Shawn Carter’s elder statesman role in hip-hop is long since secured, but ‘4:44’ doesn’t particularly add to his legacy, failing to make its desired social commentary stick in the mind.
Jay-Z’s 4:44 is his final affirmation that he is not making another Reasonable Doubt. As he states in ‘On To The Next One’ if you “…want my old shit, buy my old albums”. On 4:44, Jay-Z abandons the novelty audience that was picked up in Magna Carta Holy Grail or Watch The Throne. In fact, Jay adopts a somewhat radical tone, alienating those he picked up in his less serious phases. He markets towards an audience aware of the politics of injustice, and at times direct addresses those who aren’t ‘woke’ with his observations of the community; the community referring to both African Americans and the hip-hop industry. Jay takes on the title of a political spokesperson or wise big brother. In his dialogue of 36 minutes, he addresses what he believes is on the mind of everyone who shares his values, but at times, we find him brushing with overused truisms and clichés.
‘The Story Of O.J.’ is a clear cut-case of the big-brotherly tone Jay-Z uses. Although not the first song on the album, the visual has been available to the public before the full non-Tidal-exclusive release. The chorus and hook address the radical truism that to the white world, a black man remains only a black man, hence the title ‘The Story Of O.J’, as the case of O.J. Simpson is a notorious fall by a black man. The chorus paints it out as clear as listing all the labels given to black people “Light”, “Dark”, “faux”, “real” “Rich” “poor”. It even goes as far to refer to historical labels such as “house nigga, field nigga”. The song instrumentally presents its case in its sample of Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’ which highlights the presence of black struggle in all types of black people, the underlying statement is that “we’re all ‘still nigga’ as black people as we all struggle the consequences of constructions of blackness”.
The pièce de résistance of the message is the visual, a sambo based cartoon with Jay-Z as ‘Jay-Bo’, directed by Mark Romanek and animated by Titmouse Inc. Lyrically, Jay-Z polices the mainstream image of his community, he encourages focusing on your credit over strip clubs, he urges hustlers to “Take your drug money and buy the neighbourhood” and empowers with the phrase “Fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke”. Jay essentially tries to redeem himself as the same self-proclaimed hustler of his earlier works but he’s now making investments, so why not do the same.
This reality is shattered in ‘Kill Jay Z’, ‘4:44’ and ‘Caught Their Eyes’. Despite financial freedom and wealth, life isn’t better. In ‘Kill Jay-Z’, we see a Jay filled with self-doubt, berating himself for pushing an egotistical image to “the youth that love Jay-Z”. He also takes on how his past has shaped a “fuck everybody” attitude in life, leading him to make highly publicised mistakes. Title track ‘4:44’ is a confessional dialogue which has gained influence due to him addressing his infidelity, the track acts as response to the narrative in Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Jay begins two of the three verses with “I apologise” and once again the survivalist and opportunistic attitude that gained him success in his early hustle is blamed for his mistakes.
A Nina Simone sample and Frank Ocean vocal are interloped on a choppy blues-style beat in ‘Caught Their Eyes’. Jay delivers another dialogue style-rap, this time somewhat empathetic to those who share a background. He then exposes the reality of the music industry’s selfish nature. Jay says, “This guy had ‘Slave’ on his face” as a reference to the label capitalising off Prince’s death, the take-away of this being despite music ensuring his path to riches, it’s an abusive, manipulative endeavour. Conspiracy theorists are going to take their slice of this and eat it but what Jay highlights by pointing this out is although he is wealthy, he is alienated from his community. The cumulative traumas he experienced being a poor black man are rarely understood outside of the community but are capitalised upon.
‘Family Feud’ then metaphorically refers to the hip-hop community as a family, addressing ‘hip-hop’ purist’s criticism of modern rap. Beyoncé also symbolically features on this track, indicating marital problems have been resolved.
‘Bam’ is a stand-out track production wise fusing features of dancehall with modern trap music. Damian Gong Jr interpolates Jacob Miller and Inner Circle’s 1979 classic ‘Tenement Yard’ with a No I.D. beat sampling Sister Nancy’s ‘Bam’. Controversially, Jay appeases Kanye’s accusations that he copies him. In ‘Big Brother’ Kanye said, “I told Jay I did a song with Coldplay / Next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay” since Swizz Beatz had used a Bam sample as a key component in Kanye’s ‘Famous’ it appears Jay Z plays on this controversy, by including it in a track that lyrically, celebrates his ego and achievements.
The entirety of the album is a Jay-Z monologue, filled with the neurosis you find in a sleepless night at 4:44am. It is clear that in him using just one producer, a trusted long-time collaborator in No I.D., in all the tracks, Jay knew he wanted to speak. Although this plays to the album’s weakness, the tracks do differ in structure but essentially 4:44 is 36 minutes of Jay-Z rambling on a No I.D. backing track. Jay does successfully establish his place in the rap industry as an elder statesman, that respects and schools the new era, but his attempts to awaken his audience rarely reaches beyond implications and hints. In respect of this, 4:44’s inconsistencies create an unfettered realism: no-one’s politics can be clear cut, and as an artist and investor Jay-Z cannot to be expected to be a radical activist, but with his values he cannot enjoy a simple celebrity life. (5/10) (Benita Barden)
4:44 is currently available to stream via Tidal and Apple Music – tell us what you think of it below!
Tags: 4:44, album, Benita Barden, Jay-Z, review, Roc Nation, Shawn Carter
19 years old, born and bred in West London, currently studying Media, Journalism and Culture at Cardiff University. My musical listening habits waver between hip-hop, electronic and indie. Reviews, commentary and complaints are my current speciality, but as the great Jay-Z states ‘Everybody can tell you how to do it / they never did it’.
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