Jay-Z’s 4:44 is equal parts confessional, self-help seminar and marketing ploy/product and even with those distinctions is still absolutely worth a listen.
The album in comprised of 10 relatively short songs (there are rumors of bonus cuts on the physical release) that all make one point each before ending abruptly. Songs like “Family Feud” and the title track explicitly address the rumors of Hov’s infidelity in his marriage to Beyonce and finally provide his response to his wife’s Lemonade and his sister-in-law’s A Seat at the Table. On these tracks he’s incredibly transparent and apologetic about his meandering ways, a rare instance of an MC dealing with relationships in an incredibly adult manner while providing somewhat of a bookend to the incident that started with the security footage on that elevator and continued with both releases by the Knowles’ sisters.
Other songs address his friendship/partnership with Kanye West (“Kill Jay-Z”), the current state of his original crew (“Marcy Me”) and his mother’s life (“Smile”), these are some of the most powerful cuts on the project as they show a different side of Shawn Carter than even diehard fans have seen before.
The album also showcases Jay’s full transition from “Can I Live?” (arguably the highlight of his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt) to “How to Live…” with “The Story of OJ” and “Legacy” discussing why buying real estate is better than buying lap dances and how building generational wealth is the key to true freedom in America. Jay-Z has touched on these topics extensively throughout his career (on his first album he was advising fans to buy instead of lease cars), but while other rapper’s business advice sounds like an excuse to brag, his seems heartfelt and financially sound.
Finally, the album is a product (Hov didn’t become a billionaire by giving away this stuff for free) in that it’s a Tidal/Sprint exclusive, and fairly difficult to attain without a paid membership. Obviously it will eventually be made available on all streaming services, physical copies will be released and it will be bootlegged online, but the fact that a rapper that is nearly 50 years old with over two decades in the game has enough juice to move the needle by releasing an album this way is a testament to his career, business acumen and impact on multiple generations of fans.
Musically, the album is produced entirely by Chicago’s No I.D., the producer responsible for most of Common’s early records and Jay-Z’s smash “D.O.A. Death Of Autotune” and the beats are equal parts soulful and aggressive to provide a minimalist backdrop that is not overbearing as Jay bares his soul. The rhyming is typically spectacular (Jay-Z was recently inducted into the Song Writer’s Hall of Fame and this album is further proof that he absolutely deserved the honor). The lyrics are dense with metaphors, double entendre and references ranging from Al Sharpton’s selfies to Future’s baby-mama situation while still sticking to the theme of each song.
Like most rappers with decades of material (Nas, Eminem, Tech N9ne, etc.) Jay-Z has in some ways improved as an MC as he’s eased into middle age (economy of words, innovative flows, etc.) and while that might not appeal to casual fans or the mumble-rap-loving younger demographic, longtime Hip-Hop heads will definitely appreciate his skills.
4:44 differs from most Jay-Z projects in that there are no clear singles. His early albums all contained songs clearly aimed at clubs/radio (“Can I Get A…” “Big Pimpin’” etc.), his later albums all had songs clearly designed for stadium performances (“Empire State of Mind”, “N…In Paris” etc.) but this feels like a much smaller, intimate affair. These songs are made more for headphones than dance floors or arenas. This is an interesting transition for a rapper, whereas most continue to chase hits and relevancy by working with hot producers and collaborating with younger artists, Jay-Z has matured more like a rock artist (Bowie, Springsteen, U2) in the way he realizes he can tour and profit endlessly from his catalog and seems more interested in making music he finds interesting and important and releasing it in innovative ways than being on any charts or countdowns.
4:44 is being billed as Jay-Z’s thirteenth studio album (he’s released closer to 20 projects counting collaborative LPs, mixtapes, live albums, etc.) and where it will ultimately fall in that extensive list remains to be seen. While it doesn’t appear to have massive hits like some of his earlier albums, it does appear to have enough quality music, interesting concepts and honesty to stay in the conversation for a while and be yet another feather in Jay-Z’s Roc Nation hat.
Best Songs: The Story of OJ, 4:44, Bam (feat. Damian Marley)
Perfect For: Getting motivated to be a better person either personally or financially
Jay Z 4:44 Score: