to.
“We heard Melle Mel’s hit ‘The Message‘, with lyrics about broken glass everywhere, and we heard about Run’s big long caddy, but what was missing was what was happening between those two images – how young cats were stepping through the broken glass and into the caddy. The missing piece was the story of the hustler’ – JAY-Z, Decoded.
The allure of JAY-Z ‘s first run at rap was how his larger than life personality was matched by the magnetic manner with which he presented his story in his music. He presented the grime, glamour and nostalgic pain with elegance in his rhymes. But by the time he came out of his retirement, the hustler gist seemed to be far removed from his newly acquired CEO status. JAY-Z could still flip words coming off his retirement but much of the time, his new narrative lacked the consistency of the magnetic resonance of his earlier works. The hits equaled the misses and for a rapper like JAY-Z, average batting isn’t exactly impressive.
Following the banal and bloated corporate mess which was his 2013 album, MCHG, JAY-Z needed to fill his rhymes with purpose. 4:44, his latest release is timely, purposeful and is as matured as rap music can get. A self-cleansing album that culminates into the revelation of years of deep seated secrets and admissions of guilt. They fill the album’s celebratory moments with importance and add extra weight to the credence of his apparent rap elder statesman shtick on 4:44.
The self-lacerating mantra for 4:44 is set early on the album opener, ‘Kill Jay-Z‘. JAY-Z points at his scars and also elicits memories of the scars he’s caused others, from shooting his own brother to stabbing Lance ‘Un’ Rivera over bootlegged records. “You can’t heal what you never reveal” and he exposes himself over mournful strings that bleed for truth. ‘Kill Jay-Z‘ is the equivalent of Jay being compelled to sit at a confessional and spill.
Normally, the silent treatment about his alleged infidelity on Beyoncé’s Lemonade might have been enough, but it was the right catalyst to spur him on to blatant honesty. Hence the need for the heart wrenching apology on the title track itself. The song sampled on ‘4:44’, Hannah Williams & The Affirmations’ ‘Late Nights and Heartbreak‘ boxes JAY-Z in and cries visible tears underneath Jay-Z’ welling admissions. He pours out his emotions, admitting his flawed nature (“I suck at love, I think I need a do over“) without using it as justification, unlike ‘Song Cry‘ off his 2001 classic album, The Blueprint.
The emotional avalanche of ‘4:44’ also makes the unbridled exuberance of the following track, ‘Family Feud‘ shine brighter. Amidst catchy stunt lines, he rebukes ‘Becky’ on the cut with Beyoncé yelping “Amen” on background vocals. ‘Family Feud‘ is one of the songs that celebrate black excellence via financial lavish. Every bar is delivered with easy dexterity, like it’s being delivered from a man putting on a very expensive blazer in a plush boardroom. ‘Smile‘ also exudes similar joy with packed billionaire brags on the third verse. The essence of the song in relation to his apparent show of maturity hits a high with the revelation and his loving acceptance of his mum’s gay sexual orientation.
Being an old man wouldn’t be complete without unsolicited-but-welcomed pieces of wisdom nuggets for the younger generation. JAY-Z uses ‘The Story Of O.J‘, a socially conscious pro-black song to also dish out investment advice over a sample of Nina Simone’s ‘Four Black Women‘ and dusty boom bap drums. After grumbling about not buying into a highly profitable property due to ephemeral spending in his earlier days on the first verse, Jay throws in a “million dollar worth” of financial advice. JAY-Z is rich off his investments, up to the point of generational wealth and he throws it around on the jazzy finale, ‘Legacy‘ which plays out like an informal will reading.
The brilliance of 4:44 is also due to a consistently brilliant sonic aesthetic. It is a testimony to the capabilities of its sole producer, No I.D, who digs for appropriate samples that serve as both thematic and aural backbones. The use of samples create a sophisticated aura without being unnecessarily glamorous or cluttering the collage of the album. The use of the Fugees’ ‘Fugee-La’ on ‘Moonlight‘ is the only sample with a small distracting effect, but JAY-Z’s uncloaked truth doesn’t get drowned out.
Rap might be a young horse’s game while JAY-Z is an old horse. But matured, timely JAY-Z is pretty new. The name is in all caps for the first time, the hyphen is back and 4:44 is an excellent album born of all nuances attached, both big and small.
Writer’s Rating: 4.3/5
Words by Dennis, aka The Story of D.E.N.N.I.S, aka @ayo_dennis.