Easily Jay’s most well-conceived album since American Gangster.
It’s been a year since Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, a pop confessional transmogrifying the issues in her and Jay-Z’s marriage into a career best album. The minimalist marketing for Hov’s Sprint-bankrolled, already platinum 4:44 suggested a response record, but the question of what a personal Jay-Z album in 2017 might sound like pervaded. Where Queen Bey is at the peak of her artistic powers, this is Jay’s thirteenth LP. It wouldn’t be an insult to say he’s past his prime. But the finished product is a pleasant surprise. 4:44 doesn’t reach the heights of his undisputed classics, but here Jay has crafted such an effortless success, you’ll be left guilty for ever doubting him.
Part of why the album works so well is how much of a departure it is from what we expect of a late period Jay-Z project. With Magna Carta Holy Grail and The Blueprint 3, he worked so hard to synthesize a sound that bent current hip-hop trends to his will, because his superpower has always been enduring. No other rapper has survived so many different eras with such elan, but one need look no further than the somewhat awkward Future collaboration from DJ Khaled’s last album to realize a full length stacked with Metro Boomin beat placements would have been disastrous. Instead of heaving timely features and subtle trend subversions at the wall to see what sticks, Jay’s curated 10 deceptively simple songs together built on expert sampling from No I.D., providing his fans one of the most cohesive releases of his career.
Now, in light of the album’s jabs at their deteriorating friendship, teaming up with Kanye West’s mentor for an entire album seems like exactly the kind of pettiness Jay has indulged in for decades, but No I.D.’s ear helps to make the perfect canvas for what a Jay-Z album can be in such a strange hip-hop landscape. Not since Life Is Good, Nas’ own personal Here, My Dear, has a storied icon in the rap world released something this personal and, well, pedestrian? It’s just 10 straightforward rap songs over soul samples and drums. For a guy who typically makes bold declarations about the future of black culture, like bragging about wearing Tom Ford suits or calling for an end to Auto-Tune and wearing Timberlands, 4:44 is refreshing in its intimate scope.
That’s not to say Jay isn’t still telling people to do things the Shawn Carter way. He makes his fair share of lecturing about generational wealth, telling young kids to stop taking IG pics with stacks of money and start buying paintings. But now we’ve come to accept Old Man Hov and his obsession with Basquiat. Is it a little weird to listen to the biggest rapper on Earth opine about not beating Jared Kushner to buying land in Dumbo, Brooklyn? Yeah, but not as weird as it would be for a man pushing 50 to still be dramatizing the same short-lived career as a drug dealer. Here, the content, while authentic for where Jay is in his life, is less important than the delivery system.
We’re finally getting a clear idea of what future hip-hop’s aging elite can have. Legends like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and LL Cool J evolve into media personalities who still release music for fun, but Jay-Z is showing that rap doesn’t have to be a young man’s game forever. On 4:44, he’s aging gracefully and leveraging his veteran chops to produce some truly effective songcraft. The title track, a naked apology punctuated by a searing sample from Hannah Williams & the Affirmations, is raw and unadorned, like something you’d expect from a classic rocker’s acoustic B-sides. When he’s not making amends to the love of his life, he’s throwing shade at the execs profiting off Prince’s death (“Caught Their Eyes”), bigging up his mother for coming out the closet (“Smile”), or doling out the aforementioned TED Talk on hip-hop capitalism (“The Story of O.J.”). Throughout it all, he’s relaxed, compelling and improvisational, like an old master noodling with an instrument he’s long since conquered, only instead of a guitar or a piano, it’s his voice and considerable wit.
Its 37 minute running time may seem short by 2017 album length standards, where 20 some odd tracks guarantee higher streaming rates, but it’s packed to the brim with classic Hov-isms and double entendres, absolute catnip for Rap Genius annotators and fans looking for pithy rejoinders to fire off in 2am tweets. “Family Feud,” with Beyoncé on backing vocals and No I.D. aping DJ Toomp’s southern drums, is great cookout music, but it’s also the perfect distillation of where Jay’s head is out. He’s a rich black man with three loving children married to the biggest pop star on the fucking planet. He puts angry old heads like Joe Budden in their place and presents their black excellence as a house on the hill any of us would be pleased to wake up inside.
Surely, given the contentious state of America, it would have been nice for our largest icon to be spitting revolutionary fire instead of bragging “What’s better than one billionaire?/ Two,” but as one of the last holdouts from the Jiggy era, Jay has always exalted getting money. Given his current status quo, one would be absurd to expect he’d turn his back on capitalism now. Regardless of its sometimes questionable messages and think piece ready quotables, 4:44 is an incredible album and easily Jay’s most well-conceived since 2007’s American Gangster. Before its release, the prevailing narrative was that Jay-Z couldn’t survive in the current climate anymore and should stay retired. With this set of songs, droves of listeners are happy to be proven wrong.