The brief, yet captivating career retrospective of the life and career of Shawn Carter has a complete sense of poise, elegance and humbled acceptance. 36 minutes is all veteran emcee Jay Z needs on 4:44 to play host to a series of introspective thoughts on his life. The negative press surrounding Jay after Beyoncé’s Lemonade depicted him as disloyal and untrustworthy. While 4:44 may not be a response to Lemonade per se, it does see Jay Z spilling the beans and checking his esteem at the door in order to educate the masses. The heavily layered album has many messages within its core but the calibre of the music puts 4:44 amongst the greats in Jay Z’s discography.
Jay Z begins the album with “Kill Jay Z”, which immediately gets retrospective when Jay talks about the shooting of his brother over stolen jewellery, his altercation with former friend Kanye West, the stabbing of Lance Rivera over bootleg records and the infamous elevator incident between him and Solange. The storied life of Jay Z makes for a structured opening track over one of many glossy instrumentals. Subtle disses at Kanye West and Future for respective reasons are also scattered throughout the song.
The most well known song on 4:44 for both good and bad reasons is “The Story of O.J.”. Jay Z’s incorporation of humour into a hip-hop story of a convicted killer shows serious chutzpah, but it’s really only something Jay Z could pull off. The humorous line in question “I’m not black I’m O.J./…Okay” relates to the phrase O.J. Simpson himself uttered while convicted. Jay Z believes this was said in an attempt to separate himself from what the media will conceive to be “black culture”. “Smile” reveals that Jay Z’s mother refrained from coming out to her family for years, sparking an emotional tirade by Jay about facing difficulty getting signed by a label in his early years and other bad things he has faced in his life.
“Caught Their Eyes” featuring Frank Ocean (a personal favourite of mine) starts off sweet with Jay comparing Beyoncé to the Mona Lisa before transitioning to a raw track about being aware of your surroundings. The mentions of solipsism solidify this fact, as solipsism is the idea that the only thing in life that is real is one’s own experiences and thoughts. The hook, sung by Frank, is one of the catchiest on the album by far. Frank’s lack of release of music is moderately akin to the spotlight resting of Jay Z, as both took a step back from music to do their own thing for a while. Similarly, both came back and released incredible albums.
The self-titled track “4:44” is the track that everyone needed from Jay after the release of Lemonade, an apology slash love letter to his wife Beyoncé. Whether or not Jay’s infidelity was committed or not, this song was required by Jay. The pure feeling of honesty on this song and even on the rest of the album is what sets Jay Z apart from every other rapper today. One wouldn’t think that sincerity wasn’t a quality needed to create an album this fantastic, but in Jay Z’s case, it was necessary. The best track on the album is one that is often the topic of discussion, oldheads vs newheads in the rap community.
“Family Feud” refers to how fans of today’s experimental, versatile and frankly more creative rap are often at war with those who prefer earlier, thematic and more traditional rap. The title attaches to the phrase “No one wins when the family feuds”. If the two opposing sides keep battling for power, eventually it will damage the culture which Jay Z has contributed so much towards. “Bam” has major reggae vibes due to the features by Damian Marley, Bob Marley’s youngest son. “Moonlight” immediately contradicts the message from “Family Feud”, as Jay Z decides to imitate the new-waves “clichés”, which in hindsight was a pretty stupid thing to do if you’re trying to spread a message of together for the culture. Despite this flaw, the song is still great. Catchy hook, great lyrics and again, glossy production from No I.D. “Marcy Me” gets nostalgic as Jay reminisces about his days in the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn. Jay’s voice sounds a bit different in this song compared to the rest of the album. Slightly more softer than his usual tone, Jay keeps it real throughout the whole song (apart from the shots at Lil Uzi Vert). The final song has an adorable intro from Blue Ivy Carter but not too much else, musically. Lyrically however, this is one of, if not the, strongest track on the album. Jay Z wants everyone to know of the legacy he and his family is leaving behind once he leaves the game, however it can also be the legacy that black culture has left on society, being powerful and having the power to suffer through adversity.
Jay Z will always be one of the greats, without question. His achievements in the music, business and spousal world are extraordinary. Accumulating almost one billion dollars in one lifetime is an achievement worthy of a statue. It remains to be seen whether this album will be talked about in the same vein as Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint, even though it really shouldn’t be. With how far Jay Z has come as an artist and as a person, the album is almost indistinguishable from any of Jay’s previous works. In reality, 4:44 isn’t a Jay Z album, it’s a Shawn Carter album. And a bloody good one at that.
Review Score: 9.1 out of 10.
4:44 is out now.