Jay-Z digs deep and delivers his best album in years.
It's been ten years since Jay-Z released a decent album. That's hard to believe, considering that you rarely hear people call him "washed" or say that he "fell off," but earning over 50 million dollars a year tends to overshadow boring music. Coincidentally, the main reason latter-day Jay's music is boring is that those earnings have overshadowed everything else he used to rap about. Jay's now two decades removed from the crack chronicles that formed the basis of Reasonable Doubt, and I'm pretty certain that no one wants a 60-minute rehash from a guy who probably hasn't ridden the subway in the last quarter century, but what about the pitfalls, paranoia, and regrets? Surely those don't all disappear when your net worth ($810 million) is higher than twelve countries' GDPs?
Perhaps Lemonade is what needed to happen to get Hov back inside his own head, removed from the Picassos and Tom Ford suits except when contemplating how they affect those around him. "I'm so fly I'm on autopilot" is something he rapped in 2008 on a Lil Wayne song, and although it was meant as a boast, it became the guiding principle of his music for the next nine years. Blueprint 3 and Magna Carta Holy Grail were boast-fests with little room for emotion unless it was an empty sentiment like, "Let's just stay in the moment, smoke some weed, drink some wine." There was no drama, no conflict. The closest precedent to the detailed nuclear family observations on 4:44 is BP3's "Venus Vs. Mars," which reads like a fifth grader's poem in comparison: "Me I'm from the Apple, which means I'm a Mac/She's a PC, she lives in my lap."
Compare that dated punchline to verse three in "Family Feud," in which Jay paraphrases a Michael Corleone quote on family and parallels it to his own situation in a few bars, and you'd think we switched over from Machine Gun Kelly's "Bad Things" to Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Jay used to be able to turn drug deals into Greek tragedies, so it was especially painful to hear him espouse platitudes and shallow wordplay about the everyday life of moguldom and power-couplehood, ripe subjects in other media that remain under-explored in hip hop. Even if 4:44 isn't a direct response to Lemonade (and 90% of the time, it isn't), Hov being cut down to size by his wife, the world's biggest pop star, seems to have worked wonders for his ambitions in songwriting.
Here, Jay's past informs his present ("You shot your own brother/How can we know if we can trust Jay Z?"), but he's most concerned with his future. 4:44's a confessional in which Hov cops to crimes, infidelities, and emotional abuse, but not in the Catholic sense, where sins are absolved by admittance and simple penance-- this is self-help rap, and not just in a business school context. He repents and promises change in his relationships, his financial goals, and most importantly, his emotions. Hearing anyone man up to this degree would be powerful, but when it's the stoic hustler who once had to make a song cry because he himself was incapable of tears, and he's telling us, "I promised, I cried, I couldn't hold/I suck at love, I think I need a do-over," it's impossible to not gain some respect.
Of course, none of this would matter if Jay was rapping as poorly as he was on MCHG ("Twerk, twerk/Miley, Miley"), or if the beats were terrible, but neither is the case. Hov has a clunker or two-- especially when he says he felt "dumbo" for passing on a chance to buy a building in Dumbo before it was Dumbo-- but there's far more moments that remind us why we first got hooked on his personal brand of smooth wordplay. Chief among them is this pun and internal rhyme-filled passage from "Marcy Me":
"Streets is my artery, the vein of my existence
I'm the Gotham City heartbeat
I started in lobbies, now parley with Saudis
I'm a Sufi to goofies, I could probably speak Farsi
That's poetry, reek of coca leaf in my past
Came through the bushes smellin' like roses
I need a trophy just for that"
Jay does a good job of acting his age and not attempting to ride new waves, but his biggest pitfalls come not from outright bad bars, but from sentiments that make us recognize his age in a negative light. Lyrics decrying strip club spending and money-to-the-ear pictures are especially rich coming from an almost-billionaire, and the "Jewish people own all the property in America" quote is a dated and dangerous way of thinking. In the scope of his discography, Jay's performance on 4:44 is to me, in the B or B- range-- admirable for its honesty and return-to-form, but regrettable at times for its persistent fealty to capitalism and respectability. It's really No I.D.'s performance on the album that elevates it to one of the year's best projects.
The first-ever producer with the honor of producing an entire Jay album himself, the Chicago veteran honed in on a very specific, contained aesthetic that perfectly suits 4:44's aims. Soul samples, some very recognizable, some not so much, provide an emotional canvas that almost begs for Jay's innermost thoughts-- could you imagine him rapping about cars over Nina Simone? They provide links to Hov's forebears, to emotions that he's had trouble accessing in his music in recent years. They're chopped up in interesting and repetitive ways that often recall J Dilla, a product of No I.D. playing "the samples like I would play an instrument." He might even be more responsible for the album's concept than Jay himself is. In a recent interview, the producer remembered a conversation with Hov in which he urged him to explore the issues in his life that lie under the glitz and glamor: "You wanted a Picasso, but why? You're with Beyoncé, but what is that really like? What's the pressure? What's the responsibility? What's the ups and downs? I wanted him to not be over people's heads."
4:44 is an argument for honesty, acting one's age, and perhaps most obviously, brief, one-producer projects. Jay will never reach the conquering heights of The Blueprint ever again, but this album proves that settling for the hyper-personal, meaningful, and succinct over the grandiose is a winning formula at age 47. Recent projects by contemporaries like Snoop Dogg, Prodigy (RIP), DJ Quik, and Ghostface Killah have also found paydirt in this equation, but as he's done quite a few times in his career, Jay proves that he's not your average MC by going above and beyond expectations.