JAY-Z has been and always will be untouchable.
Since he first stepped on the scene in his bulky leather coat, jumping from a helicopter to a white Lexus in the “Dead Presidents” video, the artist casually known as Shawn Carter has crafted his image to be a mob boss, the modern-day Frank Lucas. The streets of Marcy couldn’t touch him as he pushed crack, the rap game never saw his takeover of Def Jam coming, the music industry didn’t stop him from ushering in a new era with Roc-A-Fella, and pop culture bowed at the altar of one of the biggest music moguls in history. No matter who was popular, no matter who was critically-praised, no one had a throne built higher than Hov.
But most damage to a great empire comes from within, and JAY-Z took a big hit last year when Beyonce, who just so happens to have her own powerful musical empire, made an entire album out of his infidelity. That album, Lemonade, became one of the most acclaimed albums of her career and that year (surely soon the decade itself) and more importantly, one of the most talked-about events in culture. And all the world was waiting for was one hint of a response from Mr. Carter. Sure, he still accompanied his wife to events and award shows while putting on a brave face for his family and showing he still loved the ‘03 Bonnie to his Clyde. And yet, one had to wonder if Hov could ever make another song, let alone a whole album, ever again without having to answer for his sins against Queen B?
Surprisingly, Hov made the best possible decision and has stepped off of his throne to speak to his subjects. His surprise 13th solo album, 4:44, follows JAY-Z as stripped-down as he’ll probably ever let himself become. 10 tracks at about 37 minutes all produced by No I.D., 4:44 trades in the overbearing luxury rap of JAY’s previous affair, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail for restrained hi-hats and clap drum beats on “Kill Jay Z,” “Caught Their Eyes,” “Marcy Me,” and the title track. He’s no Kanye, but No I.D. shares an impressive taste for sampling and a talent for chopping up soulful backing vocals on the likes of “Legacy,” and “Family Feud.” The music is an interesting departure for JAY and a friendly reminder of how he can blend into different styles of hip-hop music. That music, however, is restrained to the point where it sounds like it’s been purposefully turned down to put all ears on Mr. Carter. Even then, the volume on JAY’s mic is seemingly turned down as well and JAY is rapping with a more delicate voice. There’s little bragging from Hov on 4:44 and more self-reflection, like he’s actually the only one in the room talking to himself in the mirror.
And yes Beyhive, he does address his infidelity. Straight away as a matter of fact on “Kill Jay Z,” a lyrically-stunning album opener where Hov covers everything from the elevator fight with his sister-in-law (“You egged Solange on/Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong”) to the current manic state of mind of his young lad Mr. West (“I know people backstab you, I felt bad too/But this ‘f**k everybody’ attitude ain’t natural”) to understanding how bad he messed up with his Mrs. (“You almost went Eric Benét/Let the baddest girl in the world get away/I don’t even know what else to say/N***a, never go Eric Benét”). But the title track is the most striking song on the album (maybe even of JAY’s career) where he provides an entire dissertation of his relationship with Beyonce, and it honestly sounded like a rough ride. Over a sample of Hannah Williams’s “Late Nights & Heartbreak” that makes the song sound like a cut from Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, JAY talks about how crass he was in the early days (“Said, ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready”), the vulnerability that came from personal loss (“I seen the innocence leave your eyes/I still mourn this death and/I apologize for all the stillborns/’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it”), and how him being a father adds more weight to his sorrow (“What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate?/You risked that for Blue?”). It’s actually jaw-dropping how candid Hov is on the song, no frills or lyrical mystique just blunt emotional honesty (“I promised, I cried, I couldn’t hold/I suck at love, I think I need a do-over”).
Through all of this personal turmoil, there’s a bit of anger that brews up inside of JAY. On “Family Feud,” he takes simultaneous shots at the righteous old guard trying too hard to stay relevant (“And old n***as, y’all stop actin’ brand new/Like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too, huh”) and rebellious new breed of rappers tripping themselves up before they can even stand (“N***as bustin’ off through the curtains ’cause she hurtin’/Kay losin’ the babies ’cause their future’s uncertain”). He goes back to his mobster roots on “Bam” (“Put that drum in your ear, don’t get Srem’d/I’ll Bobby Shmurda anybody you heard of”) and “Marcy Me” (“Old Brooklyn, not this new s**t, shift feel like a spoof/Fat laces in your shoe, I’m talkin’ bustin’ off the roof”). He even still manages to brag about how successful he is on “The Story of O.J.,” even using this deeply-personal album as a form to brag (“I turned my life into a nice first week release date”). Even as one of the richest and successful black men in the world, he still sees the struggle black America faces using the recent Best Picture Oscar fiasco on “Moonlight” (“Y’all stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose…Y’all n***as still signin’ deals? Still?/After all they done stole, for real?/After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?”).
Sure, JAY-Z will probably hustle right back up to his heavenly perch and spend his next album talking about his latest billion dollar business venture. He may never play a song from this album live and never speak about it ever again. But 4:44 is exactly the kind of album he needed to make: a statement of his soul that’s for his image and for himself. JAY-Z needed this album as a form of therapy, an unloading of his mistakes and his true thoughts on the world surrounding him. For JAY-Z, one of the biggest names in music that’s got more protection around himself than the Pope, to be this blunt and emotionally raw while retaining his impeccable flow is something to gawk at. 4:44 doesn’t even feel like it’s from the same man that made The Blueprint or The Black Album. It’s simply Shawn Carter: a heartbroken, pissed-off rap music fan trying to come to grips with where he is in life.