There isn’t a lot left to say that hasn’t already been written, tweeted or reported about JAY-Z’s new album 4:44, the impeccable, late-career defining record from one of Brooklyn’s finest. After a 4-year layoff, “Hov” is back with a new album that in a matter of weeks has already gone (fake) platinum, coincided with the birth of he and Beyoncé’s new twins, and reignited the “greatest rapper ever” debate in hip-hop circles everywhere.
4:44 isn’t a unique hip-hop record, but it is a unique JAY-Z record. This is the most personal that the world has ever heard Jay on the mic. The subject matter on these 10 tracks, which are entirely produced by No ID, ranges anywhere from the internal struggles of his marriage, to the relationships he had with his parents, to his hopes for the futures of his children and oh yeah, of course.. some classic JAY-Z advice on how to align your funds.
At 47, he doesn’t sound old and stubborn, but instead, thoughtful and well-seasoned. What we end up with here, is an album that fits neatly into the backseat of an impressive discography, showcasing some of JAY-Z’s best rapping in years and his most complete body of work since American Gangster.
The album starts off on a bang, with the introspective “Kill Jay Z” and the sarcastic “The Story of O.J.” The former sees Jay rapping in an apologetic tone, showing remorse for his 2014 elevator incident with Solange and the 1999 stabbing charges that almost put a halt to his reign as mainstream rap king. The unusual trend of vulnerability continues on “Smile”, which seems more like a celebration of life as opposed to his traditional braggadocious, hustler anthem. But fear not, there’s still plenty of witty one-liners to remind you just who you’re listening to, like “I’m trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99” on ‘O.J.’
One of my favorite moments on the entire record is when the drums kick in under the vocals on the title track – so hard! Production wise, the stretch from “4:44” to “Bam” is near flawless. The final two tracks however, are probably my favorite cuts off the whole album. “Marcy Me” and “Legacy” both see Jay reciting slick verses with ease. The latter is especially interesting, as he ponders what his lasting influence will look like once he is gone, both for his family and for hip-hop culture.
The Fugees sample on “Moonlight” is one of my only gripes on the entire project. It was a nice idea, but I thought it was done a lot better on the Nas cut, “Nas Album Done” off of DJ Khaled’s album, Major Key. Even then, I wouldn’t call it a weak point as much as a passable track that will still entertain old heads who wanna hear Jay slander new school rappers.
That’s not to knock on No ID either. 4:44 is fantastically produced from start to finish, and my favorite thing about it is that he and JAY-Z didn’t sell out in their creative process one bit. For the most part this album is pretty accessible, and there’s not one song that screams ‘radio hit’ – a stigma that has been prevalent on every JAY-Z record for the past 10 years. The jazzy instrumentation No ID used to craft these beats comes as no surprise, given his catalog, but I was just impressed at how well it fit over modern sounding drums. It gives the album such a classic feel, but it’s simplistic nature makes it seem perfectly appropriate for today’s times.
Few people will argue that Jay isn’t one of the best to ever grab a microphone. Preceding this album he had already cemented his status as an all-time great, on rapping skill alone. 4:44 gives critics and fans a point of reference for when someone attempts to criticize his legacy. This is the album he needed to make – something that was more than just ill rhymes over hot beats from super-talent producers. It’s a project that isn’t just well-crafted, it’s also conceptual. Over the years this has always been the biggest knock against JAY-Z. Yeah, he’s a vicious MC, but what do we actually know about him aside from his net worth? 4:44 tells us just that.
Not a lot of rappers have the longevity to make this kind of an album. There have been other such releases (Nas – Life is Good), but in my opinion there hasn’t been one as significant as 4:44. This may be the last album we ever get from JAY-Z. Ironically, it’s the first one we ever got from Shawn Carter.