After two decades of chart-topping hits and record-breaking sales, Jay Z’s place at the table of great hip-hop artists was never under threat. However, with his latest album, 4:44, he may just have moved to the head of said table. His thirteenth studio album is his most personal and honest work to date, serving as a response to multiple events over his career, not just a musician, but also as business and a family man.
The album also gets really personal starting with the leading track “Kill Jay Z,” which serves as self-refection by summing up his personal flaws and inner-battles. He brings up his past crimes, his present relationships with long-time collaborator and friend Kanye West, his feud with Solange (to which he admits to himself, “All along, all you had to say was you were wrong”.) It also addresses what is possibly one of the most talked about topics surrounding his life, “Did the mogul cheat or not?”
4:44 is the breather in an era when rapping has become a platform to talk about money, spending recklessly, and being disrespectful to women. While he doesn’t shy away from the fact that he is one of the wealthiest business men of our time, Jay Z manages to not sound flashy. He uses his success as a business and life lesson to anyone—especially Blacks—who aspire to make it in America. This message is showcased on tracks like “Family Feud” and “The Story of OJ,” where he promotes responsible investments and encourages African-Americans to support businesses in their own communities (“You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit.”// “What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially if they’re from the same hue as you.”)
The production of the album is reminiscent of old school hip hop and is very consistent throughout, as a result of No ID being the sole lead producer. The album is thus heavily packed with samples, which can get overwhelming, but in no way distract from the message being delivered.
One of the most powerful tracks on the album, “Smile,” finds Jay Z looking back on his life and career and realizing how far he’s come, (a realization that also comes on the track “Marcy Me”). Although most of the song does come off as boastful, it confirms to listeners that hard work does pay off. He also brings in his own mom for a spoken word cameo, in which she speaks about her sexuality for the first time and uses this coming-out as an example of freedom (“But life is short, and it’s time to be free/Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed. Smile.”)
“4:44,” the title track, is a confessed apology that Jay Z delivers with the most honest words and vulnerable vocals. His vocals are carried over a soulful sample of “Late Nights and Heartbreak” by Hannah Williams and the Affirmations. “I suck at love, I think I need a do over,” he says, showing his readiness and commitment to be a better man and a better father.
While some Jay Z fans might feel alienated from this album, he conveys his message well to an audience that—he hopes—is more self-conscious and aspired. 4:44 is a solid masterpiece, which all but confirms Jay Z as one of the greatest lyrical artists of the last few decades.