Album Review: JAY-Z—“4:44″

By Keshav Sharma-Jaitly, Featured Photo via Variety


Beyoncé’s Lemonade was released in mid-2016 to critical and fan acclaim, solidifying her ability to bring avant-garde ideas into mainstream R&B. Audiences picked apart the album’s linear narrative of a couple torn apart by a cheating husband and their journey towards reconciliation. While the autobiographical nature of Lemonade had yet to be confirmed, fans were quick to malign husband JAY-Z (a.k.a Shawn Carter), and his silence on the issue seemed to be more than enough confirmation of suspicions. It’s been over a year since then, and we now have a true musical response from the other half of the Carter couple. After the pop-centric, party-friendly sound of his most recent efforts, 2011’s Watch the Throne and 2013’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail, I doubted JAY-Z could deliver an album that would musically parallel Lemonade, but 4:44 manages to exceed my wildest expectations.


4:44 doesn’t follow a linear storyline in the same way Lemonade does. Instead, it’s a brutally honest, 10 track hip-hop album in which JAY-Z eloquently ruminates on his legacy. Over a tight 36-minute runtime, a wide range of topics are explored (Black America, money management, fatherhood, and yes, infidelity) but it all manages to feel cohesive and enjoyable; this is mainly thanks to the production skills of No I.D.. Being behind the boards for the entire project, the hip-hop veteran accents beats with a fusion of chopped up soul samples and modern music. Drum breaks, vocal melodies, and synthetic soundscapes mingle in a beautiful display of production prowess. This clarity in production is matched by JAY-Z’s skill as a rapper, as he touches upon various aspects of his life and American culture while maintaining a sense of flow and charisma.

4:44 pulls no punches with its opener, “Kill Jay Z,” a publicized murder of JAY-Z’s ego. It’s clear that the past few years have humbled the man. He seems to be distancing himself from a reckless rap personality in favour of something more grounded and honest. As he speaks candidly on recent events in his life, specifically his relationships with Solange and Kanye West, it becomes apparent that Carter’s lack of braggadocio is made up for by hard-earned wisdom. Throughout this project there is a clear sense of responsibility to impart his experiences on a new generation of musicians, many of whom see him as a role model. This is present immediately after “Kill Jay-Z” with “The Story of OJ,” in which JAY plays the role of financial advisor to young rappers and black businessmen. Rather than flaunting his luxury, he advocates for investment that will grow over generations, criticizing rappers who “hold money to their ear.” The song also speaks about the ongoing legacy of slavery, as well as gentrification. The choppy, sparse sample of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” that accompanies his almost fatherly advice proves to be a winning combination.

4:44 sustains a breathless pace throughout the first half of the album; JAY-Z maintains a sense of honesty and raw confession that keeps the listener completely engaged. Carter’s celebration of his mother’s coming out shines on the gospel-tinged “Smile,” and the music industry is put on blast with the bouncy Frank Ocean-assisted “Caught Their Eyes.” These first four tracks, however, really only serve to build towards the title track and somber centrepiece of the album. “4:44” is a stirring, powerful piece, as Carter finally confronts his history of infidelity and questions what his children would think of him if they ever find out. “I apologize” becomes a repeated hook, which he speaks with a distinct weariness in his repentful voice. After “4:44,” JAY seems to have a weight lifted from his chest and his lyrics gain a sense of confidence. He reunites with Beyoncé on the celebratory “Family Feud,” a somehow humble-sounding admission of opulence and power as a couple (“What’s better than one billionaire? Two”). He quotes Hamlet and references Sufism on the incredible “Marcy Me,” with a flow that bobs and weaves over a relaxed, soulful beat. Aside from throwaway track “Moonlight,” in which he lifelessly imitates a Migos-esque triplet flow, the second half of 4:44 plays just as strongly as the first.

The album closes with “Legacy,” a song spoken directly to JAY-Z’s children. The track reflects upon his plans to pass his fortune and life lessons on to Blue Ivy, Sir, and Rumi (“Black excellence, you gon’ let em’ see”). As well, in “Legacy,” Carter confronts his own troubled relationship with his father. It’s a near-perfect ending, as it seems he’s found some peace with all aspects of his life and can now look to the future. 4:44 is thought-provoking, concise, enjoyable hip-hop. By abandoning his ego, JAY-Z has created one of the best albums of the year. This isn’t music from an artist that has peaked, but rather music from an artist in peak form.

 

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