4:44: Jay Z's Kingdom Has Come, But Is He Ready To Sit On The Throne?
In the beginning, God created the Earth, Moon, stars, and the universe and... J-Hova. Twenty years later, there was a 47-year-old Jay Z, rapping in the confines of a dark studio confessional, laying prostrate before millions while admitting to years of wrongdoing from criminal activity to unscrupulous betrayal of those close to him. His first studio album in four years, 4:44 is a highly-anticipated, timely collection of modern “Hip-Hop Noir” reflections on the impact of his legendary career and iconic status as one of Hip-Hop’s preeminent cultural giants. This new album has energized Jay Z’s fan base, many of whom have long awaited an album worthy of his god-like moniker, J-Hova. While I wish this pseudo-apologia included a mea culpa for Magna Carter, Holy Grail, I’m willing to accept that it takes a lot for a man of his stature to hold lay bare his soul and hold himself accountable so publicly.
During my first listen of 4:44, I wondered about the album’s set up in the opening track, “Kill Jay Z”. The self-flagellating song presents itself as a eulogy for the American gangster persona he created and happily embodied for decades, while stacking millions of dollars. Maybe Mr. Carter no longer wishes to be so closely associated with the Jigga man, having grown into a husband, father, and more mature friend. I get it; we all change and look back with shaking heads at cringeworthy things we’ve done and said. He condemns himself and his behaviors largely within the context of the impact that persona may have on his daughter, Blue Ivy (with wife Beyonce), suggesting it took becoming a father to realize perhaps he wasn’t living his best life.
“But you gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue
You had no father, you had the armor
But you got a daughter, gotta get softer”
After listening to the album straight through several times, I realized that in this early confession, he offers explanations of the impact of his gifts and his curses, acknowledging his actions and behaviors in a way that disarms the listener. It’s a battle rapper tactic that a wise veteran would employ: lay out all of your demons and vulnerabilities first before anyone has the chance to eviscerate you by weaponizing your flaws and negative experiences.
I knew, then, that this would be an album that simply doesn’t give a fuck about much of anything anyone would have to say about it. Indeed, it does take on a pointed turn towards a “I am who I am and you are not me so I am going to do whatever I want and you will deal” tone one would expect of an aging husband and father who is more likely to yell “Get off my lawn!” than two-step on a boat to UGK bars.
I also realized that 4:44 is, for all intents and purposes, a summation of the life and times of Shawn Carter; it is an album in four parts. If this is the last solo album we get from Jay Z, and it may very well be, it sounds like he wants us to understand how full circle his life has come, what he’s learned from his experiences, and why it’s important to him to share what he’s learned with others who look up to him.
Act I: “14-Year Drug Dealer and Still Counting”
Shawn Carter sold drugs. Superfacts. The question now is whether or not we are justified in knocking his (and so many others’) hustle. It isn’t like Jigga would ever let you forget his roots, not with decades of storied rhymes that oscillate between exhibiting tremendous pride in said hustle and his ability to beat the odds stacked against kids like him in places like that to being somewhat embarrassed by and remorseful of his contribution to his own people’s destruction. It wouldn’t be anything remotely close to a classic Jay Z album without ruminations on his life as a drug dealer, except this time, there is more of a shadow on his recollections. Way less bravado and bragging, more outlining the blueprint that got him from points A to B in his 20+ years career.
“I'm the Gotham City heartbeat
I started in lobbies, now parley with Saudis”
“Marcy Me”, arguably the most nostalgic song, continues where In My Lifetime, Vol. 1’s “Where I’m From” left off--an ode to the Brooklyn housing project that made him strong, taught him valuable life lessons, and gave him his first opportunity to cash in on the drug game. Borrowing a few lyrics from fellow artists, as Jay Z is notorious for doing, he flows over a melodic tune that boasts his 800 street credit rating, in case you forgot Jigga is from Bed-Stuy!
In “Smile”, Hov reminds us that bad times turn into good memories and, with the help of a therapist, reconciles his tumultuous past with his prosperous present and future. He is clearer about his understanding of how the life he was born into, drug-infested, crime-riddled poverty, was intentionally designed and is systematically maintained. He teeters on the edge of placing full blame of his choices on societal impediments but he comes back and recognizes his own complicity and challenges others to do the same.
“Adnis”, a gutpunch that opens you wide as Jay Z shares what he’s been holding, buried deep inside. It is in this piece that the stage is set for us to reckon with the creation of “J-Hova”, a boy abandoned by his father, left to fill that void in whatever ways made sense to a poor Black boy. This is the space in which we find Shawn Carter, truly and finally, without the bells and whistles. Nostalgic. Reflective. Hopeful. Real.
Act II: “She Fell In Love With the Bad Guy, the Bad Guy”
The Beyhive has long known that Jay Z has cheated and mistreated his wife, Beyoncé, for years; she has several songs on several albums about the pain she’s been dealing with in the role of his life-partner. Her last album, Lemonade, was a collection of this pain with an ending that offered the promise of better days to come with forgiveness, love, and a commitment to make it work.
What I find the incredibly interesting about the title track,”4:44”, the apologetic ode to his far better half, is that it is in the present tense and suggests all isn’t well...yet. “I know in my heart, I’m letting you down every day” is how it opens. “I don’t deserve you” he laments, but doesn’t seem willing to let her go even after admitting how crappily he’s treated her. “I fall short of what I say I’m all about,” is a powerful admission for a selfish Sagitarrian, and I’m eagerly awaiting an outline of a plan for how he plans to be better and do better as a man, especially since so many young (and older) men are looking to him for guidance as a role model. “I’m never going to treat you like I should” is what he offers.
Wow. At least he’s honest. My hope is that the subtlety of this isn’t lost on those having epiphanies and suddenly feel compelled to drop off packages of diapers to their kindergarteners’ mamas.
Also interesting is how he seems more focused on looking bad to his daughter than anything else. “It took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes” is entirely too reminiscent of the problematic “What if it was your daughter or wife?” approach to challenging men to be better about sexual harassment and assault. The song (and album, really) resonates like a Hard Knock Life by Shawn “Jigga” Carter, a bedtime story penned specifically for Blue Ivy and their newborn twins to hear when they grow up. “And if my children know...” and “My heart breaks for the day I have to explain...” are lines that suggest there is a strong embarrassment of being caught out there treating their mother so poorly, especially when their mother is the greatest entertainer of modern time.
Is it so wrong to want to hear an outright commitment to being a man who acts with integrity and honor towards his wife? We get a glimpse of that on “Many Faced God” which features James Blake, but it comes off like more begging and pleading instead of affirmation and strong commitment to moving forward with integrity.
“Baby, I get ya
Let's go through this thing, come out stronger, the golden journey
Broken is better than new, that's kintsukuroi
You're fine china
I'm a bull and ball in a china shop
I promise to repair with gold each bowl I drop
Be grateful for whatever comes”
I’m not sure I believe him. He needs fewer people, like the Becky he has to tell to leave him alone, when he should be saying “I’m leaving you alone Becky”. But it doesn’t matter if I believe him or not because he isn’t my husband and I respect Beyoncé enough to honor her right to make whatever choices she wants and needs to make for her family and her own happiness.
Act III: “All Black Everything, Nigga, You Know My Fresh Code”
Once upon a time, while Kanye West watched the throne from a far, far off distance, Jay Z happily declared how much he loves us Black folks. Black pride has seeped into his most recent works and occupies a more prominent position on 4:44. When one of our own stands up for us, knowing that doing so can risk one’s accumulation of coins, we experience a certain elation. As they say, representation matters.
Calling out Jimmy Iovine for his co-opting of Hip-Hop culture? Bold. Particularly when the block is still hot with tales of Iovine’s collaborative work with Dr. Dre, a genius west coast Hip-Hop producer who briefly dabbled in rapping. (I know that’s not Hip-Hop politically correct. Forget it.) Dame Dash and Lupe Fiasco called out Lyor Cohen a few years ago for similar reasons. And KRS-One did the same years ago, just to name a few. It’s important that icons like him expose the traps of the industry that too many succumbed to as we allowed the infiltration of Hip-Hop by rich White predators who sought to profit more than consume.
“The Story of OJ” is promising in its critique of those who believe the green color of money will erase their Blackness. He uses O.J. Simpson as a target, though it’s clear he is speaking about the tendency of Black folks to get rich and forget they’re still likely to face racism in any income bracket. Riding over the best use of a sample on the entire project, Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, his repetition of the word “nigga” picks up on the knowledge previously laid down by A Tribe Called Quest (“Sucka Nigga”) and Mos Def (“Mr. Nigga”). I appreciate his keeping the conversation going and hope others join in.
However, I take issue with some of Jay Z’s ideas for how Black people can reclaim power and “build intergenerational wealth”, especially to the tune of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” on “Legacy”. It’s admirable to want to leave a legacy for yourself and your descendants that is honorable and self-sustaining. I think because Black people have been shut out of accessing resources to build the kinds of legacies and empires that European colonizers have, we may erroneously cling to the idea that this money or “wealth” is the best way to go about securing our families’ futures. But does that free us, truly? Or do we become enslaved to a new master that will require us to continue giving so much of ourselves as offerings in order to sustain our new lifestyles?
I think we look at the superstars who started at the bottom and “made it” as inspiration for our own lives, but the truth is that the majority of people born into poverty won’t ever be “wealthy”. Forty-two percent of children born into the bottom fifth (household income/net worth) in America will remain there as adults and only 23% will elevate to the second lowest fifth. Overall, if someone lives in poverty for more than seven years, there’s only a 13% chance of exiting poverty. This is the reality that can’t be solved by preaching that poor folks should invest in Nike stock instead of buying Michael Jordan sneakers, as too many of today’s Black “financial literacy” gurus preach.
You know what’s better than money? The wealth of having love, friends, and family which, according to Jigga, is a lesson he missed out on.
Black capitalism is not freedom, no matter how you picture it, frame it, or flip it, and it continues to trouble me that Black folks insist that building material wealth should be the major goal for every Black family. It simply is not nor is the acquisition of material items to leave to one’s children a priority for everyone. Not everyone wants to own their own business. Not everyone believes money is the key to happiness. Not everyone wants to work days in and out striving towards a goal that statistically most of us will never achieve.
See above: Jay Z was a drug dealer who sold poison to his own Black people, the ones he boasts about having pride in now that he has cleansed his hands from the dirty work it took to get him where he is. Sure, he can give life advice about flipping a $1M painting into $2M, but to the listeners ignoring the past two decades of “I got all of this because I used drug money as start up capital”, I implore you to reconsider from whom you get your financial lessons.
And if we examine Jay Z’s approach to discussing Black women throughout his career, along with his boasting of accumulating wealth by dealing drugs to his community, one has to wonder when this new sense of Black pride developed. Shawn is only human, so of course he can be multi-faceted, but perhaps it comes from the same well from which modern pimps-turned-charlatans who profess “Afrikanness” and denounce White supremacy drink, while disregarding Black women, Black LGBTQ, and Black disabled people in their “freedom” fights?
Growth, though. Growth. What do we want him to do? He’s sorry!
Act IV: “I’m The Greatest MC, I’m The Greatest MC In The World”
Jay Z is anything but washed, yet he still felt the need to issue a challenge those who have claimed he is. Again, I get it; this braggadocious boasting and declaration of kingly status is what Hip-Hop is about. I’m left wondering to whom is he comparing himself because, if we’re being perfectly honest, *whispers* Jay Z has no real competition today. It’s like a cat toying with a mouse that just wants to go home and eat its stolen cheese in peace. He appears to want the best of both worlds, knowing he’ll go down as one of the greatest rappers to ever bless a mic while schooling these young cats, O.G. style, about personal honor, artistic integrity and cultural respect within the Hip-Hop community.
Calling out current rappers for being corny? Necessary. “Caught In Their Eyes”, a collaboration with existential bemoan-er of life, Frank Ocean, suggests that part of the problem with modern Hip-Hop is that people with little experience with the struggles that Hip-Hop was created to shine a light on are getting deals to make music that hurts the culture.
“Please don't talk about guns
That you ain't never gon' use
Y'all always tell on y'all self
I'm just so fuckin' confused”
He reminded us again, he did it all without a pen, alluding to his now-signature approaching to recording albums without writing the lyrics down. And it sounds like it, but not in a great way, unfortunately. One of my biggest critiques of this album is that Jay Z sounds bored, mostly, not unlike how he sounded on MCHG. The times when he seems connected and energized is when he is boasting about his prowess as an MC. Other than that? He seems to be producing content for reasons other than pure love of the culture and the art of rap. He’s not the first rapper to address the themes in the album (see: “Life Is Good” by Nas) and this isn’t the first album he’s produced that’s been darker or more introspective (see “Kingdom Come” and “The Black Album”). There isn’t anything groundbreaking on the album or remarkably different from what’s circulating around the internet and SiriusXM.
My other criticism is that the production by No I.D., a talented producer out of Chicago, is more often than not pedestrian. The sampling isn’t quite as simplistic as Diddy turning down vocals on his favorite old school songs and having his friends rap over them, but it isn’t nearly as good as those he clearly seems to be emulating: 9th Wonder and Pete Rock. And *looks around* Kanye West. I would have liked a bit more nuance throughout and the strongest songs are the ones in which Jigga is a co-producer.
It is solid production and Jay works well with it, but part of me wanted 4:44 to pack a stronger punch. I accept, however, that it was created exactly as it needed to be. It’s adult contemporary Hip-Hop, putting him in excellent company with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul who, in the last year, dropped “older”, critically-acclaimed Hip-Hop albums. I like where this is going and I’m sure my peers born before 1982 will also appreciate the growth and maturation of our beloved culture. Our fears of Hip-Hop dying by way of predatory infiltration and loss of integrity have been staved off, if only temporarily, by artists like these who continue to serve up guidance and offer the next generation the most important Hip-Hop history: themselves.
“Hovi's home, all these phonies come to a halt
All this old talk left me confused
You'd rather be old rich me or new you?”
Listen to 4:44 as art produced by a man who still has a lot of growing to do. Don’t we all? And accept that we may not experience, at least artistically, the full bloom of his manhood. And, I think we can appreciate the fact that, in Trump’s America, we got another solid Jay Z album and it’s making people slow down, pause, and think about their next moves.