Jay-Z Embraces the Feminine--and So Much More--on Astounding 4:44

A scene from Jay-Z’s “Life of O.J.” music video

A scene from Jay-Z’s “Life of O.J.” music video

It’s foolhardy to try and nail down any lyrics-driven album in a single set of bars, especially one authored by a rapper of Jay-Z’s legendary, layered dexterity. But early on in the confessional “4:44,” the rapper born Shawn Carter states: “I apologize, often womanize/Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes/Took me these natural twins to believe in miracles/Took me too long for this song/I don’t deserve you.” The fact that a truly soul-searching statement from such a titan of rap has been long forthcoming, as well as the fact that he now better understands both his feminine side and the myths of masculinity are two of the multiple elements that animate the rapper’s shockingly good thirteenth studio album, 4:44.

For while the “you” in the above line is likely the artist’s paramour—the queen of pop herself, Beyoncé—it could also refer to the rapper’s audience who might be feeling a bit taken for granted following the past few years. Yet here we are in 2017, talking about a Jay-Z album with actual interest. The years following 2013’s career nadir, Magna Carta, have coupled his artistic hollowing-out with a very public crack in the facade of the marriage between two of the most important symbols of black success and family life in the world. And though the actual drama might have occurred behind mostly closed doors—errant an unfortunate elevator altercation between Jay and his sister-in-law, the equally talented Solange—that all changed when Beyoncé released Lemonade last spring. A kaleidoscopic pop-collage replete with zeitgeist-shaping visual accompaniment, the fans had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the international superstar's married life.

So when it was announced that the rapper would be returning to the studio to issue some sort of response to his wife’s airing of their dirty laundry, it was all too easy to frame the yet-untitled 4:44 as the rapper’s “side” of the story. Once the album actually appeared at the end of June, it came with the watchword “vulnerability” hanging over seemingly every piece of press. This was Jay-Z's statement of vulnerability; this was him at his most vulnerable. And while Lemonade’s content remains very much at the foreground and we are given a far more vulnerable Jay-Z then we have gotten in a long time, his fall from grace becomes a springboard for the artist to do some of the most significant soul searching of his career. Each song operates on multiple levels, such as penultimate track “Moonlight” and its chorus of “even when we win, we lose” referring both to the Oscar scandal earlier this year when La La Land was accidentally named best picture instead of actual winner Moonlight and the tendency for black success to be seen as an exception, not the standard. Over the course of the album the listener seems to be in the passenger side of the car driven not by Chiron but rather Jay-Z, driving all night long on the same road yielding new surprises on each pass, except he’s no longer doing so to fill some kind of void once occupied by mistresses and partying. His purpose is his family and community and with them come no need for that void, those insecurities that plague all men, making for a message that is a far cry from the every-man-for-himself mentality of the rapper’s explosive debut album, Reasonable Doubt.

If Magna Carta saw Jay-Z truly divesting from the realities he had so viscerally relayed on Doubt and The Blueprint—a process that had been ongoing for most of this century—4:44 is the artist putting all his emotional chips on the table and giving them an extended thirty-six minute interrogation. Of course, Hov didn’t just get to this point of his own volition, even if his actions were ultimately the prima causa. Lemonade reflected the pristine perfectionism that suffuses Queen Bey’s work for better and worst. In contrast, the roll-out of 4:44 has been decidedly and wonderfully confused, almost messy—a welcome departure from the majority of overly-calculated blockbuster releases. Last fall’s videos of Lupita Nyong’o and Mahershala Ali and news of an NC-17 film helped plant the seed that the album would be co-released with a visual component. But while Beyonce is an artist perhaps more truthful when surrounded by artifice, Jay-Z’s image is one that symbolizes the trapper-to-rapper success story that helped establish the template for much of how a rapper’s masculinity plays out on record and in real life. 

With each passing week, a new video emerges—many double or triple the length of the actual song—taking the viewer on in-depth explorations through America’s racial history (“The Story of O.J.”), African-American popular culture and gender roles (“4:44”), and reggae’s continued influence within hip-hop (“Bam”). Additionally, in between the official videos we have also gotten a series of “footnote” videos containing a series of interviews with black men both unknown and famous, including Chris Rock, Will Smith, Kendrick Lamar, and many others, speaking on the above themes and much more. And while we may only have a part of the greater visual story yet to come, the first few chapters have been nothing short of astounding. 

But first, let’s talk about the music. Produced by Kanye West mentor No I.D., Carter thankfully dispenses with the penchant of most rappers, himself included, to work with the latest and hottest beatsmiths in search of a more consistent, if not especially challenging musical palette. The album’s musical backing can feel overwhelmingly safe as the producer employs the type of rote rhythmic sample splicing that’s not far removed from a big studio version of a late 90s West beat tape. However, while some might gripe that the album plays it safe musically, letting its star inhale all the air, the samples and voices used serve almost as supplemental footnotes, adding a sense of historical depth and layered meaning to the album. From Hannah Williams and the Affirmations’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak” helping to provide the swirling female vocals that give “4:44” much of its heft to the sampling of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”, Hov has clearly learned one strong lesson from West and that’s to make his samples count. There’s no Nirvana here for the sake of having Nirvana, but rather a selection of deep and not-so-deep cuts whose message help to augment the rapper’s own lyrics. More importantly, even on the Alan Parsons Project-sampling “Kill Jay-Z,” Parsons’ vocals are pitched up enough to make him either sound female or at least androgynous, a notable choice on the album’s opening cut. And the few distinctly males voices on the album come courtesy of the like of Stevie Wonder and Frank Ocean, artists who have a sensitivity and fragility to their vocals like few others. Of course, samples aside, Steve Wyreman of No I.D.’s Cocaine 80s collective provides almost all the live instrumentation on the albums, from drums to keys to bass and guitar, further enriching the lush-yet-sparse instrumentation.

Okwui Okpokwasili in the video for “4:44”

Okwui Okpokwasili in the video for “4:44”

At a tight ten tracks, Carter doesn’t seem too eager to indulge himself in the way he’s done pretty much this whole century, as is made instantly clear on the “ego death” symbolized by opening salvo “Kill Jay-Z.” “Kill Jay-Z” is the album’s ‘shocking’ opener, an emotion-filled lucid dream that Carter has described as the killing of the ego. And while Hov urges himself to let go of the ego before acknowledging his fulminating role in the famous 2014 elevator fight between himself and sister-in-law Solange following the Met Ball. That such a personal moment came on the heels on the pageantry of the perennial celebrity circle jerk spoke to the star’s seeming descent into typical masculine self-destruction. What keeps “Kill Jay-Z” from descending into a confused tantrum is the razing of the unaware bravado that had appeared to have swallowed the artist whole, but rather than simply turning the lens inwards, Carter takes his newfound insights through which to look at larger cultural trends. Yes, his mentions of Eric Benét’s infidelity and Future watching his child be raised by football star Russell Wilson can at first seem like petty jabs, but as the listener begins to get used to this new Jay-Z, they also are confronted with the broader racial context that Carter interrogates, framing his asides as more general concerns to whom he attaches a recognizable name (hey, we didn’t say the new Jay-Z was above fishing for clickbait).

When Hov has issues with someone, he doesn’t mince words or relegate them to an opaque reference. Take Kanye West for instance, a rapper whom Jay-Z ushered into fame and who called out the rapper during one of his twenty-minute tirades that became the stars of his Life of Pablo tour. West is one of the few others to appear in the otherwise self-centered “Kill Jay-Z” as Carter raps “”But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye/You gave him 20 million without blinkin’/He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin’?” And while West remains a constant target throughout the course of the album, Londell McMillen, Prince’s former attorney who represents his estate gets the lionshare of “Smile”’s second verse in which Hov recounts a meeting with the purple one who promised that Tidal could stream his music, only for McMillen to sue Jay-Z and Tidal once they did and now Apple and Spotify are the only streaming services where you can hear Prince. With Jay-Z clearly at a place of peace with himself and having confronted his own hypocrisies, he clearly has little patience for those who still aren’t practicing what they preach.

It’s on early album highlight “The Story of O.J.” that we get our first listen to how post-ego Jay-Z raps: with a goddamn purpose. Are there many rappers other than Kendrick Lamar or older rappers like Prodigy (RIP) that could so poetically articulate four hundred years of systematic oppression and its effect on a black man’s psychology in under four minutes? “O.J.” also sees Carter utilizing a newly-found (or rediscovered) comfort level with the power of restraint, perhaps best articulated early on when the rapper repeats the song’s title character’s infamous line of “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” with a simply “O.K.” that evokes feelings of frustrations, bemused curiosity, and beleaguered acceptance in two syllables. He employs a similar trick in this controversy-courting couplet: “You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money at strip clubs? Credit/You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? Here’s how.”

Putting aside Carter’s own comments on his willing use of stereotypes within his music to reveal greater truths for a minute, it's worth noting that he juxtaposes this admittedly insidious and harmful portrayal of Jewish-American citizen with a rather broad swipe at black men, who are generally portrayed by politicians on both sides of the aisle as being more eager to spend time at strip clubs than with their families or building a real financial future. One can’t help but feel that Carter is playing with such insidious characterizations of entire cultures to compare how two marginalized communities within America have chosen to pursue financial freedom, a point he himself makes in the following “Financial freedom my only hope/fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke.” This is a forty-seven year-old wealthy man who quite literally came from nothing both sharing his own past financial mistakes--the line about his failure to cash in on the DUMBO, Brooklyn property-value boom still elicits chuckles fifty listens in--and looking to the future to plot a course for himself, his family, and his people. 

Equally accomplished is the animated music video for “O.J.” that has the rapper reimagined as the blackface character Jaybo, his face changing to the different black stereotypes that exist within the community itself. Here we see Jay-Z not just nodding in the direction of a stereotype but embracing decades of harmful representations of African-American, the Nina Simone-looking pianist also illustrated so as to represent an ape at times. As his lyrics zig-zag between slave-era hierarchies and post-slavery oppression through segregation and Jim Crow, the video is second of a one-two audio-visual punch that draws a direct line from those seemingly bygone days to the present moment when similarly vicious and deeply engrained stereotypes about black folk are getting people killed by police.

As Stevie Wonder’s smooth vocals introduce the soul-trap stylings of “Smile,” Hov starts to really get into the groove of the album’s dominant themes, starting off with a series of braggadacio-boasting lines before doing a 180 with the couplet “Push through the pain so we can see a new life/So all the ladies havin’ babies, see a sacrifice.” From there, Carter’s attention pivots from the black male ego to the real sacrifices made by black women of all stripes, most saliently his own mother, Gloria Carter, who lived most of her life in the closet before coming out as a lesbian, which she quite literally does at the song’s end in a tear-jerkingly frank poem. Such an emotional bombshell can leave the listener not quite tuned in for the west-side funk of the Frank Ocean-featuring “Caught Their Eyes,” a second-tier track that is still fantastic in its own right.

Still from the “Bam” video

Still from the “Bam” video

I recently heard 4:44 coming out of a stereo in midtown on a balmy July afternoon, and it was transcendent; the ecstatic feminine energy at work in the beat supplemented by Hov’s truly probing account of his immature behavior during his wife’s twenty-first birthday and acceptance that she matured faster than him resonating in a way it hadn’t yet when listened to alone, confirming the suspicion that this is an album that doesn’t just have a message, but one that sounds fantastic in that most important of places for such music: the street. The past weeks has seen the album, and not just its hits, pouring out of the cars of passers-by in my Brooklyn neighborhood, drivers ranging in age from the recently legal to the grey and bald.

But even more noteworthy is the video for the song, directed by TNEG Production, which is comprised of Malik Sayeed, Elissa Blount-Moorhead, and Arthur Jafa. Feeling like a whirlwind tour through recent black history as presented through Vines, videos, and even an iconic clip from the Lemonade visual album, the chaotic cultural collage is given an emotional anchor by the raw emotionality dancers Storyboard P and Okwui Okpokwasili in which they both move intently, but never interact. Footage of Mr. and Mrs. Carter dancing and smiling on stage but hardly ever at one another in the video’s second half serves as an open-ended parallel that seems to articulate the many moments of unknowing, and those of silent understand, that permeate any relationship.

The gospel-styled vocals featuring Bey on “Family Feud” provide an equally joyous and female-energized backing for Carter’s intimating of changed priorities--the “liquid gold” he raps about here is not champagne, for once, but breast milk. Of course, being the associative rapper that he is, he soon is talking about his famed acquisition of the Ace of Spades champagne and the need for his consumer base to play their role too, supporting black-owned enterprises such as his own rather than the white-owned Perrier-Jouët (let alone Cristal, whose owner’s racist comments is what led to Hov getting in the champagne game officially in the first place). What’s most impressive about the song, though, is how deftly it moves from the rapper’s own immediate family to the larger rap family, one that has been rife with feuds as of late as the older generation continues to bemoan the sing-song rap stylings of Lil Yachty and the gender-bending vocal yelps of Young Thug. Putting himself clearly on the side of letting people do their own damn thing and calling for unity over division, Carter might bemoan the youthful arrogance of Instagramming rappers using wads of cash as cellphones, but as he repeatedly asks, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two.”

And he’s not just referring to himself and Mrs. Carter, but Diddy and other rap moguls who strive for success and approach life as a marathon, not a quick dash. Even on the largely inconsequential “Bam,” the visual accompaniment paints a far more layered portrait of the rapper’s use of reggae both in the song and within the broader history of rap, noting that it was reggae culture and its tradition of toasting and selecting that paved the way for hip-hop itself. And that, in a nutshell, is what 4:44 is all about. It’s about taking a sample, a line, or a perception and revealing the layers of meaning any topic of merit has, be it the genre of rap, the value of black ownership, and the importance of family. For as central as the themes of love, business, and family are to both rap and life as a whole, they’re usually depicted in pretty simplistic terms, be it Top 40 Rap or Country. Mainly, it’s important to be a good husband, smart at business, and a true lover, without any real qualification of the actual responsibilities each of these roles bring and the often paradoxical demands they make on one’s very being. 

What’s perhaps most refreshing about 4:44 is that one ends both “Legacy” and the album with not just one message or “way” of doing things. Hov is too self-aware, or claiming to be, at this point to believe what has worked for him will work for every black man or woman, let alone every human. But he’s starting out with the essentials: family, culture, history, legacy, heritage. He’s excited about the future and what it holds, but more than ready to hold up a mirror to our not-so-removed past to show the failings we continue to endure as Americans and humans. Even more important than aligning himself with his culture is the fact that Jay-Z has opened up a space for a creative and inspirational feminine energy unlike any other mainstream male rapper before him. It’s not a show or a superficial effort, though one could be forgiven for thinking so based off the album cover’s pink hue. 4:44 is the sound of a 47-year-old man choosing to take the red (or pink) pill of the hitherto unknown and creating an empathetic, emotional, and relevant work of art informed by both his own and others’ experiences. It’s not just a one-man show, anymore. Sure, he’s been a gangster, a lover, even a business. But now he’s also a family man, all in, and far richer for it.