One of the questions asked on June 30th, the night 4:44 dropped, asked by The Undefeated’s twitter account, was what is your favorite song from the album. I’ve been going back and forth thinking about an answer and I’m still coming to the same conclusion: I have no favorite. Even further, I’m willing to say, as of right now, their is no best song on 4:44. Some say the stinging honesty of the album title track, “4:44”, is the undeniable or the gutterness and dancehall vibes that “Bam” gives off is too enjoyable. While all true, when I think I’m ready to pick, I’ll listen to another song from the album and will be ready to switch answers again. This is the best outcome that I could have hoped for from a Jay-Z album in 2017.
Rumors began to trickle out over the last few months if Jay was going to drop an album soon. When news broke that his entire catalogue was pulled from Apple Music and Spotify, the writing was on the wall, for me at least. A lot of people thought, whether jokingly or seriously, that Shawn Carter would have an entire album responding to Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade, an outstanding audio and visual album about Bey processing hurt and forgiveness after being cheated on during her marriage (allegedly). After the Lemonade movie premiered on HBO, the looming question was, was the album a spectacular ruse or did Jay really cheat? Because we had never peeked into the ultra private lives of the Carters, we were only left to decipher the truth from the spectacle of the album. While I hoped the accusation was false (because Yoncé nor Jay ever fully confirmed the rumors), I learned a long time ago to never put anything past anyone. So, if one of the most famous and talented artist of our time says she was cheated on by one of the most famous and talented artist of our time, then we should, at the very least, be willing to listen.
I did not expect nor wanted a full length Himonade album from Hov but I did expect a response of some sort. This album could not have been about his latest Basquiat acquisition nor any attempt at using mumble rap flows. While I love SAMO and love trap rap, Jay had to bring something better to the table. For many, 2013’s Magna Carter… Holy Grail did not live up to expectations and was forgettable. While I do not necessarily subscribe to that point of view, I can acknowledge that MCHG was about four songs too long. There are songs that I absolutely love (“Oceans”, “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit” and “Crown”), but I rarely revisit the album as a whole. Admittedly (begrudgingly), this is a recurring theme throughout Jay’s career. While apex Jay-Z is one of the best rappers ever, there have been hit-or-miss albums that cannot be ignored when discussing his legacy. With the exception of The Black Album and American Gangster, every Jay album since 2001’s The Blueprint has the same problem as MCHG: there a few songs that I love, but the overall album is middling. Since the release of his last album, Jay has lived plenty of life these last four years. From the elevator incident to the release of Lemonade to the birth of his twins, Hov needed an album that would live up to the Knowles-Carter family name. Hell, Solange’s beautiful and moving A Seat at the Table album had to have put pressure on Hov not to become the family’s red-headed step child when it comes to the music. With these four years, and with the help of producer No I.D., apex Jay-Z delivered one of the best albums of his career. But, everything has a cost.
4:44 is a masterclass of efficiency during a time when artists are releasing heavy amounts of music hoping something will stick with the public. Over the last four years, Drake has released five projects, 2 Chainz has nine titled releases and Future dropped a whopping F I F T E E N albums and mixtapes. While I don’t want my favorite artists releasing music sporadically as André 3000, who hasn’t had a solo or joint album since 2006’s Idlewild, more artist should take a more calculated approach with their releases. While Jay-Z is one of my favorite rappers ever, we don’t need annual (or even bi-annual) projects from Mr. Carter. In 36 minutes and 11 seconds, there is not a single wasted moment on 4:44.
Ten songs is all it took for Jigga to prove his worth on the mic, but his atonement stretches well beyond that. Never before have we received a more personal album from the always guarded, always cool Jay-Z. We’ve got glimpses into his checkered family history (1997’s “You Must Love Me” deals with Jay addressing the stress he caused his mother and the shooting of his brother and 2006’s “Lost Ones” talks about the fallout with former associate and friend Dame Dash, doubts about his marriage and the death of his nephew) but we’ve never seen the full spectrum of Shawn Corey Carter consistently on one body of work. In the album’s first song, Shawn kills Jay-Z. He wants to strip away his trademark cool, sometimes cold, persona and vent the frustrations of not just the last four years but of his life. Though the song was jarring, it set the tone from the reset of the album. 4:44 felt more like a therapy session than a string of rap songs. We got the best album from
Jay-Z Shawn Carter since The Blueprint and he had to go through Hell just to make it. His family had to go through it too, let us not forget.
“We know the pain is real but you can’t heal what you never reveal.”
In one way or another, we all are hurt, but, what we don’t like to admit, we have hurt others too. Hurt can cause a vicious cycle of just more hurt: a person goes through a tragic or traumatic event and instead of working through their anguish, they lash out at the world, causing more hurt. Healing can only come if we are processing through both actions. With healing, the first step is always admitting, not just to the world but, most importantly to one’s self. We see Shawn process self-doubt, disgrace (“Kill Jay-Z”), shame (“Smile”), cheating (“4:44”), taking his marriage for granted (“Family Feud”), and a history of family strife (“Legacy”). The cool persona that was created to start his career could have been used as a mask to hind the personal anguish that he lived through. I’m not sure how many rappers have admitted “I suck at love” but you’d be hard pressed to find one to say it with such weightiness and conviction. The Knowles-Carter marriage was really at the brink of failing unless he could correct his mistakes. It looks as if Shawn took and is taking the right steps for his family’s sake.
While Mr. Carter’s nakedness was refreshing, there’s more to this complex album. If the only thing being taken away from the album is the cheating, then a bulk of the album has been missed. Other than the honesty, the album is steeped in blackness. From the stirring soul and R&B samples that producer No I.D. perfectly orchestrates to Hov’s message of black ownership and empowerment, this could’ve been called The Black-Ass Album. A lot of people debate the message of black capitalism that Jay promotes and whether it is feasible and attainable, which is more than fair to question, but the idea of black people owning and controlling their dollars is still vastly important. When Hov states “I’ll be damned if I buy Belvedere while Puff has Ciroc; y’all need to stop”, it’s a call to help promote another black owned business. Now, what Puff decides to actually do with those newly acquired black dollars is where capitalism and transactionalism can fall apart, but that’s a different lesson for a different time.
I wrote at the beginning of the year about rappers aging in hip-hop and how we shouldn’t run away from that. Jay-Z, Killer Mike, Big Boi, Scarface and Nas are all examples of how hip-hop can mature and age gracefully. The message can always be shifted and varied; becoming old in rap
shouldn’t is not a death sentence. I’d never expect Lil Uzi Vert to make 4:44 at this point in his young life, but, hopefully, he can build the legacy that Jay has already established twenty years from now.