On “4:44,” Jay-Z gives a more intimate look into his mind than ever before
“Penitent” and “personal” are two words that, previously, never would have been used to describe Jay-Z.
Jay’s career has long been marked by braggadocio. Early on, he bragged about his success selling crack on the street.
Then, as he gradually moved from selling crack rocks to running Roc Nation, he switched to bragging about making a very different kind of money.
But much of that has been diminished on “4:44.” This record, instead, serves as an examination of family and its importance, and as an apology to Beyoncé for jeopardizing the happiness of their family.
A good place to start when it comes to understanding some of the weight behind “4:44” is actually an album that came out last year: Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”
On that album, Beyoncé suggests in the song “Sorry” that her lover has disrespected her, and that he should instead go and call “Becky with the good hair.” Many listeners interpreted this line to suggest that Jay-Z had cheated on Beyoncé.
Now, Jay does not explicitly confirm that he truly had cheated on Beyoncé. But there are numerous songs on “4:44” in which Jay admits to having done something wrong in their relationship, and he is begging for forgiveness.
For example, in the title track, Jay seems to acknowledge the claims of cheating, saying “‘You did what with who?’/ What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soul-mate?”
Later, in “Family Feud,” Jay explicitly references the lyrics on Beyoncé’s “Sorry,” saying “Yeah, I’ll f*** up a good thing if you let me/ Let me alone, Becky.”
It creates a beautiful dialog between the two records; in many ways, “4:44” recontextualizes “Lemonade,” making the two unable to be understood fully without the other one.
And it also allows us to see Jay at his most humble. For a man who is worth close to a billion dollars, “4:44” makes it clear that what matters most to him is his family.
In the opening track, “Kill Jay Z,” Jay takes on the role of someone speaking to him, chastising him for not being quite good enough for his family.
“But you gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue,” the speaker tells Jay, imploring him to be better for the sake of the rapper’s daughter. “You had no father, you had the armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer.”
And in many ways, that line explains to us what Jay-Z is all about now. He is softer. And this is not to be taken in the pejorative sense that it would classically be taken in hip-hop culture. Instead, Jay has been softened by being a husband, a father and even a son.
In fact, it is his role as a son that offers up one of the most interesting stories on the album. In “Smile,” Jay speaks about his mother, Gloria Carter, and says something about her that had never been publicly said before.
“Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian/ Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian,” he raps. Now, it may be concerning that Jay just publicly outed his mother, but considering that she’s a featured vocalist on the track, it’s safe to assume she signed off on the discussion of her sexuality.
Jay brings up his mother’s sexuality for no other reason than to talk about how happy he is for her now. “Cried tears of joy when you fell in love,” he says. “Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.” It’s a simple statement of solidarity, but an important one in a genre well known for its problems with homophobia, made all the more powerful by the fact that it’s coming from one of hip-hop’s giants.
Unlike any other album in Jay-Z’s catalog, “4:44” allows for a unique look into the rapper’s mind, with every decision being made to emphasize his thoughts.
This affects every aspect of the album, from the minimal features (sure, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé and Damian Marley all provide some vocals, but the only vocalist Jay ever takes a backseat to is his own mother) to No I.D.’s production.
Producer and beat-maker No I.D. produced every track on the album, making sure to get Jay’s vocals high up in every mix. His vocals are ridiculously crisp; you could easily begin to think Jay is in the room with you, spitting bars over beats he brought along with him.
No I.D.’s beats are timeless; on the one hand, they recall classic 1990s New York hip-hop with dusty, jazzy beats, but on the other, they make perfect sense in a post-Kanye West world (in spite of some shots that Jay took at his former protege in the opening track, suggesting that working with West only hurt him).
No I.D.’s beats are somber, matching Jay’s apologetic tone perfectly. The pain is obvious in Jay’s voice, and No I.D.’s instrumentation does well to hammer out Jay’s longing to feel the love he has for his family returned.
“4:44” is an incredible project from Jay-Z. Not only is it a return to form for the rapper after a series of weak projects, it’s emblematic of Jay reaching a height that he never has before.
Note: “4:44” is currently an exclusive on Tidal, the streaming service started by Jay-Z. If you want to hear it and you’re not already a Tidal subscriber, you can visit 444.tidal.com, and enter in the code “Sprint” for a free download. The album is being given away by Tidal as a promotion after being purchased recently by Sprint, and you don’t need to be a customer of either company to access this promotion. However, if you’d rather wait, a physical release is coming on an as-yet unannounced date.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6119 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Label: Roc Nation
Best Track: ‘Smile’