Nearly four years since the release of his last full length album, Jay-Z quite unexpectedly surprised the world last week with a follow-up to his last effort, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail with 4:44, released as both a Tidal and Sprint exclusive with the album slated to be made more widely available on different platforms and mediums in the coming week. The first clues and hints of the album’s existence and impending release came in early June with a series, of vague, cryptic ads from Tidal promoting nothing else but a timestamp which ultimately would be revealed as the album’s title. Likewise, teaser trailers for what are presumably a music video or series of music-videos starring Danny Glover, Mahershala Ali, and Lupita Nyong’o also called 4:44 also appeared during during the NBA Finals back in June further fueling speculation (whoever those projects as of now have yet to be fully released in their entirety.)This isn’t the first time Jay-Z has managed to catch fans and casual listeners alike off guard. Back in 2013 Jay-Z attempted a similar approach during the fifth game of the NBA Finals where Jay-Z was featured in a Samsung commercial announcing the upcoming release of Magna Carta Holy Grail. The first one million users of Samsung’s Galaxy phone series were able to download the album for free using a Magna Carta app on their phones. Here, it appears Jay-Z has fine-tuned his approach this time utilizing Tidal as the vehicle to roll out 4:44.
Hype and surprise releases aside however how the does album measure up. Serving as Jay-Z’s 13th solo studio album, 4:44 is in a sense a return to basics album in regards to production, while conversely exploring a brand new plain in reference to lyrical content. Jay-Z steps into largely uncharted territory on the album, making 4:44 without a doubt musically the most vulnerable Jay-Z has ever been on record in his twenty plus year career. Songs such as the album’s title track, which HOV himself even referred as “the crux of the album”, details his feelings of regret and lament alluding to the rumors of cheating on his wife Beyoncé Knowles. Songs lyrics are made especially potent with Jay confronting the fact that one day he will have to explain the events to his children, Rapping the lyrics,
It’s a rare candid moment seeing Jay-Z’s guilt and shame truly on full-display, which most importantly comes off as sincere and genuine. It’s not very often to hear Hip-Hop artists (albeit one often touted as the greatest rapper alive) admit to the whole world to hear that infidelity is no ok and confide to their audience the most personal and darkest secrets and it is expertly handled in way that is uniquely Jay. This being said, the whole album is by no means just one long apology letter to Beyoncé either or a laundry list of Jay-Z’s shortcoming. Tracks such as ‘The Story of OJ’ which features equally jarring imagery to match the songs lyrical message and potency is another standout amongst the album’s ten track playlist. Featuring an accompanying music video which plays on painful and ugly stereotypes and depictions of African-Americans prominently featured in classic Warner Bros. and other “Golden Era” animated shorts produced in the early twentieth century. Jay-Z himself detailed the song’s significance saying, “The Story of OJ’ is really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward. We all make money, and then we all lose money, as artists especially. But how, when you have some type of success, to transform that into something bigger”. Again, it’s not very often that one hears Hip-Hop artists (especially on the mainstream side of the industry) telling their audience to get out of the streets, accumulate credit, buy property and accumulate wealth to pass down to their children which will in turn accrue generation wealth which historically all too often has been denied to African-American and other people of color in this country. Jay even counters detractors slickly rapping “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine/But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”. Jay-Z drops subtle jewels and life lessons that rarely get broadcast by mainstream emcees, its okay to grow up, be a father, be responsible, save money. These and so much more are just a handful of ideas and concepts explored on ‘The Story of OJ’ and all throughout 4:44. Another one of the album’s undeniable stand out gems is ‘Marcy Me’, a reflective trek down memory lane as Jay-Z recounts his experiences coming up in the Marcy housing projects of Brooklyn, New York. Jay-Z detailed the song saying, “Marcy Me’ is a nostalgic walk through Marcy, and it’s about that hopefulness, that feeling of ‘Man, can I really do this? Can I really be one of the biggest artists in the world?’ You have these dreams, ‘Can I be one of the biggest basketball players?’ We have these dreams”. The song even begins with an interpolation of the Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Unbelievable’, truly a reflection of bygone era not only for Jay-Z but Brooklyn itself as Jay recounts his memories of New York of yesteryear.
Conversely, lyrical content aside Jay-Z doesn’t slack off in the production department either. 4:44 arguably features the best, most cohesive block of production to be featured on a Jay-Z album since The Blue Print back in 2001. Serving as the album’s one lone producer (a slowly returning trend, but, still a relative rarity in today’s current Hip-Hop scene) the album is helmed entirely by Chicago producer No I.D.. No I.D.’s unbridled and uninhibited direction gives the project a distinctly focused and coherent sound as well as a sense of discipline which is largely absent on most modern Hip-Hop releases as well as past Jay-Z projects. Every one of the album’s ten tracks sound and feel like they were specifically crafted to hit their mark a get a point across, never feeling forced or dragging on for to long. To boot, the album also sounds fresh with not so much as a trace of old material left over from past albums. In fact, according to No I.D. himself Jay-Z didn’t begin the recording for 4:44 until last December, and was even still working on the project, putting on finishing touches as recently as the week of the album’s release.
Clocking in at just barely over thirty-six minutes in length, Jay-Z and No I.D, keenly make the wise move of keeping the album’s duration short and simple without ever lingering nor overstaying its welcome and overwhelming the listener. In fact, in regards to both time length and track listing, 4:44 is the shortest solo album Jay-Z has yet to put out. The album also smartly keeps the guest features down to a bare minimum, with only R&B recluse, Frank Ocean, Reggae veteran Damian Marley & wife Beyoncé Knowles making guest appearances on three of the albums ten cuts. Frank Ocean in particular makes a stellar appearance on the album, delivering a soulful Yasiin Bey-esque performance on ‘Caught Their Eyes’. Damian Marley delivers a satisfactory performance on ‘Bam’ which samples the reggae classic ‘Bam, Bam’ by Sister Nancy. While not terrible by any means the song is easily the weakest effort on the album and the closest Jay gets to his old habits on 4:44. This expertly executed production coupled with the decision to keep the album lean, streamlined and devoid of superfluous features is why the album excels where many of Jay’s other projects failed. One of Jay-Z’s biggest weakness has always been falling victim to enlisting both trendy producers and performers to insulate his albums. A winning strategy in the moment that normally produces a hot hit or two, but one that ultimately turns out quickly dated content and overall forgettable projects save for a few songs here and there. By in large, 4:44 mostly side steps this pitfall and delivers content that likely will age much more gracefully than a majority of Jay’s catalog he’s released over the past decade or so.
Overall, 4:44 delivers the best of what Jay-Z has offer as an emcee while pushing him to step out of his comfort zone and tackle deeper, more mature subject matter. Unlike Jay-Z’s counterpart and former adversary, Nas, who never shied away from getting personal or placing himself in a vulnerable position; save for a few occasional tracks here and there Jay-Z has largely avoided exploring the same depth and lyrical introspectiveness his other musical contemporaries have made a name for themselves exploring in the past. After nearly twenty plus years of over the top braggadocios rhymes and skin deep superficialness which has permeated Jay-Z’s hustler, businessman persona it’s a refreshing change of pace to hear Jay-Z show vulnerability on this album as well as see him embracing his age and maturity. To many die-hard Hip-Hop heads, Jay-Z’s superficialness to his music and over the top businessman persona has been his Achilles heel, so for him shed this front in exchange for a more candid approach. No one would argue Jay-Z has lived a tumulus and interesting life and can tell a good story when he wants to, but unfortunately far too often in the past has that aspect has been neglected and under utilized. With all this said, it was great to hear Jay over production we normally don’t get to hear him on as well as take an introspective and personal approach placing himself in a vulnerable position like never before. In a sense 4:44 in many ways is a watershed moment, not just for Jay-Z but the genre of Hip-Hop as a whole. At forty-seven years of age Jay-Z managed to turn the entire internet on its head leading up to and following the album’s release. In a industry that that is rarely kind to aging stars, and in a genre that is oftentimes even crueler to its pioneers and innovators Jay-Z proves that Hip-Hop is not just a young man’s game and that the genre has yet to reach brand new heights and peaks as some as the genres greatest writers approach middle-age and utilize the perspective, judgment, and wisdom which only comes with age and experience. These traits cannot be faked, they cannot be taught nor can they be re-created in a studio, and they wholeheartedly come across loud and clear on 4:44. The album serves as a perfect bookend for an artist that is transitioning from the role of not just being a Hip-Hop heavyweight but a musical and cultural icon. As a man who survived coming of age in the Marcy housing projects of Brooklyn New York, experienced the disastrous effects of Reaganomics first hand in the ’80s, escaped slanging drugs in the darkest corners of crack-era New York, survived several beefs in the 90’s with some of the genres greatest lyrical heavyweights all while still remaining one of the genre’s most prolific voices over a twenty-plus year career on top of holding the record for most number-one albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200 Jay-Z has not only cemented his status as one of most resilient artist in Hip-Hop but the entire music industry and no other body of work exemplifies that better than 4:44. It is hopeful that this turning over of a new leaf by Jay-Z is a part of a wider, long term trend and not simply because conscious Hip-Hop and music with a message has once more become profitable. However, regardless of his motivations or reasonings, Jay-Z embracing his age and maturity is good for the genre and a move that hopefully will inspire other artists who normally wouldn’t be inclined to create more introspective, reflective, and vulnerable music to branch out as well.
4:44 is currently available to stream exclusively on TIDAL, with plans to debut on Apple Music and iTunes later this week.
**According to Young Guru, who served as the album’s engineer, a physical hardcopy edition of the album is in the works which will include more unreleased songs not found on the current Tidal and upcoming streaming formats. However, no word or concrete statements have been made as to when physical copies of the album will be available to the public.
Full Album Tracklisting & Credits:
1.”Kill Jay Z”
2.”The Story of O.J.”
3.”Smile” (featuring Gloria Carter)
4. “Caught Their Eyes” (featuring Frank Ocean
6. “Family Feud” (featuring Beyoncé)
7.”Bam” (featuring Damian Marley)