JAY-Z Presents Himself as a Mortal Rather Than a God MC on ‘4:44′ Album
When one of the great musical icons of all-time decides to release an album, the occasion is sure to manufacture equal amounts anticipation and expectation. This has been a formality JAY-Z has gone through for much of his career, and continues to do so with the release of his 13th studio album, 4:44.
The last time Hov dropped a solo album was 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, a project that would come with an air of uncertainty. Much of the doubt stemmed from questions of whether the hustler from Marcy Projects-turned-billionaire hopeful would be able to wow the rap world again and deliver an album that would inspire the public and continue his artistic evolution, or if he would prove to be out of touch and a shell of the dominant force he once was in the game.
While Magna Carta Holy Grail would earn him another No. 1 album, platinum plaque and multiple hit singles, JAY-Z’s vantage point above the fray left him very much detached from the common man. In the album’s wake, fans, critics and contemporaries alike lamented the disconnect between JAY-Z’s lifestyle and subject matter with that of his fans, some of which contended that they were unsure of whether he should risk becoming the Micheal Jordan of rap once again, albeit the one in a Washington Wizards jersey.
Despite being notoriously unbothered when it comes to critique and the noise that is public opinion, what JAY-Z couldn’t escape from is the drama that came as a result of the infamous 2014 elevator incident. That moment in the elevator, which occurred three years ago, featured Solange hitting Hov while his wife Beyoncé looked on, all broadcast for the world to see after video footage surfaced. Two years removed from that elevator ride, Beyoncé dropped her Lemonade album, a project that seemed to give some clues as to what went down in that elevator and included songs that alluded to the fact that Jay cheated on his wife, putting him on blast and airing out his dirty laundry like never before.
Hov has always maintained an elusive mystique throughout his career, appeasing listeners by giving them the occasional glimpse at the man beyond the cocksure persona. However, beyond the metrics—such as record sales and fiscal reports—one characteristic that had always separated him from the pack was his preference to shy away from the public eye. However, these recent experiences in JAY-Z’s life have forced him to come to terms with his faults and flaws in a way that is all but foreign. Now, more than 20 years after his entry into hip-hop, the rapper pushes himself and his private life into the forefront with his 13th studio album, 4:44, navigating through uncharted personal territory, embracing a rare transparency and vulnerability. In a way, this project serves as the rapper’s response to Bey’s Lemonade.
Little did we know, it would take marriage, fatherhood, a high-profile scandal and upwards of 15 years for JAY-Z to come full circle and understand the gravity of love lost and own up to his transgressions as a man. The man known as Shawn Carter embraces transparency and vulnerability on 4:44, a symbol of his evolution into an elder statesman and family man with the capacity to feel empathy and remorse.
4:44, produced by No I.D. in its entirety, is a reincarnation of sorts for Hov. The album’s opening salvo, “Kill Jay Z,” mirrors his sentiments from Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter, on which he vowed to revert back to Shawn Carter. Instead of aspirations of a kingpin, the ambition behind “Kill Jay Z” is that of a man staring down his reflection and taking stock and ownership of his shortcomings and faults. “You can’t heal what you never reveal,” he admits.
The accomplished mogul atones for losing his principals, before taking a swipe at his former friend Kanye West. Hov and ’Ye have had a strained relationship over the last few years, with the latter using a few choice words for Hov during his Saint Pablo Tour last year. Yeezy shamed his Watch The Throne costar for what he perceived as a lack of support during a trying time. Now Hov answers with his thoughts. “But you ain’t a saint, this ain’t kumbaye/But you got hurt because you did cool by ’Ye/You gave him 20 million without blinkin’/He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin’?” he rhymes over a sample of “Don’t Let It Show” by The Alan Parsons Project. These lyrics are a show of disdain in what is JAY-Z’s first public response to Kanye’s actions, and one of the various scores that gets settled on 4:44.
Revelations, like sharing his mother Gloria Carter’s decision to come out as a lesbian on “Smile,” also break new ground for the Brooklyn deity, and gives rare insight into the personal life of his family—a subject that he’s been less than forthcoming about on past albums, particularly in relation to his mother. In contrast to the likes of The Notorious B.I.G.’s mother Voletta Wallace and Tupac Shakur’s mother Afeni Shakur, Gloria Carter has remained much of an enigma for the duration of JAY-Z’s career, but “Smile” provides additional context into who she is as an individual. The song is an unprecedented show of vulnerability on the part of Hov.
JAY-Z, who earned production credits on 4:44 after providing No I.D. with a playlist of songs to use as samples on the album, throws a few barbs on “Caught Their Eyes” in the direction of the lawyer who handled business dealings for deceased musical icon Prince. The rapper shames the lawyer for failing to honor an agreement Hov made with The Purple One regarding the distribution of his music prior to his death. “This guy had ‘slave’ on his face/You think he wanted the masters with his masters?/You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house/I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket,” he sneers. Jay alludes to the lawyer’s decision and Prince’s estate to sue Tidal and make the singer’s music available on competing streaming platforms, against his own wishes.
“Caught Their Eyes,” which boasts a sample of Nina Simone’s “Baltimore” and a rollicking performance by Frank Ocean—the lone guest on the album—is a groovy number that precedes the crescendo that is “4:44,” the album’s title track and one of the more intense offerings of Hov’s career. The song comes three years after the famed elevator incident. In 2014, footage surfaced of JAY-Z being attacked by Solange in an elevator, all while Beyoncé looked on, a moment following the Met Gala, where the incident took place. One of the more intriguing aspects of the footage was Beyoncé’s presence, as her lack of defense on her husband’s behalf would spur speculation about the state of the Carter household. While there was the release of a statement explaining that the situation had been diffused and all parties were on good terms, that did little to quiet the chatter about what happened in the elevator.
When Beyoncé dropped her critically acclaimed LP Lemonade—the project seemingly inspired in part by Hov’s infidelity—she included a reference to a woman she dubs “Becky, with the good hair” on the song “Sorry.” The line raised more than a few eyebrows, with many using it as context for what may have spurred the elevator incident between JAY-Z and Solange. While the true identity of “Becky” may never be known, JAY-Z clears the air and comes clean on “4:44,” a public apology to his family over heart-wrenching wails lifted from Hannah Williams’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak. “Look, I apologize, often womanize/Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes,” JAY-Z rhymes.
He touches on how the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy and Beyoncé’s recent pregnancy with twins have brought things into perspective and given him a new sense of empathy towards women, a far cry from the sentiments shared on “Song Cry” a decade-and-a-half prior.
Alluding to his infidelity towards Beyoncé, JAY-Z confirms that like Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and many other men in the public eye before and him, he too once risked sacrificing his marriage and family for extramarital relations. His lyrics are a cautionary tale that serve as a reminder of broken homes over time.
Speaking of Beyoncé, although not officially listed as a costar, she lends her angelic vocals to “Family Feud,” an upbeat offering on which he compares his former state of mind with that of The Godfather character Micheal Corelone. “My consciousness was Michael’s common sense/I missed the karma that came as a consequence,” Hov raps, before taking a stroll through his native habitat on the nostalgic “Marcy Me.”
Powered by a sample of Quarteto 1111’s “Todo O Mundo e Ninguém” and bolstered by guitar riffs, piano keys, a Hammond organ and synths, “Marcy Me” is one of the more refined backdrops on 4:44 and finds JAY-Z on a lyrical tear. “Marcy me/Streets is my artery, the vein of my existence/I’m the Gotham City heartbeat,” he spouts, on yet another ode to his home borough.
Then he rounds out the proceedings with “Legacy.” JAY-Z speaks on his desire to create generational wealth for his family and use that to help empower his people over a sample of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” a fitting bookend to the collection that is 4:44.
Upon its release, critics and listeners alike rushed to label 4:44 a retort to Lemonade. The title track of Jay’s album and references to his marital trials and tribulations earned much of the fanfare. However, comparing the two projects would be to miss the bigger picture. 4:44 is not an album about infidelity or transparency, but rather accountability. Moments of transparency and honesty have been rife throughout JAY-Z’s music, dating back to Reasonable Doubt. From shooting his own blood brother to his inability to love wholeheartedly, the difference here is that instead of simply noting his actions, Jay takes responsibility for them. He even goes as far as showing genuine remorse instead of passing the buck along and shielding himself from the blame.
Prior to the elevator incident, JAY-Z was always perceived as a step ahead of the rest and above the fray of public opinion that tended to swallow up many of his contemporaries. However, the sheer manner in which he appeared flustered in that elevator, and having that broadcast to the world in such a manner, was a first for Hov, making for a chink, however minor, in his bulletproof armor.
4:44 is the most overt attempt to shed his steely aura and present himself as a mortal, rather than the god MC fans have come to know, love and admire him as over the past few decades.
However, despite all of its crescendos and watershed moments, 4:44 is by no means without flaw or blemish. Flush with a wit and cocksure charm that has become signature of a JAY-Z release, 4:44 is a seasoned effort from a wily veteran who has seen and done it all, but his renowned ability to wow listeners with the complexity and battle-tested mettle that belied the simplicity that dominated his most lauded works has been diminished. Relying more on the sentiment of his content than skillful lyrical acrobatics, JAY-Z leaves a bit to be desired on cuts like “BAM” and “Moonlight,” both of which could’ve been bolstered by more engaging performances on his part. Those critiques aside, 4:44 is a cohesive and refined exercise of transparency, and puts forth yet another dimension of his psyche for mass consumption.
The fear and paranoia that once led JAY-Z to avoid the long arm of the law and the wrong side of the gun has been replaced by a fear of not doing right by his family, community and the culture that afforded him the opportunity to transcend the Marcy Housing Projects and grow into the man he’s become today. The man who once bragged about “not worrying about expenditures,” now advises the youth not to “die over the neighborhood that your mama rentin'” and to invest their money in their own neighborhood on 4:44 cuts like “The Story of O.J.,” while urging men to be faithful to their spouses and to “never go Eric Benet” on “Kill Jay Z.”
4:44 is an unfiltered look into the life and times of Shawn Carter, the man behind the music. While this project falls short of his more seminal offerings, 4:44 is among JAY-Z’s more meaningful bodies of work to date and showcases another dimension of the greatest rapper alive.
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