The name JAY-Z brings to mind many things: one of the most successful careers in rap and popular music history, an ahead-of-the-curve businessman, the husband of pop darling Beyoncé, but seldom does Shawn Carter come to mind. With the intrinsic pretence of celebrity culture often putting an emotional barrier between the TV, film or music personality and the masses consuming their work, it’s often all too easy to view the very real and very human struggles of a superstar simply as entertainment or gossip for consumption. This is most definitely true for mainstream rappers, many of whom will employ hyperbole as to erect a façade that adds to their persona. Even in the case of someone like JAY-Z, whose tales of drug-dealing and gun fights are very real, accounts of such events in his lyrics can nonetheless be consumed as if they were stories told for entertainment, so cogently translating the emotional ramifications of such a lifestyle can easily prove rather arduous. What’s more, with Beyoncé releasing what was undoubtedly the greatest album of her career thus far, Lemonade, last year to record-breaking commercial success, many of her reflections on personal issues became somewhat of a public spectacle, particularly her exploration of JAY-Z’s infidelity, with the infamous “Becky with the good hair” line practically breaking the Internet and becoming one of the most recognisable lyrics of 2016. It was inevitable that JAY-Z would respond to his wife’s openness with regards to his disloyalty on his next musical project, and this is indeed the case on his 13th solo studio album, 4:44, but what was not assured was the fact that the rapper would come through with a consistently intimate undertaking that shows him at perhaps his most human at any point in his career. In short, 4:44 feels less like a JAY-Z album and more like a Shawn Carter album. This dismantling of his business tycoon status and hip hop heavy-hitter machismo in favour of a more meditative and personal lyrical attitude is mirrored by the record’s production and its very structure. With the album’s beats handled exclusively by Chicago DJ No. I.D., 4:44 is the first JAY-Z project to feature only one producer, and this decision plays directly to the strengths of its entire philosophy. Indeed, it seems that few more fitting producers could have been selected to oversee the record’s production, as No I.D. provides a selection of appropriately stripped-down and sparse instrumentals that set aside the glitz and glamour of many of the club bangers associated with JAY-Z. As minimal as many of these beats may be, however, there is seldom a moment during which the production is uninteresting, rather No. I.D.’s contributions from behind the desk strike a potent balance between subtlety and intimacy, allowing JAY-Z all the room he needs for his inward reflections. Ultimately, in disregarding myopic appeals to mainstream rap trends, as was often the case with his previous release, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, in favour of an uncharacteristically skeletal, minimal and personal sound and style, JAY-Z’s 4:44 unequivocally marks the most unique album in the rapper’s two-decade-long career, whilst the composure with which he approaches this means of catharsis makes for one of his most compelling projects overall too.
To say that the entirety of 4:44 is dedicated to an open apology to Beyoncé would be a misapprehension, but the album is undoubtedly framed around JAY-Z’s attempts at atonement through self-deconstruction, hence why the MC tackles his adulterous past most explicitly on the title track, which is also positioned as the central song in the tracklisting. Before the rapper can get to seeking remorse for his actions, however, it seems as if he is first determined to prove that he is coming from a place of honesty and sincerity, with the opening track, Kill Jay Z, being the first ever instance in which JAY-Z has actively attempted to strip away his ego, substituting his usual bombastic swagger with a level of self-deprecation that comes across almost as a diss track levelled against himself. Firstly, it should be mentioned that, as someone who is particularly pedantic when it comes to correctly stylising the name of an artist or album, the decision for the artist to officially alter the stylisation of his name from ‘Jay Z’ to ‘JAY-Z’ prior to the release of 4:44 was a bigger deal to me than it likely was to most people. The confusion, therefore, that came when seeing that the official stylisation of this opening song is ‘Kill Jay Z’ led to a lengthy perusal of the Internet to ensure that I had indeed not been misinformed. Sure enough, both of these stylisation decisions seem to have been deliberate, and it comes across as if this is because of the new chapter 4:44 marks in JAY-Z’s career. With this knowledge, Kill Jay Z doesn’t seem so much to be a diss track levelled against himself, more than it is a diss track of Jay Z by JAY-Z, in that the MC is looking on his former self and openly condemning his past behaviour from the perspective of his supposedly transformed self. In this sense, although the violent imagery of killing Jay Z may seem hyperbolic, it is literal, to an extent. With this in mind, the ensuing barrage of the rapper’s usual witty wordplay and droll double entendres makes for some of the most arresting bars to feature on a JAY-Z song in quite some time. The way in which, for instance, the MC deals with his numerous ongoing disputes with Kayne West with an admirably level-headed attitude — rightfully pointing out West’s faults in handling these situations, at the same time as having the mirror constantly held up to himself — whilst balancing an impressively intricate interplay of puns makes for an incredibly strong selection of couplets. In establishing a significant amount of distance between his present and past selves, JAY-Z installs an effective framework for conveying ideas and opinions that could have made him look like a hypocrite or an egotist were he still tied to Jay Z. Whether it be his loss of interest in mimicking popular trends of contemporary hip hop on Moonlight or the impressive pararhymes he employs on Bam when offering advice to up-and-coming rappers regarding the formation of their own artistic identities, the grounded philosophy with which JAY-Z approaches his more modest lyrical angle across 4:44 injects his lectures with a balance of both emotional and aspirational potency, resulting in an album that bears a greater significance to the musician’s personality than any other release of his from the past decade, and perhaps beyond.
Of course, most eyes will unquestionably be on whether or not this tone shift of JAY-Z’s character will translate into an appropriately wholehearted, profound and honest apology to Beyoncé for his infidelity, which, as previously mentioned, is covered most extensively on the title track. His ruminations across this track are undoubtedly debatable with regards to how cogent his expressions of remorse are, but if there is one striking quality to his apology, it’s the fact 4:44 blows Kill Jay Z out of the water when it comes to JAY-Z’s exhibition of his disdain for his actions. Particularly concerning the impact that his adulterous behaviour will have on his children when they are old enough to comprehend the situation, the rapper comes across as genuinely incandescent at himself for his actions. With lines like, “My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes” being paired with the acceptance of the fact that, in his children’s eyes, he can do no wrong, JAY-Z compares himself to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, in that, just as one day his kids’ fantasies of these folklorish figures will be shattered by a cruel realisation of reality, so too will their fictitious image of their perfect father figure. With many of the other ideas presented by the MC throughout the track, such as chalking his ability to toy with women’s emotions up to his former self being cold and emotionless or deriding himself for not being as supportive as he could have been following his wife’s miscarriage, displaying him in a state of intimacy and vulnerability unlike any of his previous lyrical endeavours, the proficiency with which JAY-Z is able to suddenly transition into such an attitude, regardless of how potent or sufficient one personally perceives his apology to be, is unquestionably compelling, especially given just how much his previous persona was based around businessman bravado.
A great deal of the power of JAY-Z’s exceptionally personal attitude on 4:44 circles back to No. I.D.’s production. The DJ’s skeletal instrumentals and well-integrated soul and jazz samples are more evocative of cult beat-making legends like J Dilla and Nujabes than they are of either his or JAY-Z’s usual sonic stylings, but, as such, his production maintains a muted emotiveness that both provides the MC with all the room he needs for the heightened openness of his lyrical attitude, whilst also subtly engaging with and playing off his reflections. When factoring in the fact that even JAY-Z’s flows and overall delivery are much more restrained, minimal and palpably sensitive, 4:44 is an incredibly impressive feat based on just how uncharacteristically non-indulgent it is, with even the record’s runtime, which sees 36 minutes’ worth of material spread across 10 tracks, leaving little to no time for the rapper to succumb to the decadence of his past work. Previously, JAY-Z would be one of the last names to come to mind when considering a less-is-more attitude, but his chemistry with No. I.D.’s sparse instrumentals defies any assumptions that could have initially been made about his capability of adjusting to such an aesthetic. The way in which the samples of Hannah Williams’ fiery, soulful crooning soars above JAY-Z’s candid delivery on the title track or the dramatic gospel backdrop provided by the interpolations of The Clark Sisters’ Hey Ya interacts with his more animated and playful performance on Family Feud make for no shortage of endearing interplay between the DJ and the MC. What’s more, the very choice of which songs to sample carries a substantial amount of thematic weight to many of these cuts, in that the meaning of, or context surrounding, these sampled songs will often be pivotal to the significance of JAY-Z’s own meditations. The inclusion of excerpts from Four Women by Nina Simone on The Story of O.J., for example, sees the legendary jazz singer’s stories of four female African-American archetypes parallel the rapper’s own reflections on the unified heritage and experiences of all black people living in the United States, regardless of what position in society they happen to find themselves in currently. Perhaps even more emotionally pertinent, however, is the aforementioned sampling of Hannah Williams & The Affirmations’ Late Nights & Heartbreak on the title track, which is similarly confessional, apologetic and self-deprecating, as the Northern soul singer asks her partner why he still wants her, despite how badly she has treated him. There are inevitably a few nitpicks to be had with the consistency of this attitude towards the production value, with, for instance, the prolonged outro passage from Damian Marley on Bam being unnecessarily lengthy in a way that blunts the fluidity of the track to an extent, but for the most part, No I.D.’s soulful beats encapsulate the minimal sensibility of 4:44, whilst nevertheless retaining a slightly luscious edge that keeps his production consistently interesting, but in a way that never overshadows JAY-Z’s sincere and intimate contemplations.
4:44 is unequivocally an outlier in JAY-Z’s hefty discography, but whether or not it will remain that way or, instead, mark the beginning of a fully-fledged change in character for the MC going into the future is another matter. Although it may seem as if continuously prevailing as the oddity in his back-cataolgue will heighten the emotional weight of 4:44, the fact of the matter is that completely committing to this more low-key and earnest philosophy on future material will work to the benefit of this album, strengthening its sincere sensibilities through a consistent practical application. In this sense, although the fact that 4:44 is one of JAY-Z’s most forceful and successful endeavours in at least a decade and that it is so inextricably tied to the recent circumstances of his personal life may give the impression that this record will perhaps be somewhat of a one-off, as long as the MC is able to approach his subsequent undertakings with a matched degree of dignity, poise and control, there’s no reason why 4:44 has to be the first and last of its kind. In fact, given that the album employs only one producer and a relatively stripped back sonic palette, 4:44 is perhaps the perfect starting point for a new chapter in JAY-Z’s career, as he has opened up so many new avenues for himself, should he choose to take them. Either way, the nuance and level-headedness with which JAY-Z approaches the deconstruction and destruction of his former ego on 4:44 will forever stand as a defining and pivotal moment in his artistic development, and the fact that the musician has continued to evolve in such a drastic fashion so far into his career encompasses the outlook that has allowed him to continuously stay at the top of the rap game. It feels good to have Shawn Carter back.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10