My Rating: 8/10 ♣
“It’s like Jay can’t drop bars these days without at least four art references,” Drake boldly says in an interview in 2014. And that’s exactly what this thing is; an artistic “fine wine,” or “aged cheese,” if you will. 4:44, is a record unlike any of Jay-Z’s previous works. A once young, “gangsta,” and drug-dealing Jay-Z is now a father, businessman, husband, and thanks to this project, a sophisticated and venturesome artist. Club-bangers, fire beats, or youthful braggadocio are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get an intimate, vulnerable and cathartic rap album that is low-key, and admirably retrospective.
Prominent aural and literary artifacts (a.k.a old music samples, and allusions) are probably the most striking feature on “4:44,” and make for the whole aged and “fine wine,” vibe. On “Smile,” the instrumental roots from a sample off of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love today,” song, giving an olden, 80’s feel. Here, Jay-Z looks back on bad memories, talking about his past struggles to sign with a label, a seemingly racist political system, and even his mom’s homosexuality. The outro is a moving poem recited by his mother, in which she asserts the importance of being free and not hiding your pain and hardships, and this is something you cant ever find on any one of Jay-Z’s previous albums; it was amazing. “Caught their eyes,” is an average track with a nice sample from “Baltimore,” by Nina Simone, a prodigious, 80’s jazz-influenced singer. This song explains the struggles of Jay-Z with his surroundings and challenges that he overcame. On the second verse, Jay interestingly lashes out at Prince’s (the Rock superstar) former attorney for blatantly wanting to monetarily capitalize from his death; “You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house, I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.” In the last verse, Jay quotes the U.S Army counsel from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, in which he defends communist-convicted Fred Fisher to senator Joseph McCarthy: “Look, you’ve done enough, Have you no sense of decency, sir?
At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
“Marcy-Me,” is another track that exemplifies the aged taste to this album. The instrumental has some really nice melodious pianos, crisp intermittent percussion, and some really soulful singing in the end. He’s basically reminiscing about his days in Marcy Houses, Brooklyn where “The boys die by the thousand,” and the time when he dreamed of making it as a rapper and being successful. He remarkably even quotes a verse from the fabled Shakespearean play Hamlet; “Lord, we know who we are yet we know not what we may be,” describing the inquisitiveness and innocence of his youth years. At the end, despite talking about his metamorphosis from a delinquent teen to being one of the best MC’s of all time, he emotionally states he will always be that kid from the streets of Brooklyn: “Just the way I am always gonna be, I ain’t gonna change, no Marcy, Marcy me, just the way I am.” The way this was powerfully written and produced, made me vicariously experience the ethos of being brought up in Marcy Houses, Brooklyn where racial injustice and bloodshed was so commonplace, and I was just moved by it. “The story of O.J,.” also uses a historically prominent music chop, interpolating the “My skin is black,” vocals from “4 women,” by Nina Simone again, a song which reflects on the detriment of black slavery on women in the U.S. While that is so politically potent, this song is kind of a miss. Those nice vocals are interpolated more into eccentric screeches on the song, which was kinda distasteful. The title also alludes to the “The Story of O,” a famous French novel written in 1954 about dominance and submission, reflecting on the author’s personal experiences with sexual abuse. In terms of the theme, it is slightly messy and unclear. The O.J. Simpsons case alluded here was labelled as the “Trial of the century,” due to the level of controversy it brought, and highlighted the turbulent relations between the black community in L.A and the LAPD. The line “I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” which O.J. in fact said while imprisoned was quite memorable, but this theme wasn’t reinforced in the lyrics. Jay jumps from all the labels people tack on African-Americans, to investing your money wisely, and his retirement from the gang life, confusing the listener about what he’s trying to come across. I appreciate the ambition nonetheless, especially if you watch the animated music video which almost does a better job of expressing Jay’s ideas towards racialism in the song.
Despite all these big references from the pillars of music and literature in the 1900’s, this album is not all old-fart balderdash, and there are some more modern beats and accessible songs. “Kill Jay Z,” the abrupt opening track, is just brilliant, both conceptually and instrumentally. It is what millennials like myself, call a “Diss track,” except he’s dissing himself. He kills his own ego, talking about his regrets and bad traits like drug-dealing, shooting his own brother, and dropping out of school. The beats on here are catchily dark, and ambient with some cool intermittent sirens, and is easily one of the best songs on the whole LP. “Moonlight,” was another standout track with these pleasant “La La La,” notes interpolated from producer Salaam Remi. It is an atmospheric song with party-music undertones where he fires at the boring, and dull state of modern rap. “Y’all fuck the same fuckin’ chicks,” is an analogy I couldn’t agree more with. You go on SoundCloud today, and the whole rap genre reeks so much of the same fucking beats, lyrics, and flows that it gives you a brain tumor if you listen too long. However, Jay is not compelling with this argument. I like the song because I totally get what he’s saying, but someone on the other side would not at all feel convinced from his point of view, because at 2 and a half minutes, his rapping is way too skeletal and vague to be powerful; he should have elaborated more. “4:44,” the title track, is the most memorable song on the entire album. It’s an open-letter apology to his wife Beyoncé, for his notorious infidelities. Its nothing like I’ve ever heard before. I’ve heard of cheesy Taylor Swift break up songs, and numerous songs of rappers lamenting about losing a loved one or regretting being with them, but this is different. He talks about his unethical proclivity to “womanize,” the miraculous birth of their twin girls after multiple miscarriages, and even the possibility of her “Being over,’‘ his “shit”. He even throws a whole fucking verse for the kids, likening himself to Santa Claus and the Tooth-fairy, as in his kids will inevitably find out about him cheating on their mom just like they will find out that Santa doesn’t actually exist. The instrumental is laced with some elaborate and amazing vocals from Hannah Williams, which is actually the most prominent and conspicuous sound on the song, interestingly. This whole concept was a very bold risk that Jay took, and he delivered with my utmost admiration.
“Family Feuds,” the subsequent track, now has a high-tempo Beyoncé-vocalized instrument-bed, perhaps denoting an improvement in their torn relationship. Those instrument-like vocals however, both on “4:44,” and “Family Feud,” do get kind of annoying after a few listens, because of how focal they are, and the concept of “Family feud,” being kind of scattered and muddy anyway, it wasn’t a track that I particularly enjoyed. In contrast to “Kill Jay-Z,” and the closest thing to a radio-friendly or lit song is “Bam,” where Jay acknowledges his hard work and success. The instrumental is a catchy Reggae-Pop mix, and Damian Marley, son of the late and great Bob Marley, recites the chorus, adding a bit of diversity to the listening experience of this LP. In the closing track “Legacy,” Jay is giving a verbal will to his daughter, a very fatherly yet unusual moment for the listener. There are some really appreciable and slightly prophetic bars here talking about generational wealth, how and who to distribute the extortionate amount of money he’ll leave behind, and the twisted and terrible ways the world works in and to never give up. The instrumentation features some minimalistic Jazz production with light trumpets leading the base, and its an interesting, but not overly impressive way to end the record.
All in all, I really like this project. There are some really rich and ambient beats on here as well as a wealth of experience from Jay-Z brought to the table that no young rapper can bring. However, lines about Jewish people owning all the property in America, and being wise with your money, were weak and boring. Based on some research, black capitalism and financial wisdom are intended major themes on this album, but they were too inarticulate and nondescript for my taste. And that experience Jay has, doesn’t often translate to any major insight or wisdom. For trying to address larger issues in America, I was left thirsty in a sense, wanting more. At ten tracks, this album should’ve been way more dense, and potent than it is. Using a plethora of historically prominent music samples would’ve made more sense if he had said or depicted something that would be more historically prominent too. And it is important to note that that flaw only comes from him attempting to sound prophetic or grand with that boring financial, and economic crap. Other than that, this is a solid album. Emotional rawness, intimacy, and artistic retrospect make this record a truly unique listen. For experimenting with a new sound, and conceptually transcending all his previous 12 flamboyant rap albums, Jay has done a great job. 4:44, is a venture into the personal life and viscera of Jay-Z, and the result is a musically rich album, with some admirably introspective, and cathartic cuts. This album is a solid 8/10.