Since his debut the mid-nineties with the iconic ‘Reasonable Doubt’, JAY-Z has built and maintained an illustrious hip hop career. Throughout that time, the Brooklyn native has made few apologies for the way he carries himself and seldom revealed any vulnerability his rivals haven’t exposed already. Only a man comfortable as he is can nickname himself J-Hova (a play on Jehovah, the Hebrew word for God), and refer to his rapping skill as “religious”. His latest effort '4:44', is in many ways the antithesis of what the rapper’s legend fed off of and yet also will prove to cement it.
JAY-Z has penned tracks with his heart on his sleeve in the past; his ode ‘Song Cry’ off of his 2001 effort Blueprint I being one of the most memorable. Few of them approach the self-deprecation that grounds tracks like album opener ‘Kill Jay Z’ in which he addresses a much-publicised incident with his wife’s sister or, title track ‘4:44’ he pens a heartfelt confession and apology to wife, Beyoncé. Each track is gritty and at times unpolished, but the mainstay is the emotion evident in lyrics and JAY-Z’s vocal performance underneath chopped samples vinyl noise that dance at the edge of listener’s reach.
In order to listen to '4:44' one has to be ready to navigate a labyrinth of self-debasement, chest thumping, and a display of awareness that separated this album from the rest of JAY-Z’s catalogue.
When '4:44' is not spending its time canonising personal trials and tribulations, it raises issues that are at the forefront of society at-large such as the beleaguered O.J Simpson in the aptly named ‘The Story of OJ’. JAY-Z also covers the stigmatising of the LGBT community in ‘Smile’ in which the rapper briefly addresses his mother coming out in the lines where he raps, "Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/Doesn't matter to me if it's him or her." Within the same song, he touches his conversations with pop icon PRINCE before his death as well as taking shots at competitors of JAY-Z’s streaming platform TIDAL.
Sonically 4:44 sounds earthy, and less tamed than hip hop records that populate the Billboard charts. Album producer NO I.D leans heavily on samples from influential Motown, jazz and blues artists. The mix is gritty at times and throws caution to wind in order to allow the lyrics to carry the day. There is a cacophony laying the foundation behind the vocals as JAY-Z becomes the focal point but with enough headroom to draw back if need be. This is a risk that can be taken only an artist with as accomplish a career as JAY-Z has. The album also occasionally notes JAY-Z as a producer. Usually, in those instances the rapper suggests a song to sample or a vintage instrument to chop up and sprinkle across a track.
JAY-Z’s now trademark flow remains intact for the most part. He does take chances in tracks like 'adnis' a letter to his late father. His flow there is lethargic and solemn, all the while dipping in and out of rhythm while 'Marcy Me' sees JAY-Z revert somewhat to his 90s bounce. JAY-Z’s willingness to emote through his lines is one of this album’s crown jewels.
Long gone are the days of the materialistic champagne drenched Mafioso rap, JAY-Z. The JAY-Z presented in 4:44 more vulnerable, wiser and less-so a prisoner of pretentiousness. There is an outpouring of authenticity and relatability on this album that has seen a resurgence with the rise of rappers like KENDRICK LLAMAR, J. COLE, and the like. With that said, this is not an album for casual fans of rap and hip hop. While NO I.D does well to provide instrumentals that will be blasting out of cars driving down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, there is a lacking of what would be considered a “club banger”. This is an album for hard-core fans of hip hop that may or may not be students of the genre, ardent followers of JAY-Z…and TIDAL subscribers.