What started as a myth shrouded in mystery soon turned to a reality last week, with Jay-Z delivering his 13th studio album in the form of 4:44. Limiting his fans to track features and the occasional politically charged song over the last 4 years, what Jay would bring to the table with this release was largely unknown. What eventuated was Jigga’s most concise and transparently personal album yet.
Spanning just over 37 minutes, one could make the argument for it to be marketed as an EP rather than an album, however the quality of the material and No I.D’s punctual production strongly contest this. In cuts like ‘4:44′ and ‘Family Feud’, Jay self-exposes his infidelity during his marriage to Beyoncé, citing ménage à trois and Lemonade’s notorious Becky, whilst the rest of the album sees him take jabs at Prince’s estate management, address the current culture-fissioning conflict between himself and protege-turned-equal Kanye West, and discuss the financial, cultural, and structural issues facing black people in America today.
Jay-Z has always had a knack for speaking his mind in an intelligent but often masked manner. He’s not known as the king of subliminal disses for nothing. This is where 4:44 stands out from its predecessors – never in his 21 year career have his lyrics been so explicitly opinionated and personal. At times the listener is engulfed in an overwhelming sense of undeserved confidentiality, as if you’re reading the deepest, darkest secrets of someone’s journal. In this way, what the album sometimes lacks in bars and delivery, it makes up for in the brash honesty and high quality of its content.
If Jay-Z could select any one producer to transmit this transparency over, only a handful of names come to mind. There’s frequent collaborators Timbaland, Just Blaze, and The Neptunes, but their bounce would likely be a misfit for much of the heartfelt content of this project. We’ve seen him get on a chipmunk soul “I miss the old Kanye” beat and showcase his emotional thug persona, but given the current status of their relationship it’s clear why this couldn’t eventuate.
Enter No I.D.
With an extensive previous catalogue and close personal relationship, No I.D. perfectly filled the job description for what Jay had in mind for this project. On top of this, No I.D. later proved to shape the direction of certain songs, intentionally crafting the beat to “4.44” in a way to spur Jay into discussing his marital issues by sampling Hannah Williams and the Affirmations’ like-themed song ‘Late Nights and Heart Breaks’.
No I.D. provides the entirety of the album’s loop and sample-driven production, which is classic and revolutionary simultaneously. This plays a large role in Jay delivering an album that allows for mature dad-rap sprinkled with elderly gems of wisdom while not coming across as condescending or out of touch. No I.D’s talent for creating a signature but incredibly versatile sound elevates the delivery on 4.44, providing the consistent sound that all great albums possess (at least if you ask Q-Tip).
Jay’s crude honesty on this album has received an arguably unjust amount of backlash, being labelled as anti-Semitic and degrading to the plight of the African American. ‘The Story of O.J’ is a track that has been at the centre of this controversy, containing an n-word heavy hook, lines that crown Jewish people as the kings of generational property wealth, and visuals containing a series of animated allusions to African American slavery. However, by juxtaposing the historical financial success of Jewish business men and women with the wasteful monetary decisions which engulf much of hip-hop’s culture, Jay-Z is empowering Jewish business acumen as the roadmap for financial success. Hov doesn’t bite his tongue on 4.44 and shows no mercy for those offended by his brash delivery, rapping on ‘Family Feud’, “Y’all stop me when I stop telling the truth.”
4.44 is an album that doesn’t try to deceive the listener into thinking it’s anything other than what it is. There’s no Metro Boomin snare rolls or attempts to replicate the moody vocoder of a Travis Scott. This is 47 year old, married with 3 kids-Jay-Z rapping as just that, as opposed to the leather snapback-wearing persona during the Watch the Throne and Magna Carta Holy Grail days. It sees the ego of Jay-Z taking a backseat to the vulnerability of Shawn Carter. Oddly enough, this dismissal of the hip older uncle persona for a wise father figure is what keeps the listener enthralled with every previously unknown admission that is dropped on 4.44. His truth resonates with people of all ages that are willing to listen.
With 4.44, Hov has entered unchartered territory, venturing out into the waters that challenge the typical mindset that hip hop is a young man’s game. When it comes to mature rap albums of comparable quality, only Nas’ Life Is Good comes to mind. If nothing else, this ability to successfully deliver an album sprinkled with fatherly advice and grown cultural viewpoints while not coming off as stagnant or pretentious is one of the album’s premier achievements. Yet this evaluation ignores Hov’s incredible ability to keep his fans enthralled and bemused as to what more he has to offer, only to tirade them with unspoken personal insights and vulnerabilities – and this is 21 years and 13 albums into his career. When it comes to rap, Jay-Z proves with 4.44 that there is no age limit on greatness, providing another masterclass in longevity.