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4:44 Review

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.

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On Coloring Book, Ascension and Artistic Freedom

In the opening lines of “Angels,” one of the many standouts from Chance the Rapper’s third solo mixtape, Coloring Book, he playfully boasts, “I got my whole city doing front flips.” If social media buzz and iTunes album charts are indicators of anything, it’s that the excitement surrounding Chance and his latest project extends far beyond his hometown of Chicago’s city limits, and that opening line might just be the understatement of the year.

Chance is a bit of an enigma, at least in terms of the traditional sense of the music industry establishment. If you’re unfamiliar with him, or if you hadn’t heard of him until his star-turning verse on Kanye West’s “Ultra Light Beam” earlier this year, well, shame on you and welcome to the bandwagon.

Chance doesn’t “sell” any of his music, at least in the traditional sense. His complete albums are not available on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, with the exception of Coloring Book and 2015’s Surf, a project done in conjunction with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (a group of creatives in which he is a member), which was available for free through Apple. You can, however, grab 2012’s 10 Day and 2013’s Acid Rap for free from various mixtape sites.

As you may have heard earlier this year, since he doesn’t sell music, he technically cannot win a Grammy for any of his free material. “I heard you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy,” he bemoans on Ultra Light Beam. He’s since started a petition to allow free music a spot in the Grammy voting process and be recognized as such. His petition has thousands upon thousands of signatures.

Knowing this, when he raps lines like, “the people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be,” on the album’s final track, “Blessings (Reprise),” he’s exactly right. Few artists have both the clout and talent to stand alone without major label support, or without a co-sign from an established artist. While Chance is closely linked to Kanye, especially publicly in the months since “Ultra Light Beam” dropped, he’s not signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label and they share no affiliation other than being occasional collaborators. “He ain’t sign me but he proud of me,” he reminds on “Blessings.”

According to ‘Ye, Chance was one of the most influential voices during TLOP recording sessions. As much play as Ultra Light Beam has been getting on social media and streaming, other than one flamethrower of a SNL performance, there has been no music video or subsequent awards show performance. His rise has been completely organic. He managed to whip social media into a full-fledged clusterfuck in the weeks leading up to Coloring Book’s drop, willing it into the week’s Billboard Top 10 despite not selling a single copy or making it available on multiple streaming outlets.

Coloring Book starts off with a Kanye feature, as he lends his vocals to “All We Got,” a sped up, feel-good anthem about the powers of music’s positive influence, featuring the Chicago Boys Choir. It’s oddly reminiscent of Kanye’s “We Don’t Care,” the opening track off his debut LP, both in its upbeat nature and positive proclamations. Chance has always paid homage to his Chicago brethren, even naming Acid Rap’s opening track, “Good Ass Job Intro,” which was the long-time rumored name of Kanye’s post-Graduation album that has yet to materialize. His affiliation with Pablo and the project’s similar rollout (streaming only at first, social media heavy communication with fans), have perpetuated the Kanye comparisons, but it seems to be, at least from the FAR outside, that it’s a mutual admiration society. Kanye even went so far as to tweet out Chance has “god level bars” in the days following Book’s release.

The project is littered with lush soundscapes, and Chance tap dances through the minefield that has become rap in 2016 with grace and strength. He shines on the trap-infused “Mixtape,” featuring Young Thug and Lil’ Yachty, a beat that will surely thump in clubs around the world, not to mention the Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz assisted, “No Problem.”

It is incredibly poetic to have a song with Lil’ Wayne in the first place, given Weezy’s current issues with his label and Chance’s stance against the accepted practices of the music industry establishment. We all remember when Wayne rose to the top of the rap heap in the mid-2000s, in large part to the massive amounts of free music he released in between albums. He was constantly in the earbuds of the masses with new material, eventually culminating with the 2008 release of Carter III. It was on a much grander scale, but his movement was grassroots in nature, his ascension determined purely by the voice of the people, not by marketing ploys or industry collusion.

Now Chance is the star on the rise with unlimited musical flexibility, while Wayne, and his future projects, are being held hostage by his longtime label. It’s the total opposite of Chance’s entire mission as an independent artist, to provide good free music that’s both critically recognized (ahem, Grammy voters), and free from the shackles of archaic record label control. “Free The Carter,” Weezy wails in “No Problem,” pleading that his fans are in dire need of his new album. Chance doesn’t have that problem.

He glides over “Juke Jam,” a childhood love story featuring Justin Bieber that invokes melodies of R.Kelly’s “Feeling On Yo Booty.” It’s one of the album’s standouts, with syrupy drumbeats, accentuated guitar chords and an impossibly catchy chorus. “Smoke Break” featuring Future is equally intoxicating, ideal for dropping down all the windows and riding through the city during the impending summer nights. Chance is equally comfortable on songs like “Blessings,” where his gospel influences shine and the song is stripped down to its core.

He comes across as wise without being preachy and vulnerable without being whiny. He even cut out a lot of his trademark “Na Na Na” ad libs, which is appreciated. One man without a label was able to bring out some of the biggest names in the industry (Ye, Wayne, Justin Bieber, Future), and even managed to bring Jay Electronica out of his self-imposed slumber to go bar for bar with him. His growth as an artist and as a man (he’s a new father) is apparent throughout the album and it’s allowed him to shine as an artist, as well as put together his most cohesive project yet. The album is a 14-track musical equivalent of a summer sunrise, with each blast of Donnie’s trumpet emanating good vibes from intro to reprise.

If you take a close look at Chance’s three album covers, his gaze is pointed in a different direction in each picture. In 10 Day, Chance is staring up at the stars, about to embark on the first step in an incredible musical journey. By Acid Rap, Chance is seeing eye-to-eye with his fans and his peers. In a recent interview with Pigeons and Planes, the album cover’s artist, Brandon Breaux, said he took a picture of Chance holding his daughter, trying to capture the sheer joy in Chance’s eyes as he was looking down at his bundle of joy. He also, perhaps inadvertently, caught him looking down at the rest of the industry.

Rap Session: Drake, Kendrick, and What Makes a Classic

The following was an impromptu discussion between my friend Vince and I from earlier today via text message, transcribed and edited for clarity and typos. We’ve been friends for nearly 15 years and share the same love of hip-hop, so I both value Vince’s opinion and appreciate these little chats. We dove deep down the hip-hop rabbit hole for this one, talking about everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Drake and broke down some of our favorite albums. I’ve always wanted to get him on a podcast, but this will have to do for now. Follow him on Twitter @Turk_Jr. I’m the one in bold.

 

I had to take a break from Kendrick. It’s too deep. I’m bumping that Action Bronson Mr. Wonderful album.

I’m starting to peel through the layers. Alright and How Much a Dollar Cost are really deep.

This is random, but would you consider To Pimp A Butterfly a concept album? I obviously love him as a lyricist and appreciate everything about the album, but in my music library, it won’t stand shoulder to shoulder with good kid maad city over time.

I don’t know how to classify it really. Someone said it sounds like a kid just venting, which is kind of true about him as a whole.

That makes sense considering all the social issues he touches on.

It could be a concept album. But anyone with a vision of how an album is going to play out I think u could say that for. I mean, is Yeezus a concept album? I’m not sure where the line is. But to your point, yeah, I’d rather listen to GKMC at this moment. The grit appeals to me more.

The story is more identifiable with a larger audience: a young kid commenting on all the craziness going on in his hometown (Compton) with his family and crew. Everyone can identify with that. Someone wrote something interesting about the new album and it kind of echoes how I feel. The author talked about how strong the “Control” verse and his BET cypher were and all his guest appearances, really, from the time GKMC debuted until now and how he just diverted from that “I’m going to crush every other MC” mentality to what TPAB eventually became. It was somewhat disappointing. His content is so strong and his skill is elite, but it’s just diverted into being an instrument of social change and a voice for his people rather than devouring fellow MCs and “spitting”, for lack of a better term. But I guess hip-hop needs that. Kind of like what Cole did on Forest Hills Drive, but on steroids.

I actually didn’t listen to the whole Cole, to be honest. I agree with you completely. I’d rather hear him spit. I think his whole thing is, “I’m gonna rap circles around y’all on features and then go make a classic album of substance.” Kind of like, this is how it’s done.

I can’t argue with that. He’s really managed to carve out this lane for himself where he’s both so respected as a rapper for his talent but he’s also a symbol people look to. Dissecting his albums is like dissecting LeBron’s MVP seasons. You compare them to his already ridiculously high standards instead of just saying, “Fuck, this is still better than everyone else in the game.”

It’s nitpicking. You’re comparing him to himself, which is kind of irresponsible. But as a fan that’s just how we look at it, I suppose.

Someone tweeted that this was It Was Written, referring to the fact that it was an underwhelming follow up to a classic.

We weren’t in the moment when it came out. Who knows how we would have reacted at the time. There’s no way to follow up Illmatic.

Illmatic is a fucking seminar. It’s literature. It’s a class in a PhD program.

I think Biggie is the only one not to disappoint on a sophomore album for real, and I still personally like Ready To Die better. I see the parallel with Nas and Kendrick though. It’s just like, which sound do you prefer?

Big did a really good job of blending street shit (which there is a TON of on Life After Death) with the pop shit.

And Puff said he didn’t really want to do it at first. I hate saying shit like this, but I think when it comes down to it, he’s pound for pound the best ever. I don’t recall a single wack verse.

Although he had some disturbing bars occasionally. Some lines from Me and My Bitch and Dead Wrong stand out. But he put out two classics. No blemishes on his record.

Everyone has his or her freak moments I guess. Kanye has a book’s worth.

Eminem made a career out of it. Where do you rank the younger guys in the game today, not in terms of skill, but in terms of how much you like them?

In terms of who I enjoy listening to it’s Kendrick then Drake, even though I probably listened to Drake a lot more based on how much more content he has. After that…I’m trying to think. I actually really liked Wale’s Ambition, even though I think he’s got some dweeb in him.

There’s a steep drop off after Drake and Kendrick. I love guys like Cole and Wale but they don’t put out enough consistent shit. I’m really looking forward to the Album About Nothing. I thought his mixtape More About Nothing was the best thing he’s ever done.

Big Sean, I thought his new album was his best shit, I just can’t take him seriously. Cole, I just want more from. He’s the clear third best, I think.

Agreed on Cole. Sean low-key steals some songs with his verses. Cole’s developed a really good following. I love him as an artist because he gives a shit and really cares about the music. I just wish he’d have a different producer to infuse some new life into him. His production is so bland, I think he’s spreading himself too thin trying to do it all himself.

Just how you said you like when Kendrick spazzes out, Cole never really did it in the first place and his flow and lyricism could support it. He’s got that Nas thing going on (with his production). Jay always crushed him on beats.

Cole murdered some really good MCs on “Looking For Trouble”. I wish he did that more and I wish someone like ‘Ye would give him some beats. Going back to your Jay point, he went from Primo to prime Swizz and Timbaland to Just Blaze and Kanye. And he had Neptunes hits for days.

Yeah there’s no comparison. Producers make 90% of these rappers their money.

Although, I like the fact that all these guys have “their” sound and I think that’s what makes them shine as artists. Drake doesn’t make sure he has a Kanye/Pharrell/Timbaland beat on his album like people used to. He has his team of producers and they cater to his sound. In the mid-2000s, everyone was seeking out beats from big producers for hits and I think it hurt their overall quality. That being said, I wish Cole’s sound was cultivated by someone else and molded around his lyrics. Sidebar: I think a J. Cole/Roots collabo would be amazing.

The rappers, in total, were better back then. Especially the Philly/New York guys. But they didn’t have thematic albums really. They weren’t sonically similar throughout. Drake does that exceptionally well.

40, Boi-1da and his guys really know his sound and what he likes to do and I think that’s part of the reason why his shit always pops.

That and his lyrics being really identifiable to the masses. That’s his recipe. A lot of people don’t want to sit there and figure out Nas/J. Cole. They just want to hear bangers.

Drake really does have his finger on the pulse of the masses.

He’s got it figured out. Funny thing is, he said he gets a lot of creative input from Kanye and vice-versa, but they never impede on each other’s sound really.

Kanye always praises him, which is somewhat surprising. He knows he’s his biggest competition. He said “it’s Drake season” on a radio interview.

Yeah it’s a little weird. He’s always put people on though; I got to give it to Kanye. I guess he feels like it easily could have gone the other way for him, not getting a shot.

I think he and Jay have both alluded to this point before too: they know they don’t speak to the same generation Drake does. They know that there already is a generation or two of young people that grew up on their music. Hell, they inspired this entire group of rappers now. Without 808s and Heartbreak there’s probably no So Far Gone.

It’s definitely smart of them to be so self-aware. If Rakim went into 2002 and tried to “point out the bounce,” it just wouldn’t have worked. You’re so right about 808s though. And it’s funny because everyone hated it at the time. Now some people say it’s their favorite/most influential Kanye album.

Yeah, which I never would’ve imagined in 2008, but it really introduced a new sound that Drake ran with.

One of the things I appreciate about music the most is artists going across genres and saying, “I’m going to take this risk.” I always loved Kanye for that. I was listening to The Doors last week and I said to myself, dude really took a rock song from the 1960s, mixed it up and said, “Jay-Z, I think u should rap on this.”

And it was a monster.

Drake hopping on a Lykke Li song and making it better than the original was a risk, and it worked perfectly.

It goes on and on. Frank Ocean samples Coldplay, MGMT and the Eagles on nostalgia.ultra. The guys that break down those walls and try new things are usually the ones we sit around talking about years later. Even what Puff did, making Biggie rap over some old disco beats. Fuck, all of Bad Boy’s epic late-90s run was on the shoulders of shitty 80s music. I guess it all kind of comes full circle back to Kendrick now, because that’s where he is on this album, drawing inspiration from so many musical genres to make an excellent hip hop album.

Did you ever think about what your ranking of Kanye albums would be?

It varies day to day, but it’s usually MBDTF and College Dropout in one tier, Graduation and Late Registration in the next tier, then Yeezus and 808s at the bottom. Again, it’s nitpicking, but over the course of time that’s where they kind of fall for me.

I go back and forth with College Dropout and MBDTF all the time. I think 808s and Yeezus should be in same tier, they are the “polar fucking opposite but potentially groundbreaking tier” and then ranked with a) and b) based on preference.

For me, I still go back and listen to songs like Street Lights, Amazing and some others. Other than Blood on the Leaves, I really don’t consistently play anything from that album. Not even New Slaves and Black Skinhead, which are both good.

I’m the exact opposite. I can’t tell you the last time I listened to 808s. Which likely means I’ll go listen to the whole thing after work. Tier 2 is really unique. It’s so close. Both albums have their skips for me, songs that’s could have been left for a G.O.O.D. Friday release, even though that hadn’t happened yet.

I actually think Graduation’s two bonus tracks, Good Night and Bittersweet Poetry, are significantly better than some of the chosen songs. But the highs were really good. Flashing Lights, Can’t Tell Me Nothing (flame emojis).

I just think We Major, Gone, and Addiction for me beat that. Maybe it’s the nostalgia factor. And Flashing Lights, Can’t Tell Me Nothing and Glory are some of my favorite songs ever. It’s so damn close I might change my mind tomorrow.

How about ranking Drake’s albums. Where do they stand for you? (So Far Gone and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late included.)

So Far Gone is far and away #1.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: So Far Gone is the best mixtape ever. I play it just as much now as I did in 2009/10.

I’d probably agree and that’s even with Wayne’s murderous flurry of mixtapes that were probably better than his albums. Nothing was wasted on So Far Gone. I thought about it a few weeks ago and I was stuck after So Far Gone. I don’t know how to rank them.

I have Take Care in an almost dead heat with SFG. I think it’s mostly for nostalgia reasons. I listened to that shit so much for like a year straight and it really has some of my favorite Drake songs on it. After that, I might have IYRTITL over Thank Me Later, with Nothing Was The Same last. I may just be in the moment, but I think IYRTITL is really good. They’re really close. NWTS was underwhelming for me. There are only a few songs I keep going back to.

Interesting. I’m honestly not sure what the big fuss is over the new joint, but I haven’t studied it enough. Initially, I think it’s like a Drake “Stan” overreaction.

I may feel differently a year from now, but I think you can throw on the first half of that tape and you have a string of bangers. I wish he would’ve combined the best songs from the tape and from NWTS and it would be great.

Great call. I felt that way about Blueprint 2. I just feel like Drake has a bit of a “Beyhive” following, then the same “dropped the album out of nowhere” made people go crazy and the music doesn’t live up.

A common theme amongst my favorite albums though, whether it’s Drake, Kanye, Jay or whomever, all resonate with me because of where I was when they came out and what I was going through. There are very few albums that I love that I just kind of stumbled upon and they’re mostly just albums like Illmatic or Ready To Die or Reasonable Doubt, that are just undeniable.

The feeling of nostalgia can sway you.

You live with music. Take College Dropout, Black Album, 50’s old shit. Everything we used to bump in high school. You can pinpoint the time and place and how it affected you. 

No way Out, Harlem World, too. I remember I hated the Black Album when it first came out, same with Take Care. Now I actually prefer to listen to the Black Album more so than Reasonable Doubt. Take Care is probably pound for pound his best album, but I was going through it during Thank Me Later. Plus, I think the first three tracks are criminally underrated.

No Way Out, Harlem World, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Hard Knock Life were the first rap albums I ever listened to.

Back when we were coming of age. I think it’s fair to say that Drake hasn’t made a classic album, even though his body of work the last five years is better than pretty much everyone’s.

That’s fair, as long as we’re not counting So Far Gone. Take Care is a personal classic for me but I can see it not being a universally-recognized classic. His body of work from 2009-now > everyone though.

Yeah I’m not counting that. I jus don’t like throwing around classic like that and I don’t think any of them have the firepower for me. But I think you’re right, it’s the best of his three albums. TM101 is a personal classic. It speaks to me. But in the whole rap pantheon, I don’t know.

That’s a regional classic, wouldn’t you say? I think a lot of people in the south would label that a classic.

Maybe that’s a bad example. It’s not in like the top 50 rap albums of all time though I guess is what I’m saying. GKMC might be already.

It’s funny that’s the album you use, because I’m pretty sure Kendrick is a huge Jeezy fan.

I think if I had a count of how many times I listened to an album, TM101 would be up there with The Blueprint and them.

I think rap is in a good place right now. The game is so different than it was ten years ago with iTunes and streaming. Artists don’t even make their money from albums anymore. But good music is winning out more than before. These artists cultivate fan bases and really put out quality music because these fans are going to pack in arenas and stadiums to see them on the road. Cole could’ve never debuted at No. 1 ten years ago. Kendrick might have gotten lost in the “throwback” era. I like when artists drop songs or whole mixtapes out of nowhere online. I think rap is fun again. The music isn’t about “what sells” because nothing sells anymore. No one’s buying albums. You can’t really go platinum off a hot single anymore.

I’m loving the content right now. It’s just…so much has changed in 10 or 15 years I guess.

Everything’s changed.