February 7, 2018

Jay-Z - 4:44 (June 30, 2017)






In April of 2016, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter unleashed a tidal wave of thinkpieces when she released her sixth solo album, Lemonade. The narrative throughout the project was that her husband, rapper-slash-mogul Jay-Z, had repeatedly cheated on her, and she was taking back her power and identity. This was followed by a media blackout by the Carter family (who had one child, Blue Ivy Carter, at the time), so nobody was ever truly able to corroborate the truth. Two years prior, Jay was attacked in an elevator at The Standard by his sister-in-law, singer Solange Knowles: Interweb sleuths drew the conclusion that she was standing up for her sister by attacking the man who couldn’t keep his dick in his pants, although Solange herself never admitted to anything, and no charges were filed.

Shortly after the release of Lemonade, it was rumored that Jay-Z was planning to release a “response record” of sorts, one explaining his own side of the story and disputing several of Beyoncé’s points. I wasn’t sure exactly how to take this: Jay and Bey are famous for never talking about their relationship in public (in fact, Beyoncé hardly ever gives interviews anymore), and creating an infidelity narrative out of thin air in order to dominate news cycles and the Billboard chart isn’t something I would put past the two artists. You certainly couldn’t avoid the Lemonade thinkpieces and dissections of her videos (she had shot a clip for every single song track and released it as a “visual album”), as they were found in ever corner of the Interweb. Shawn Carter stayed silent, so this rumor died fairly quickly, with everyone essentially moving on from the story, even though most Beyoncé fans sided with their queen in the supposed battle.

And then Jay-Z released 4:44.


4:44 was a surprise project that came out of left field, announced with a series of cryptic teasers roughly a month prior to its release last summer. It was a TIDAL exclusive for at least a week or two (Jay would later send physical copies to storefronts) and was a part of a promotional campaign with Sprint, where existing Sprint customers (but not new ones, which was strange) who signed up for TIDAL would receive the album for free, which was a similar gambit as what he did with Samsung with his previous album. Magna Carta… Holy Grail. Very little information about the project was given to the press: the fact that the entire thing was handled by a single producer, No I.D., was considered to be another rumor until the album finally dropped. There were song snippets played in the background of the commercials advertising the album (which starred the likes of Maharshala Ali and Lupita Nyong’o, which led people to originally think that this was a TIDAL-exclusive film at first) that didn’t even end up on the album itself. (Until Shawn added bonus tracks.) Jay has also released videos for nearly every single track on 4:44, which is not standard-issue promotion for him, but helped add to the project’s mythology.

What mattered to the press, and the listener, though, were the lyrics, on which he appeared to admit to the infidelity and showed remorse. Right off the bat, 4:44 was an aberration as a rap album: Jay-Z chose to replace some of his boasts-n-bullshit (of which he is a master in delivering, and no, I’m not kidding) with his innermost thoughts, anxieties, and feelings, creating a vulnerable space that gives the songs on 4:44 additional context. That’s not to say that shit-talking Jay doesn’t appear on 4:44, though: far from it. But he tries, for the first time, to have it both ways: as opposed to dropping in one or two tracks that dig deeper into his psyche per album, 4:44 tries to keep it engaged throughout its entire run time. No I.D. follows suit, all of his beats finding a soulful bent that encourages introspection on the part of the audience.

4:44 was nominated for eighty-seven Grammy awards, including Album of the Year (which it lost, to Bruno Mars) and Rap Album of the Year (which it lost, to Kendrick Lamar), and landed on multiple year-end best-of lists in 2017. But did this happen because 4:44 is a return to form for Shawn Carter, long one of my favorite rappers, or did this happen merely because he’s Jay-Z and the infidelity tales caught the ear of a receptive media?

Hmm.

1. KILL JAY-Z
An inauspicious start. Critics praised the shit out of “Kill Jay-Z”, Hova’s attempt to assassinate his own ego, calling himself out for stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera and cheating on his wife while finding the time to not-so-subliminally attack his former Throne partner Kanye West. Music writers tripped all over themselves to produce thinkpieces about this track, proclaiming “Kill Jay-Z” and 4:44 as a whole as “grown-up rap music” as though they were personally tasked with rationalizing why younger hip hop fans wouldn’t give a shit about a dude whose debut album dropped when they were one, maybe two years old. But “Kill Jay-Z” isn’t a concession speech or a monologue, it’s a song, and as a song, shrug. Shawn seems kind of bored and aloof about the entire project, and No I.D.’s instrumental never connects with the performance, its soulful loop mirroring earlier, better Hova tracks in his back catalog. Our host has some good lines on here, but there’s no way this song was worthy of all of the acclaim it received last summer. This was actually the first time I listened to “Kill Jay-Z” in full since 4:44 was released, which tells you two how I really feel about it.

2. THE STORY OF O.J.
Better than “Kill Jay-Z”, but still all over the goddamn place. Hov attempts some woke social commentary regarding racial relations in the United States before weirdly diving into financial advisor mode (“The Story of O.J.” is the song that caused some online SJWs to deem him anti-Semitic because of one of his bars in that vein). The beat sounds like No I.D. couldn’t turn off the voices in his head, choosing to run with all of their ideas: some of this works, such as the Nina Simone vocal samples throughout, but the rest seems unfinished. At least Jay sounded engaged on here with his jokes and facts.

3. SMILE (FEAT. GLORIA CARTER)
Starts off simple enough, with a barely-there No I.D. instrumental behind some generally positive lyrics from our host, as he describes reasons to smile (such as when his mother found love). Decent, but nothing to write home about, right? Well, your home will be disappointed when it finds out much later that the third verse serves as a reminder that Jay-Z is one of the best rappers alive (don’t @ me), as he delivers a long-as-fuck Cappadonna “Winter Warz” performance in which he goes off, firing bars that outclass damn near every-fucking-thing on Magna Carta… Holy Grail, no lie, which pushes “Smile” over the top. The track ends with the second appearance of Shawn’s mother Gloria on a Jay-Z album, as she expresses joy at finally being able to live her truth. Enjoyable all around.

4. CAUGHT THEIR EYES (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN)
Another track off of 4:44 that I haven’t revisited since my first spin. Dion’s instrumental is punchier than I remembered: it’s the most high-energy this project has been thus far. Guest star Frank Ocean’s hook is kind of a waste, though: if you hire the man, have him sing or rap, not rap-sing a shitty chorus, am I right? As for our host, Jay-Z’s verses seem half-thought out, his typical boasts-n-bullshit lacking focus… until he starts talking shit about the handling of the late Prince’s estate. What a highly-relatable topic for a rap song to tackle. Anyway…

5. 4:44
The infamous title track, on which Jay-Z allegedly confesses to cheating on Beyoncé with, among others, Becky with the good hair. I say “allegedly” because there is absolutely no reason for the Carters to share any of their marital woes with the general public: most of us aren’t therapists. So if all of this is an elaborate prank after all, it's definitely fucking working. “4:44” is okay: Dion’s instrumental samples Hannah Williams and the Affirmations’ “Late Nights and Heartbreaks”, lending our host the perfect soundtrack to his anxiety-riddled apology given in the early morning hours, and Jay’s also alright on here, speaking only when necessary and allowing the beat to ride unencumbered as he collects his thoughts, choosing his words carefully, as though his lawyer were in the booth with him. I’m not convinced “4:44” entirely works as a song, but as presented, it is a notable piece of art that deserves praise just for the vulnerability Shawn Carter reveals; dude is a long way from “Dead Presidents” on here. But would you bump this in your car? I’m not sure about you, but I wouldn’t: when I want to listen to depressing music about failed relationships, I turn to New Wave, so.

6. FAMILY FEUD (FEAT. BEYONCÉ)
This song, well, okay, actually this beat, has gained some renewed interest within our chosen genre, as Drake and Lil’ Wayne have swiped it for a freestyle on Weezy’s latest mixtape offering. (Well, not “swiped”, as Aubrey makes it a point to thank Jay-Z’s engineer Young Guru for sending him the beat directly, but you know what I’m saying.) I’ve always found Bey’s vocals on “Family Feud” distracting: for a song about how important it is to stand by family, she certainly tries to direct all of the light in the room onto herself during the brief moments she appears on screen. The rest of “Family Feud” is fire, though: No I.D.’s beat is enjoyable, and Jay-Z seems to be having some fun with his bars, even when he calls himself out for “fuck[ing] up a good thing”.

7. BAM (FEAT. DAMIAN MARLEY)
When 4:44 first dropped, I had mentioned somewhere (Twitter? Real life? I have no idea) that “Bam” sampling the same Sister Nancy song (“Bam Bam”) as Kanye West did on “Famous” had to have been a passive-aggressive middle finger from Hov to his former friend-slash-employee.  (Before you two get pissed at that description, remember that West was signed to Jay’s label before Hov bailed on Def Jam to start Roc Nation, leaving ‘Ye behind.) As both songs use their respective samples differently, though, I don’t really believe that anymore, although I still think it’s sneaky on our host’s part. “Bam” is my favorite song on 4:44, though, as it features his most engaging verses, full of the boasts-n-bullshit one buys a Jay-Z album to hear in the first place, and the guest vocals from Damian Marley are a nice touch. No I.D.’s beat keeps things moving briskly, as well. Not for nothing was the video for “Bam” one of the few commissioned for this project that actually featured Shawn.

8. MOONLIGHT
Speaking of videos, I did like the overall concept of the clip Alan Yang directed for “Moonlight”, even though it runs for far too long. Kudos on that casting, though. No I.D. samples Salaam Remi’s beat from the Fugees hit “Fu-Gee-La”, a track that holds up amazingly well today (and is still popular as a sample source – just ask DJ Khaled and Nas). Hova’s bars touch on racial inequality and approach preachy status, but the song being called “Moonlight” due to the infamous fuck-up on Faye Dunaway’s part at last year’s Academy Awards (which was actually the fault of the Academy’s accounting company, PriceWaterhouseCoopers) certainly helps the metaphor go down. I can dig it.

9. MARCY ME
If the “Bam” instrumental was a shot fired at Kanye West, then Hova’s introductory bars on the terribly-titled “Marcy Me” is the equivalent of our host looking you dead in the eye while pissing on your shoes, as he recites a bunch of Notorious B.I.G. lyrics as though he knows that's annoyed people every time he’s done it throughout his long career. There isn’t a ton to “Marcy Me”: aside from a spirited Jay-Z performance, the music isn’t compelling, and the extra guest vocals from The-Dream are all over the place. Pass.

10. LEGACY
The final song on 4:44 begins with some dialogue from Blue Ivy and leads into a plan to create a familial legacy, appropriately enough. Our host’s conversational flow veers far too much into “conversation” mode, and not just when he quotes Ghostface Killah bars from Raekwon’s “Glaciers of Ice” to describe the source of his inspiration to ensure future generations of Carters are set. It honestly sounds like he was spitballing lyrics in the booth, leaving when he was bored of the subject matter: there’s no here here. Sigh.

Folks who picked up the physical version of 4:44 (or listen to it exclusively on TIDAL) were gifted three additional bonus tracks, two of which were used during the promotional campaign leading up to the album release, weirdly enough.

11. ADNIS
The first bonus track, which is also the first song featured in those mysterious commercials when nobody knew exactly what Jay-Z was doing, contains the best instrumental of the entire project. Hova waxes poetically about his father on “Adnis”, his heart on his sleeve for a reason other than his marital woes, and the emotion you hear in his performance is Beanie Sigel-on-Hov’s-“Where Have You Been” (off of The Dynasty: Roc La Familia) real. Flies by in a flash, but demands multiple listens.

12. BLUE’S FREESTYLE / WE FAMILY (FEAT. BLUE IVY CARTER)
First off, “Blue’s Freestyle” is fucking ridiculous and is only included because Jay-Z doesn’t give a fuck about what you think. That’s all I’ll say about that. As for “We Family”, yet another selection in the “family is the most important thing, at least next to cold hard cash, property, and Basquiats” narrative 4:44 pushes, Hova rides a bouncy No I.D. instrumental to its natural conclusion. Our host spits his bars at a rapid clip at first, before taking a break and then spitting on his own terms: there apparently are no songwriting conventions in Jay-Z’s universe anymore. I do wish our host had invited another guest to partake in this instrumental: ‘Ye probably would have sounded pretty great. And yes, I know.

13. MANYFACEDGOD (FEAT. JAMES BLAKE)
Remember American Gangster’s “Success” where Jay-Z kept shouting, “Let that bitch breathe” to the instrumental? That’s all I could think about for the first two minutes of “MaNyfaCedGod” thanks to No I.D.’s sample usage. The beat flips to something pulsating and driven for the final third, which would have been interesting had the album not just ended after Jay stopped talking. Ah well.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Because Jay-Z finally did one thing we’ve all asked of him, create an entire album alongside just one producer, 4:44 is definitely the most cohesive solo album in his catalog. But that doesn’t mean that it’s uniform in quality throughout: there are times when producer No I.D. throws whatever half-finished shit he has at our host and Hov has to clean up the mess, and there are instances where Jay-Z sounds like he could give less than a shit about how his rhymes sound, as though he were under some sort of contract to deliver 4:44 when the reality is that he could have never dropped another project and we wouldn’t have expected otherwise. (Maybe the album was actually a part of Tidal’s deal with Sprint in order to make it sound more enticing?). 4:44 is considered to be “grownup rap”, which is a bullshit misnomer, as the only people still listening to Jay-Z today are the heads who have followed him for quite a while who are already grown, and we’re all much older than we were when Reasonable Doubt dropped, and have undergone many different life experiences that have formed our respective worlds at this point. I was happy to hear that he was releasing a new album, and for the most part there are tracks on here that I really enjoy (the ones listed below, obviously), but I’m not afraid to admit that some of the songs on here are just… fucking boring. I appreciate that Hova kept things short: it’s pretty rare these days to get a rap album that’s only ten tracks long, and not just because of the popularity of streaming your music changing how artists are compensated by their labels. I wish Jay-Z had chosen a different collaborator: No I.D. is fine, but he’s never been my favorite producer, even though I remember many late nights after work playing Common’s Resurrection on a loop while trying to unwind back in the day. Given this point in his life and career, I don’t know who that collaborator could have been, but I can throw some names out into the ether: Kanye West? (Yes, I know.) Apollo Brown? Harry Fraud? Ski Beatz? (That one’s just wishful thinking.) We can dream, right?

BUY OR BURN? The songs that I do like on 4:44 are good enough for me to recommend you throwsome money at this shit, but you’ll recall that I’m a Jay-Z stan, so you’ll probably take the opposite lesson away from all of this. Just remember this: there are some songs on 4:44 that won’t stand the test of time. But Hov still has it in him to craft great tracks, so hopefully there’s at least one more effort forthcoming, as long as he doesn’t have to continue to fuck up his marriage to mine for material.

BEST TRACKS:  “Bam”; “Adnis”; “Smile”; “Moonlight”; “We Family” (but not “Blue’s Freestyle)”

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
There’s more Jay-Z to read about here.




24 comments:

  1. Spot on Max. This might be the most I've completely agreed with one of your reviews in a while. This is a solid album that got acclaim because its Jay and because he's talking about "real stuff". Not that that's not important. But the music and songs have to be good too.

    I like "Caught Their Eyes" a bit more than you, but the only two songs that I have returned to repeatedly are Smile and (especially) Bam, which are both awesome. His lyrics and flow are lazy on several of these songs, and the beats aren't always top-tier either. Still, a lot better than MCHG to be sure.

    And I'm 100% in agreement on "Kill Jay Z". That song is horrible.

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  2. A Better Tomorrow > 4:44

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    1. There's just no way.

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    2. Oh, but there definitely is.

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    3. 4:44 at least comes as a natural progression of everything Jay has done for the past eighty-something years. A Better Tomorrow's only resemblance to a Wu-Tang album are the names involved, most of which seem to not want to be thare, and then RZA.

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    4. I call bullshit on pretty much everything you wrote there.

      4:44 is Jay bitching (title track, Adnis, Smile) and being pretentious as all fuck (Legacy, Smile) while still finding a way to jerk himself off (Marcy Me, Smile duh). A Better Tomorrow, while having some truly horrid musical choices, still comes off as a genuine reflection of where the Wu was at that point, regardless of Rae’s hypocritical objections. (Read: Fuck FILA and its bitch mother. Thanks for that XD ) Plus, enough of RZA’s production works better than it had any right to: I will always maintain that songs like Necklace, Never Let Go and Ruckus In B Minor are among the Wu’s best ever.

      So yeah, A Better Tomorrow > 4:44.

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    5. You can't call bullshit on someone's opinion. Life doesn't work that way.

      That said, A Better Tomorrow isn't a reflection of where the Wu was: it reflects solely where RZA was, and everyone else was forced to fall in line, hence the complaints and grumblings from the rest of the more vocal members of the group. You can love it all you want: I DON'T LIKE A BETTER TOMORROW. And not only have I not revisited it since I wrote about it, I also don't feel the need to, which is the kiss of death for any artist in any medium. It merely exists in my collection and I really wish it didn't.

      Thanks for reading! And stop comparing 4:44 to A Better Tomorrow: I sure as shit didn't. Jay-Z albums get compared to other Jay-Z albums, and Wu projects are put nest to Wu projects. That's the only way this makes any sense. Not everything is equivalent.

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    6. You're only as good as your last album. I think that says a lot about how I (and seemingly Max) feel about Jay and the Wu as (separate) artists in 2018

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    7. Let me throw the whole “my opinion not yours” element you introduced right back at you: I’ll compare A Better Tomorrow to 4:44 all I fucking want. And all of what you just wrote doesn’t make a difference to MY OPINION that A Better Tomorrow > 4:44. All of their respective ingredients point to that conclusion FOR ME.

      Peace.

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    8. You clearly missed the final point I made in my last comment, but that's cool. You're yelling into a void now, as am I. Go enjoy your Wu-Tang.

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. You know my stance on this guy, Max. I’m just happy you’re writing again.

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    1. I still feel you're missing out on a lot by blatantly ignoring the dude and other artists you claim to not like. I was like that once (for reference, please see the previous ten years of the blog), and it blinds you to the chance that an artist can ever surprise you.

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    2. Preach! I still check up on those types to see what the fuss is all about. I also know all too well that sometimes the singles aren’t enough research into an album. That being said, I heard the full album. I actually went into this hoping to see a side that would reintroduce me to him. (Read: I was once a fan of his. Hard to believe, I know.) Thereby, I was sorely disappointed to find that much of what I utterly despise about this man remains firmly intact here.

      Still happy with your writing.

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    3. Hey, at least you didn't immediately write it off upon its announcement. Which is all I can ask.

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    4. what do you utterly despise about this man that's so endemic to his catalogue?

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  4. I was looking through your blog again today and I noticed that you haven't reviewed any Public Enemy albums. If you haventh listened to any I suggest you do, but if you have what do you think about them.
    By the way, great review!

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I've listened to Public Enemy. And there's a reason why I haven't written about them yet. There are some clues hidden in some of the comment sections, I don't remember which.

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  5. I can't fuck with this review, too much bias. Sorry fam

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  6. I feel like if MCHG had this lyrical content it would be regarded as highly, and vice versa. If Jigga had to have one producer for a whole album I honestly think 2000-era Timbo or 1995-era Primo would've been the only truly viable picks

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  7. Best album Jigga has released since American Gangster, so much better then BP3 n a tad better than MCHG...

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  8. BP3 has hits, this is probably more consistent on the whole, though. I have no love for ANY of the songs on here like I do for Run This Town, Empire, On To The Next One though..

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  9. The one Jay-Z-related piece of news I cared about last year is his reunion with Jaz-O

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  10. So whats better, the Drake and Wayne Family Feud or the original?

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    Replies
    1. They both serve different purposes, so whichever artist you like more, you'll likely prefer that take.

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