These moments don’t happen. Hip-hop is a young man’s game. But for one night, the music universe revolved around JAY-Z, the sport’s finest elder statesman, with the release of his 13th studio album, 4:44.
The 10-track 4:44 is the most emotionally taxing project of JAY’s (he’s back to all caps) career. Ernest “No I.D.” Wilson, who produced JAY’s 2009 “Run This Town” and “Death of Autotune,” as well as 2007’s “Success,” among others, is the album’s lone producer, and he is irreplaceable. No I.D.’s music is more than just “beats,” or instrumentals. Without No I.D.’s soulful backdrops (inspired by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Kool & The Gang and more), 4:44 might lack the emotional connection it not only thrives on but quite literally survives on. But in the end it is JAY’s inward glimpse of himself — the man he was, the man he’s become, the man he grew to partially hate — that separates this album from his previous bodies of work.
Yet, where 4:44 will land in the rankings of JAY-Z’s catalog is a question better left for time. Off the rip, though, this is the greatest rapper of all time stripping himself down to essentials. It’s the project fans and critics have clamored for, for years: the authentic Jay Z. The desire has been for him to curb the flaunting of luxuries and come with the real on what it’s like to be one of the most successful people in the world — and also one of its most haunted.
But the writing had been on the wall. With his wife, Beyoncé, and his sister-in-law, Solange, using their last albums for their most personal work, it’s no surprise 4:44 unmasks itself as JAY at his emotional and creative zenith.
Fourteen months ago, and 10 days before the release of Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated opus Lemonade, JAY-Z had a decision to make. On April 13, 2016, the final night of the NBA’s regular season, history was going to happen one way or the other. Would he fly to Oakland, California, for the Golden State Warriors’ record-setting 73rd win? Or sit courtside for Kobe Bryant’s final game with the Los Angeles Lakers? It was, to quote Marlo Stanfield, one of them good problems.
JAY chose to watch Bryant punctuate his first-ballot Hall of Fame career in the most Kobe Bryant way possible: 60 points on 50 shots in a five-point victory over the Utah Jazz, scoring or assisting on the final 19 points. The onslaught was the swan song of one of the culture’s most divisive, polarizing and accomplished spirits — a moment only dreams could create and talent, ambition and maniacal competitiveness could materialize. Neither could have envisioned that night 20 years earlier.
Bryant and JAY, despite nine years separating them, came into the public’s eye together. Reasonable Doubt, the corner-boy manifesto and classic hip-hop debut, arrived on June 25, 1996. A day later, the Charlotte Hornets drafted a 17-year-old Bryant, only to send him to Los Angeles in return for Vlade Divac. Both JAY and Bryant escaped the shadows of their larger-than-life predecessors, The Notorious B.I.G. and Michael Jordan, to carve their own places in history. But on that spring 2016 night in downtown Los Angeles, JAY witnessed a peer, one of the few in America who understands what it’s like to be that famous for that long, walk away from the game he changed in that manner. JAY certainly didn’t need a great album to call it a career on — in the same way Bryant didn’t need a historic game to cement his stature among basketball’s all-time greats. But still, the game had to be inspirational.
“Wow,” was the only word a stunned JAY-Z could mutter as he watched Bryant further ascend toward immortality. Little was he aware the same would happen to him a year later.
Before the release of 4:44, a legit critique of JAY himself was, What could he possibly have to talk about that would be beneficial to rap in 2017? He’s one of the wealthiest men on the planet, with a portfolio that shows no signs of slowing. His business ventures have helped redefine the image of what long-term success looks like in America’s most influential and most critiqued music culture. The album itself bookends a monumental June 2017 for Shawn Carter: Kevin Durant, a flagship client of his Roc Nation Sports agency, captured his first NBA championship, and JAY himself was inducted, with a speech from President Barack Obama, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — the first rapper to be so honored. He also (with respect to the Obamas), makes up half of one of the most high-profile relationships in America, and he’s one of the few people in the world with direct lines to Jordan, Obama and LeBron James. And now he’s the father of three. And since he started from the bottom, so to speak, another valid concern is: Does JAY-Z even still have it anymore?
Sponsored listening parties for the album littered cities around the country. The one I attended, in Silver Spring, Maryland, was shut down by police for capacity reasons before the first song could be played. Speakers were moved outside the Sprint store where the session was to be held, ostensibly so the people stretching to the next block near a Whole Foods grocery store could hear the album. I went home.
It was for the best, too. As Jay’s confessions run deep, the album is perhaps best experienced solo. For years, I wondered how the trauma of shooting his brother, as he detailed on 1997’s “You Must Love Me,” followed him into rare heights of superstardom. I wondered how selling dope to people he loved may have left him with an inescapable sense of trauma. I wondered how often he reflected on having stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera, and how the incident nearly derailed his career. It’s all on 4:44. On the first track, at that. And more.
There’s an extended rebuttal (wildly and fairly speculated) to Kanye West on “Kill Jay-Z.”
You walkin’ round like you invincible / You dropped outta school, you lost your principles / I know people backstab you, I feel bad too / But this ‘f— everybody’ attitude ain’t natural / But you ain’t the same, this ain’t kumbaYe / But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinking / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, f— was he thinking? ‘F— wrong with everybody?’ is what you saying/ But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane.
On the same song, in the second person, come some truths about what spawned the infamous elevator footage featuring him, his wife and his sister-in-law:
You egged Solange on / Knowing all along, all you had to say was you was wrong / You almost went Eric Benet / Let the baddest girl in the world get away / I don’t even know what else to say / N—-, never go Eric Benet/ I don’t even know what you woulda done/ In the Future, other n—- playin’ football with your son.
And on “Smile” comes the touching reveal of his mother Gloria Carter’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.
Leaving little room for debate, the crux of the album is his marriage, and the image he sets in place for his three children. JAY’s demons are 4:44’s most enriching and difficult gifts. The emotional weight of his 2017 confessions rest on the timeline of his own words. JAY sat down with MTV for an interview in 1998 — in which, at 29, he discussed his views on love. “I loved the women I was with,” JAY said, “I loved things about them, but I’ve never been in love. They say love is forever. I never felt that forever type of thing. … I’ve never been away from anyone and … I can’t wait to get back to them. I guard myself. I won’t allow myself. But I know that. I’m on my way to recovery.”
Similar sentiments showed up two years later on Dynasty’s “Soon You’ll Understand”: It ain’t like I ain’t tell you from day one I ain’t s— / When it comes to relationships, I don’t have the patience / Now it’s too late, we got a little life together / And in my mind, I really want you to be my wife forever / But in the physical it’s like I’ma be trife forever.
The most important song on the album, by far, is the title track, “4:44.”
When Beyoncé dropped Lemonade last year, it was seen as the most empowering moment of her career. Comfortable in her own skin, she was openly uncomfortable in her own marriage. The Carters, who thrive in a carefully constructed privacy, were now a public case study — cracks in the armor were exposed. Conversely, Lemonade placed JAY in a position he’s rarely been in: not in control. The entire world knew of his apparent infidelity and how much of a toll it took on his marriage. He couldn’t jump in front of the narrative because he was the narrative. Big homie better grow up, Beyoncé warned on “Sorry.” He only want me when I’m not there.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade admissions are agony expressed through art. But it’s likely their private conversations stuck with JAY more. Anyone familiar with infidelity can replay the range of emotions and questions. Why would you do this? Do you love him/her? Was it something I did? You promised me trust and then you broke it. You promised me forever, but even forever has a time stamp. How do you explain this to our kids? These are the consequences of selfish decisions. And it’s these consequences that left JAY up at 4:44 a.m., drowning in guilt, writing a record he calls one of the best he’s ever written.
“4:44” is “Song Cry” with the threat of divorce court. Even worse, an illustration of the cycle of flawed fatherhood Jay swore to eradicate in himself. The song is the most personal glimpse into the Carters’ relationship — one he pursued, but admittedly wasn’t ready for — and how his transgressions nearly separated them.
Is JAY-Z’s karma to blame for Beyoncé’s 2013 miscarriage? Probably not, but hearing JAY blame himself for his lack of presence is haunting. It’s JAY fully peeling back layers of vulnerability through tears. And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about / Your eyes leave the soul that your body once housed, he raps. And you stare blankly into space / Thinking of all time you wasted in on all this basic s—. It’s on this song where the truest extent of what JAY has put Beyoncé through boils to the surface.
And of his kids looking at him differently once they inevitably uncover his truth, he raps I’d probably die with all the shame. Courtside seats, chats with Obama and nine-figure business deals mean nothing in the grand scheme to JAY. You did what with who? What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soul mate? What follows next is the question that packs such a punch it nearly stops the album in its tracks: You risked that for Blue?
A marriage is many things. Things happen that leave scars for a lifetime. No matter his bank account or influence, he is the reason that many parts of his life will never be the same. It’s a weight he’s been living with his entire life, since he sold his first brick of dope. Only this time, instead of drugs, it’s broken promises. Even JAY-Z can be his own worst enemy.
This is Shawn Corey Carter’s new life story told through rap.
Both the production and lyrics of 4:44 have a natural partner in his 2001 masterpiece The Blueprint. Only now, he’s accomplished everything he said he would. It sounds foolish to even suggest that JAY-Z, three decades after the release of his first album, could find himself in the running for Album of the Year in 2017, especially when so many, perhaps with merit, questioned if he even still cared about rapping anymore.
But his constancy remains unrivaled. He outlasted DMX and Mase. Looked Eminem in the eye. Thrived during the prolific runs of 50 Cent and Nelly. Raced Diddy to a billion. Came of age with Outkast. Helped introduce Kanye to the world. Broke bread with T.I., Rick Ross and Jeezy. Sized up, but ultimately respected, Lil Wayne. And dubbed Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake as leaders of new school — although the war of subliminals with the latter rages on to the present day. And he’s done it all with a responsibility no other artist in rap has had to carry.
My boy died, and all I did was inherit his stress, Jay rapped on 1998’s “It’s Alright,” referring to the late Notorious B.I.G. Hip-hop was never given the chance to see Biggie at 30. Or Tupac Shakur with children. JAY-Z achieved both. Rap has not been given the chance to heal from those wounds it helped create.
But it spared JAY-Z. He grew older while they stay forever young. These are the ghosts with whom Jay-Z has boxed for 20 years. He is the survivor of the cautionary tale.
The only thing left to say is what Jay said while watching Kobe drop 60. Wow.