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In 2003, Shawn Corey Carter, better known as the rap artist JAY-Z, released his swan song statement record The Black Album. An auto-eulogy of sorts, JAY claimed that Black would be his last record. On the album, he displays a near-perfect expression of appreciation for the game and waves a loving farewell to it.
Jay-Z has since released 6 albums… None of which recaptured the purpose and sincerity that is Black. Or match the sense of urgency, to tell the truth… Until now.
4:44 (his 14th studio album) is the JAY-Z record everyone knew he was capable of writing. But lacked the motivation to do so. This time around, the motivation came in the form of being a husband, a father, and an entrepreneur. The record is a diary of psychoanalytic confession, perceptive observation, and genuine epiphany. JAY’s unmatched wit, though present, takes a backseat for the vulnerable real talk on 4:44. It is a candid conversation with the man, not the myth.
That said, JAY also assumes the role of an educator on this album. This role isn’t necessarily new to him, but as noted, the vulnerability makes his delivery more reliable. That, and the empirical evidence of his success (his net worth is around 810 million dollars). His authority regarding the means to prosperity is valid. If you’re going to listen to anybody concerning how to attain wealth, you should listen to him. The first single, “The Story of O.J.,” is nothing short of a university history and economics lesson.
The No I.D. produced (he’s credited for the entire album), piano-laden jazz track cleverly samples Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a song about four African American women of different complexions who all have one thing in common: as JAY says on the track, “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga…still nigga.” Jay recalls Orenthal James Simpson’s claim (or living, breathing, walking sentiment) “I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” to obliterate the fantasy that one can transcend the negative connotation of “blackness.”
Instead, JAY suggests African Americans (also read all people of color, people of poverty, or any of the marginalized or exploited members of society) embrace their station in life and use the struggle as a motivation to succeed. He advises the hustlers to take the money garnered from hustling and invest in property. “That’s how you rinse it.”
He notes of a past failure—he passed up the opportunity to invest in a now thriving real estate. It didn’t really set him back much (remember, 810 million), but the investment would have meant about a 23 million dollar return. This revelation is punctuated by a sudden drum freak-out. Later, he delivers the best line of the track: “You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money at the strip club? Credit.” I’m all ears, JAY.
On the first track “Kill JAY-Z,” Jay establishes the theme of the record. As he destroys his ego, he notes, “You can’t heal what you never reveal.” What follows is a laundry list of personal and publicized mistakes, shortcomings, and heartbreaks. This trend continues throughout the album but is most successfully delivered on the title-track.
In an interview with iHeartRadio, JAY explains the album’s fifth track, “4:44” is [T]he crux of the album. It’s the title track because it’s such a powerful song, and I just believe one of the best songs I have ever written. JAY-Z at his most humble, as he addresses his shortcomings as a husband. The track was specifically created to respond to Beyonce’s triumphant yet skeleton revealing (JAY’s not hers) 2016 album Lemonade.
This song is a letter from a husband to his wife. It’s territory I think rarely (if ever) explored in hip-hop, and it indeed serves as the crux for the entire record: A forthright, heartfelt document of Shawn Corey Carter, the man not the myth.
Stand out track: “ The Story of O.J.”: Oh. My. God. Hov. And check out the animated video! Classic.