JAY-Z wants you to know 4:44 is his thirteenth studio album. The script, typed above the album’s glaring time-stamped cover, is more than a grandiose gesture of his legendary emcee status. It’s a reminder of just how precious of a commodity time is, which many of us rarely stop and acknowledge.
For the first time in what felt like forever, the music industry and its consumers stood still at the stroke of midnight on Friday, June 30, for Mr. Carter’s long-awaited return. Coming off the heels of 2013’s braggadocios, at times thought-provoking, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, he’s since expanded his presence outside of slinging rhymes without a pen. There’s been the investments in UBER, Stance, and JetSmart; helping present Tidal, the first artist-owned streaming service to the masses; and welcoming two new additions to the Carter family. So, what’s left for a famed multimillionaire rap mogul to do?
Contrary to belief, time can not be seen. Not even with a platinum Audemar attached to your wrist. Instead, it’s a simple gauge to keep us mindful of what we need to do it and when we need to do it. So when JAY-Z ran into No I.D., who would go on to produce 4:44 in its entirety, nearly a year ago and asked if the he had any music for him, it felt like a destined moment as the producer’s answer cemented one of time’s gifts: change. “I go, “Nope,” the No I.D. recounted to Rolling Stone. “He goes, “What are you working on? I said, “Getting better.”
While time stands still for no man, not even the biggest rap star, it does give us all the opportunity to makes changes within ourselves that empower us to be better. Forgiveness is also sought out for the wrong we’ve incurred, which usually brings about another form of change that alters how we view ourselves, the way we see others, and the world’s survey of ourselves, too. All of these ideas anchor the album in which he doesn’t attempt to right his wrongs, but instead own up to his shortcomings. Stripped of his usual spiffy, slick talk, 4:44 is soaked in clarity and wisdom.
On “Kill Jay Z,” the album’s opener, the emcee has an eye-opening epiphany, rapping: “We know the pain is real, but you can’t heal what you’ve never revealed / What’s up, Jay-Z? You know you owe the truth to all the youth that fell in love with Jay-Z.” The title alone is an expression of anger, disarming the figure he once was – hints the slight, but ever-so-telling name change. Taking away the stigma of power he’s built like a masterful fortress, he shows up to work early and hungry, ready to pick finally peel back the layers of the life he’s guarded carefully.
In comparison to his previous works, 4:44 moves with a soulful simmer. You can sense No I.D.’s DNA in the sophisticated production rich with samples and live instrumentation, empowering the sense of vulnerability employed by JAY. No I.D. is responsible for some of your favorite hip-hop records – Kanye West’s “Heartless,” Drake’s “Find Your Love,” and Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” among many notable others.
4:44 is ultimately a sonic confessional, reminding us that even after selling 100 million records worldwide and having 13 consecutive #1 albums, JAY-Z is human, too. He waxes poetic about some of the lowest moments of his life that still linger in the back of his mind. There’s Beyoncé’s miscarriage (“4:44”) and his infidelity admission (“Family Feud”). At one point, he mentions shooting his crack-addicted brother at just 12 years of age, confronts Kanye for his Saint Pablo Tour rant directed at him and his wife, and admits to stabbing a producer over a bootlegged record and intensifying the elevator incident with Solange (“Kill Jay Z”). His mother Gloria is even discussed, revealing that she used her marriage to his father to hide her sexuality and turned to drugs to hide her shame (“Smile”). He also dispels the false impression of what it means to be black and elite (“The Story of O.J.”).
There are many heavy moments to sift through, but JAY does balances it out by giving substantial advice to listeners: stop holding stacks of money to your ear for likes on Instagram, feel no fault in seeking therapy, and don’t be fooled into thinking that making it rain at the strip club is more important than good credit.
Rap may be known as a young man’s game, but 4:44 showcases just how gangster growth and maturity is. While some may reduce it to a response to Lemonade, the album is bigger than Beyoncé. It’s a crash course in the evolution of Shawn Carter, Jay Z, and JAY-Z. It’s a courageous task many artists have yet to take on, but it’s apparent that connection, which gives purpose and meaning to our lives, is what motivates the emcee who’s been rapping since he was 17. Forty years later, it’s safe to say JAY-Z mastered what he set out to do.
For more of our reviews, read why we think Calvin Harris’s ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1’ is too chill for its own good right here.
- Writer: Ashley Monaé