Jay-Z, 4:44 | Album Review
Rap icon Jay-Z returns after a four-year hiatus with ‘4:44,’ arguably, his most personal album to date. He’s on autopilot.
Cut the BS – no time for it – Jay-Z has returned after a four-year hiatus! Prior to the release of 4:44, the last we’d heard from the MC arrived in 2013 with the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail. While Magna Carta Holy Grail had its moments, it was one of the rapper’s weakest, least memorable albums. The same can’t be said of 4:44, though, it isn’t nearly as commercial. While 4:44 doesn’t have a clear-cut radio hit, it is a personal album with more substance than most of the albums in his discography.
“Kill Jay Z”
“Kill Jay Z” commences 4:44 abruptly. It’s superbly produced, but don’t call it a banger – it’s not intended for the club. There is no hook, only a verse, hence, heavy reliance on the bars by Jay-Z. Fueled by a sample from The Alan Parsons Project (“Don’t Let It Show”), he wastes no time.
“Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you / You’ll never be enough, let’s just keep it real, Jay Z / F*ck Jay Z, I mean, you shot your own brother / How can we know if we can trust Jay Z?”
Reflective, the opener is representative of the personal nature that characterizes the entirety of 4:44.
Following the hook-less “Kill Jay Z,” “The Story of O.J.” has a more traditional form, with both verses and chorus. The production continues to be built upon samples, incorporating Nina Simone (“Four Women”) and Funk Inc. (“Kool Is Back”). The Simone sample gives “O.J.” a jazzy quality. The hook emphasizes that black is black, regardless of status or shade:
“Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real n*gga / Rich n*gga, poor n*gga, house n*gga, field n*gga / Still n*gga, still n*gga.”
“You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit / You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in American? This how they did it.”
Standout “Smile,” featuring Gloria Carter, fittingly samples the Stevie Wonder classic, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Encompassing a wide variety of topics including money, perhaps the most notable is about Gloria Carter. Jay-Z reveals that his mom is a lesbian:
“Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian / Had to hid in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much too take.”
Gloria provides the outro to the song, reflecting upon life and love. Quite a progressive message for an East Coast rapper.
Nina Simone (“Baltimore”) is sampled once more on “Caught Their Eyes,” featuring Frank Ocean. This is the second consecutive project where Jay-Z has collaborated with Ocean. “Caught” encompasses deception and shadiness on the first verse. On the second verse, Jay-Z takes shot at the estate of Prince following his death, calling them “greedy bastards.” Also, he takes a shot at his former little brother, Kanye West. “Don’t big bro me, don’t ‘Big Homie’ / I’ve seen pure admiration become rivals.”
“4:44” features one of the most awesome samples of the album, courtesy of British soul singer Hannah Williams & the Affirmations (“Late Nights & Heartbreak”). Notably, Kim Burrell provides additional vocals, which fit seamlessly into the music. Interestingly, the title track was conceived at 4:44 A.M. and clocks in at 4:44 in length. While the production and overall sound are radiant, the message is truly ear-catching. Jay-Z apologizes to Beyoncé for his infidelity – starting from the opening tip. Ultimately, “4:44” is the crown jewel – the crème de la crème.
“Family Feud,” featuring Beyoncé, embodies portions of “Ha Ya,” performed by The Clark Sisters. The sample cultivates a soulful, spiritual backdrop, fueling the fire for Jay-Z. The MC emphasizes the importance of family, spirituality, and being goal-oriented. He touts black pride, positively. Notably, on the final verse, he references the infamous Becky from his boo’s Lemonade album:
“Yeah, I’ll f*ck up a good thing if you let me / Let me alone, Becky / A man that don’t take care his family can’t be rich / I’ll watch Godfather, I miss that whole shit.”
For an album that eschews bangers, the hits keep on rolling.
Jay-Z is assisted by Damian Marley on “Bam.” Continuing the use of samples, “Tenement Yard” (Jacob Miller) is the source this time. Jay reflects back on his days as a drug dealer selling crack cocaine throughout the first verse. On the second verse, he delivers a bullet in reference to his status in the rap game:
“N*ggas could not be further, I fathered your style / Birth of a Nation, Nat Turner style.”
The brief “Moonlight” samples “Fu-Gee-La” (The Fugees). A bit odd compared to the rest of 4:44, give Jay-Z credit for a killer shout out to the film of the same title. Only Jay-Z rocks pop culture like this:
“Marcy Me” enlists elements of “Todo O Mundo E Ningém,” as performed by Quarteto 1111. Once more, Jay-Z reminisces on the past, including “cookin’ coke in the kitchen.” On digital versions of 4:44, “Legacy” serves as the closer. On “Legacy,” Jay-Z examines the dash. By dash, the life he’s built and living, and how it will be preserved. The soulfulness can be attributed to sampling Donny Hathaway (“Someday We’ll All Be Free.”)
The Bonus Tracks
The physical edition of 4:44, released on July 7, 2017, adds three bonus tracks. On “Adnis,” Jay-Z addresses his late father. Produced by James Blake, “Adnis” features some of the most unique sounds of the entire effort. “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family” naturally features a collaboration with Blue Ivy Carter, whose freestyle sets the tone for “We Family.” No I.D. handles the boards once more, sampling Totó La Momposina (“La Verdolaga”). The intensity of the drums and overall song is a selling point.
“MaNyfaCedGod” concludes 4:44, featuring James Blake this time, who co-produces with Dominic Maker. Samples are still in play, courtesy of Sylvia Robinson (“Pillow Talk”) and an interpolation of Beyoncé (“Partition”). Continuing the reflective, personal nature of 4:44, Jay-Z addresses the tough times in his relationship with Beyoncé and the healing process.
All in all, Jay-Z has made his best album in years with 4:44. This album is quite different from what he’s released in recent times. This isn’t the commercial smash that The Blueprint 3 (2009) in regards to radio-ready hits. It doesn’t pair two hip-hop giants together like Watch the Throne did in 2011. It definitely goes deeper than Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013) could ever hope to go. This is a personal album that finds Jay-Z doing a terrific job showcasing his emotions.
Gems: “The Story of O.J.,” “Smile,” “Caught Their Eyes,” “4:44” & “Family Feud”
Jay-Z • 4:44 • Roc Nation • Release: 6.30.17
Photo Credit: Roc Nation