An Act of Contrition, Highly Personal ‘4:44′ Shows Jay Z at His Best
Few artists have a legacy as impressive as the iconic rapper Jay Z, rounding out what has arguably become one of the biggest months in his life with the release of his thirteenth studio album “4:44.” In June Jay became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he welcomed twins into the world and somehow has found the time to deliver one of the greatest records of his career.
Jay Z is living proof of the cultural importance and impact hip-hop has had on our lives. His tireless work ethic, respect and commitment to the genre is unmatched. With lyrics that are visceral and biting, ruthless depictions of a life lived on unsure streets, it is no wonder why every one of Jay Z’s previous twelve studio albums have gone Platinum and beyond.
Changing his approach and sound with the times without sacrificing authenticity, Jay Z is one of the few rappers that has aged with us. Without grasping at youth, but not quite satisfied with being an elder statesman just yet, Jay Z instead finds himself very happy in being an active member of the here and now. “4:44” is innovative yet drenched in experience, welcoming the voices of new rappers while simultaneously being grounded in his signature pulsating prose and direct point of view. The beats are fresh, the features are relevant and “4:44” proves itself to be an essential component to the future trajectory of hip-hop.
Leaving the pulsating superiority of “Magna Carta Holy Grail” behind, “4:44” trades out brash club ready beats in favor of a more subtle introspection. Surrounding himself with a few well curated collaborators, the ebb and flow of the album creates an addicting tension between all the creative minds at work here. That being said, “4:44” feels cohesive. While the features are from strong artists, the record avoids feeling like a collection of patchwork singles. Instead we find Jay giving these silver tongued princes their space while never sacrificing his role as the conductor.
The album opens with the remorseful “Kill Jay Z,” exposing his deep-rooted personal faults through lines like, “You gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue / You had no father, you had the armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer,” revealing his self awareness of the damage he has caused and for which he is solely responsible. The remainder of “Kill Jay Z” continues in this vein with a call to end the life of his well known and harmful ego. “Die Jay Z, this ain’t back in the days / You don’t need an alibi, JAY Z / Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real / But you can’t heal what you never reveal.”
Minimalistic in its instrumentation, it is clear Jay Z wants the focus to be the words, words that cut like knives, knives that are solely pointed at his own shortcomings instead of those of others. A self reflective introduction to an album that thematically rests on the notion that forgiveness and understanding can be the most effective path to personal growth. Ideas his younger self would most certainly have scoffed at, instead Jay Z pushes towards personal accountability as a driving creative force. Returning to us after years humbled and looking to dole out empathy to those he has hurt, an admirable and much needed move.
This contrition continues on the album’s title track, where Jay says, “I apologize often womanize / Took for my child to be born / See through a woman’s eyes / Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles / Took me too long for this song / I don’t deserve you,” an extremely rare glimpse into the personal lives of one of music’s most notorious couples.
Though Beyoncé did offer up some of this in her record “Lemonade,” a work that centered itself around her coming to terms with Jay Z’s infidelity, hearing the perpetrator step up and publicly admit remorse for such an act is rare and welcomed. The queen finally received the public apology she is worthy of and it was met with musical reconciliation on “Family Feud,” where Jay calls out, “Let me alone, Becky,” and Beyoncé replies “Amen.”
On “Smile,” Jay Z also reveals highly personal feelings while revealing his mother’s sexuality. “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian / Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to take / Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her,” letting the world and his loved ones know where he stands.
Moving beyond his personal revelations Jay Z has also pays attention to the issues facing our world on “4:44.” The cultural commentary on “Moonlight,” a nod to the distasteful Oscars mixup, shows exactly where Jay thinks race relations lie in today’s world. A rare glimpse into the life of one of modern music’s most popular stars, here we find that even our icons are flawed. A highly personal work, “4:44” finds Jay Z on the road to moral redemption.
Jay Z is nothing if not forward thinking. He starts movements and foresees trends, taking inspiration and direction from the here and now. It is this acute sensibility he carries that gives his music it’s innate relevance. Respecting the foundations of hip-hop in order to push the needle forward, Jay becomes both the teacher and the student. Open to experimentation while keeping his methodology rooted in the classics, “4:44”’s minimalism feels fresh.
By using his mastery of prose, Jay Z presents a vivid portrait we can all get lost in. Revealing a bitterly vulnerable side of the rapper that we have not seen before “4:44.” It is the blunt, hard hitting, self reflective hip-hop we need in our current social climate. It touches on deeply personal struggles while also managing to open the lens up to capture relatable socioeconomic issues plaguing the world today. Ultimately “4:44” becomes an act of contrition for Jay Z, his way of confessing his sins, asking for understanding and encouraging his peers to do the same.
“4:44” released June 30 and is only available to Tidal subscribers who signed up before June 26 and anybody with Sprint. It will also stream in full every other hour via iHeartRadio’s ” The Beat” at 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m., or 10 p.m. ET on June 30 only.