(AllHipHop Reviews) Jay-Z has released his 13th album, 4:44, and it could be his most potent work in a long time. For quite some time, Hip-Hop has been in a perpetual state of Civil War, with no law or order. In mere hours, Jay-Z’s latest has already reined in the chaos causing the internet to ooze all over the album with their unadulterated affection for the Brooklyn King. It is well deserved and well-earned.
4:44 clocks in under 40 minutes, but it is a dense, superlative piece of art. The album was produced exclusively by veteran producer NO I.D., known for his longtime work with Common. The Chicagoan provides an immaculate pallet for Jay-Z to paint over and together they effortlessly craft a masterpiece. This is an easy claim in this era of instant classics, hype beasts, mass marketed subpar music and social media critics. But, the 10 tracks of 4:44 hold up like a moat, sharp shooters and brutes protecting a king’s castle.
One thing to consider before starting…this album is a lot to take in. Even though it’s short, it requires several listens to digest the weighty content, the depth of lyricism, musicianship and even the plethora of shade that forms over various entities like Rev. Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby, Prince’s Estate, Jimmy Iovine, Jay-Z himself and many others. These will feed the blogs, social media and others.
“Kill Jay-Z” is like a gut punch, where the self-proclaimed god MC speaks metaphorically about the death of his ego and former self. The theme is one that Jay-Z has rapped about repeatedly through more recent years. Still, there is plenty of collateral damage. The verbal uppercuts were so hard, Eric Benet started trending for all the wrong reasons. Still, “little brother” Kanye West catches the hardest blows:
“You walkin’ around like you invincible
You dropped outta school, you lost your principles
I know people backstab you, I felt bad too
But this ‘f—k everybody’ attitude ain’t natural
But you ain’t a Saint, this ain’t KumbaYe
But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye
You gave him 20 million without blinkin’
He gave you 20 minutes on stage, f—k was he thinkin’?
“F—k wrong with everybody?” is what you sayin’
But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s in sane
Like “Kill Jay-Z,” “Bam” and “Moonlight” bang. Both Reggae-tinged, Jay defecates on rappers that perpetrate frauds on the social media. “I don’t be on the ‘Gram goin’ ham / Givin’ information to the pork, that’s all spam / Please don’t talk about guns / That you ain’t never gon’ use / Y’all always tell on y’all self / I’m just so f-ckin’ confused,” he says. You can almost feel the head shaking back and forth in disapproval.
4:44 has a general theme of empowerment, blackness and even financial literacy. Hell, accountability. In some parts, it’s like a Hip-Hop version of Robert Kiyosaki’s classic book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” “The Story of OJ” definitely pushes Orenthal James Simpson’s wig back metaphorical, but Jay serves up some thoughts on his own financial foibles. “Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’ / I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo / For like 2 million / That same building today is worth 25 million / Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo,” he raps. On other songs, he stands up for Prince, the Purple King that died last year. Jay-Z’s Tidal had an exclusive business-to-business relationship with Prince as the sole streaming service that would distribute his music. After he died, all of that changed. Jay says:
I sat down with Prince, eye to eye
He told me his wishes before he died
Now, Londell McMillan (Prince’s lawyer), he must be color blind
They only see green from them purple eyes
They eyes hide, they eyes high
My eyes wide shut to all the lies
These industry niggas, they always been fishy
But ain’t no Biggie, no lazy eye, huh
This guy had ‘Slave’ on his face
You think he wanted the masters with his masters?
You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house
I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket
Jay-Z saves his most poignant moment around his sense of family and home. For me, “4:44” is the most powerful song on the album and there is a reason it is centrally located on the album. The song apparently is a response to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and a big ole apology to his better half. You have to love how Jay and Bey’s honesty and vulnerability turn into capital gains in a social media-driven world. However, “4:44” represents Jigga at his best and his finest emo-material since The Blueprint.
I’ve seen the innocence leave your eyes
I still mourn this death, I apologize for all the stillborns
‘Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it
I apologize to all the women whom I
Toyed with you emotions because I was emotionless
I apologize ’cause at your best you are love
And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about
The man that wrote “Song Cry” finally cried and, with that Hannah Williams sample wailing, you might too.
On the other “side” of the album is Track 6 “Family Feud,” where Jay-Z addresses the Civil War that consistently has kept Hip-Hop fragmented. Of course, the elder statesman takes time to put the youngsters in their place with some well-thought out barbs. But the real takeaways are cemented in Hip-Hop Unity. “We all lose when the family feuds What’s better than one billionaire? Two. / I’ll be damned if I drink some Belvedere while Puff got CÎROC / Y’all need to stop.” Rev. Al Sharpton don’t receive the same courtesies. Both “Marcy Me” and “Legacy,” which features Blue Ivy, also reflect this wiser, introspective Shawn Carter.
In closing…this is a beginning.
It was a beautiful social media spectacle to see Jay-Z fawn over his influences as he was graciously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame earlier in the month. The “rant” mentioned Nas, Chance the Rapper, Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj, Future, Mos, Drake, Meek Mills, Ice Cube, Jay Electronica, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Outkast, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Ice-T, Mobb Deep and so many more. Hip-Hop is a fraternity of genius that has been overlooked, marginalized and dismissed by the masses and, in many instances, rap fans.
Legends have been tossed aside and dismissed as irrelevant when, for lovers of the culture, nothing could be less factual. Of course some people will not be convinced and will remain in staunch opposition of Classic Hip-Hop for a number of reasons. 1) It is power. 2) We are powerful. 3) We are on pace to take over everything we set our energy and power to. So, in context, this reviewers stands firmly committed to the notion that Jay Z is representative of a highly evolved form of Hip-Hop. This where music, culture, business and knowledge intersect to create a base of power. It is not always as blatant as yelling “fight the power.”
Jay-Z isn’t the only one. He shouts out his team through out this entire extravaganza of 4:44 as proof. Prayerfully, the younger generation extracts the powerful lessons on this album so that their evolution can start earlier than 40-something year-old Jay-Z (truth is, Jay was evolved way back, but that’s another story). This is definitely a wave advanced by J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and others on a smaller scale, but its good to see the OG do it. Lastly, Jay-Z represents a strength, endurance and longevity that broadly symbolizes Hip-Hop as a culture.
So, hopefully we can change the conversation a bit. Some are preoccupied with so-called Mumble rap and if Migos and Budden were going to fight. Blah. Prayerfully, we can wave a white flag and build together, understanding we share common causes. Lofty visions, indeed, but this is more of an event than album. More movement than music. I think its possible.
If nothing else…4:44 is another classic, a proverbial master class from the master.