Jay-Z has been at the forefront of rap and pop culture for the better part of three decades now. Twelve number one albums, one high-profile marriage with Beyonce — one of the few artists who’s more popular and beloved than he is, an endless string of successful investments and finesses that famously elevated the businessman Jay into the fully-formed unstoppable business, man. All these years later and he’s still at the forefront of the culture.
It’s been so long, in fact, for the calculating Jiggaman who is seemingly always one step ahead of the game and his peers, that we nearly forgot all the times he sidestepped multiple landmines where all of this could have slipped through his fingertips.
These missteps and past transgressions form the blueprint for 4:44, his 13th studio album. They range from his legal issues (his admitted stabbing of Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999) to modern-day tabloid fodder (his infidelity, namely). The latter serves as the “crux” of the album, as Jay puts it, and seemingly serves as the inspiration for a project that is his strongest in years, and most personal, perhaps ever.
The album is hardly a direct response to Beyonce’s “Lemonade”, a 2016 visual stunner of an album that outlined the perceived infidelity of her famous husband, no matter how badly some want it to be. The famously quiet couple’s rocky private moments were put on display for the first time in their decade-plus romance and Jay’s perfectly cropped public persona showed chinks in the armor. Big Homie needed to grow up, according to his wife, and at least some of that showed in 4:44’s construction and delivery, inspiring some of his most personal bars in recent memory, none of which shine brighter than when he addresses his marital shortcomings on the album’s title track.
In “Smile” he brings up his mother, Gloria Carter, and informs his fans that she is a lesbian, and he openly wept when she found true love. She nearly steals the show at the end of the track when she speaks on the importance of being true to yourself, no matter what people think they already know about you or what your facade may portray. It’s hard to imagine that strength didn’t inspire Jay to do some soul-searching of his own.
“My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes” he says to his daughter at the end of the album’s title track. The a-ha moment that one day he’s going to have to explain to his daughter all of his transgressions, and the admittance that–even worse–she’ll read about it all online on her own, is searing. Keeping that superhero facade for his daughter is all he wants, and he realizes one day that might not be the case.
For the first time in seemingly forever, Jay places emphasis on atonement over his typical self-mythologizing storytelling. Not that it doesn’t have a place here–it’s a focal point of his entire discography–but it always has been served up as a cautionary tale to his contemporaries and those coming after him: Hov did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.
Credit to No I.D., the MC whisperer/producer who helps bring out this side of Jay with his beautiful sample selection and guttural drums throughout the album. Credit to Jay for stripping himself of current trends for a more cohesive feel—a torn-down Blueprint-era exoskeleton.
I like the Blueprint comparison. In many ways it could be its spiritual successor, even though in reality we’ve had two more “Blueprints” over the years. They lacked the original’s cohesion and soul. The Just Blaze/Kanye duo gave the album a sonic blueprint to go off of, and even though there was production from others, their sounds still fit in with the album’s mission. No wonder why Jay was able to finish it so quickly once he started. While it’s certainly unclear at best to see how 4:44 stacks up against the Blueprint historically (Blueprint is easily one of the best rap albums of the past 20 years), the move to hand the reins completely to No I.D.’s vision made for a solid album, one built around a central sonic vision and not chasing hits.
Jay is acutely aware of music history, and he knows that rappers are in somewhat uncharted territory. Has there ever been a rapper approaching 50 years old who managed to stay relevant and make quality music? He knows that chasing trends isn’t the answer. No one wants to hear Jay rap like Drake, and definitely not rap like Migos, 21 or any of the other young up-and-comers out right now. Fans want to see an evolution, and it sounds like Jay understands that. None of the greats before him were able to transcend into elder, relevant rappers. LL and Cube went the Hollywood route. Rakim faded away. Biggie and Tupac never had a chance. Jay managed to crank out a solid rap album at 47 by opening up about his family and his failings. For a man who’s family is worth a billion, it’s one of the few ways he can still connect.
Back in 2003, Jay emphatically rapped that no other rapper was “this good for this long” on the opening bars of “What More Can I Say.” Fourteen years later, with another number one album in tow, that line still holds up.