One line on 4:44, the 13th solo album by rapper Jay-Z, implores listeners to “Stop me when I stop telling the truth.” If that’s the case, you can’t stop this album for its entire 34 minutes. Featuring some of his most introspective and lyrical wordplay since 2007’s American Gangster, 4:44 is essentially a comeback record after a series of projects that were commercially successful but weren’t particularly critically well-received by reviewers or fans. It finds the 47-year-old drug dealer-turned-rapper-turned-multi-millionaire businessman at a crossroads of sorts, reflecting on his choices thus far and laying out the motivations for the directions he’s going in next; each of the ten tracks weave the musings of the man Shawn Carter against the rap mogul Jay-Z and back again.
From the minute the intro begins, horns blaring, “Kill Jay Z” sets the tone for the record. Shawn Carter is talking to and eventually “killing” Jay Z, a concept he has played around with before (remember the infamous final scene of the “99 Problems” video?), and on this song he’s basically saying goodbye to the worst parts of himself. This is about growing up as a person, as a father and husband, and recognizing that being a closed off person with no emotions – being Jay Z – was ruining his life, his marriage, and possibly even his future relationship with his children. Delving deeper into the psychological aspects of his behavior, he questions his rough upbringing in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn and wonders about the intergenerational trauma that often leads black people to build protective armor around ourselves. When you quite literally have to create various personas in order to function in a racist society designed specifically for you to fail, you’ll find yourself doing everything from code switching with your white boss at work to creating braggadocious, abrasive personalities intended to mask emotional inner turmoil.
The album moves swiftly through the lean nine tracks after “Kill Jay Z,” touching on topics of race, family, capitalism, wealth, community and oppressive systems. True to the times, it is unapologetically pro-black. But contrary to the belief that Hov is merely bandwagoning, 4:44 matures and expands on content he has previously explored throughout numerous albums and tracks like “Allure,” “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” and the aforementioned “99 Problems.” Even “Watch The Throne,” the collaboration album between himself and what appears to be former friend Kanye West, dealt with themes revolving around what it meant to be rich and black in a world designed to conspire against you. It’s never more apparent than on the Grammy-award winning smash hit “N*ggas in Paris:”
Ball so hard, this shit weird / We ain’t even supposed to be here,
Ball so hard, since we here / It’s only right that we be fair…
Ball so hard, I’m shocked too / I’m supposed to be locked up too,
You escaped what I’ve escaped / You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.
On 4:44, Jay moves beyond merely observing and relating his thoughts and circumstances to listeners and enters into the realm of action. He encourages black listeners to understand financial literacy and details how and why he invested money in various businesses and real estate ventures in order to get ahead.
Similarly, he talks about the music industry as a system that makes black people – the talent – a little rich and other people a LOT rich, championing artists to take back control of their creations and build wealth. While his acquisition of the streaming service TIDAL received jeers at the time, with the release of this album it makes much more sense as a power play by a black artist fed up with the system.
Capitalism as something walking hand in hand with systemic racism is touched on in practically every song. He questions a society that discourages financial literacy and all but ensures black people are unable to make money, urging his peers and listeners to consider an appreciation of economic awareness. Arguably, Jay’s entire discography could be said to have been about capitalism and the use of things as a way to prove self-worth, but 4:44 isn’t trying to sell you anything; it’s trying to tell you something. It’s more of an anti-capitalism album, or one, rather, that discusses ways of using capitalism to your advantage. How do artists take back control from an industry, a system — a country and world, really — that wants nothing for black people? What do they do personally in their own lives to get that power back?
Sole producer No I.D. creates a vivid and mature soundscape meant to showcase Jay-Z’s innermost thoughts and vulnerability by constructing sample-heavy beats around such heavyweights as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and The Fugees alongside lush instrumentation. The soulful vibe carries through from beginning to end, uninterrupted by other producers or tons of guest artists (Frank Ocean, Damian Marley, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s mother, Gloria Carter, are the sole features). And lyrically, the rapper is at his best, words crackling with double and even triple meanings. Some verses are direct follow-ups to previous songs. On “Allure,” for example, he discusses being “In love with a V-Dub engine;” on “The Story of OJ,” where he advocates for financial freedom through smarter spending and investments, he ponders the missed opportunity to buy a building now worth $25 million, lamenting over how he “…bought every V12 engine” instead. When he declares “I’ve seen the Eiffel [Tower], I’ve seen a eyeful” (on “Caught Their Eyes”), it’s not a stretch to imagine him as a poet laureate in another life.
He exemplifies the prime ways that black people without resources direct creative energy and intelligence, as a driving force that leads to the construction of entire musical genres, dances, slang, styles — the beating heart of culture. And the repeated personal references to the infinite number of ways that he knows the system doesn’t work also serves as a reminder of why low-income youth from marginalized communities are historically on the front lines of resistance: people from the streets understand race relations, because they’re not just studying it, they’re living it. Even as a wealthy, famous entertainer and mogul, Jay-Z still speaks to his world through the perspective of a kid from Marcy projects, except now his world is much bigger than the block.
Ultimately, this is an album about systems and the impact of those systems on black people as a whole, and Shawn Carter as a black man. It’s deeply personal, and several moments of raw vulnerability and introspection feel like direct reactions to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. When he confirms the infamous Beyoncé cheating rumors on the title track “4:44,” and furthers the conversation even more on Footnotes to 4:44, an additional video series of discussions about systemic racism, life, love, and relationships through the eyes of Black male celebrities, it feels like healing. Jay-Z is trying to break the chains of intergenerational trauma here. If Lemonade was about the emotional life of a black woman, this is definitely in a lot of ways about the inner workings and the emotional life of a black man.
Footnotes to 4:44
Not only does 4:44 feel like an accompaniment to his wife’s magnum opus, but also to the 2016 album A Seat At The Table by sister-in-law Solange Knowles-Ferguson. Solange, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z have made a series of albums about systems of oppression and the way these systems impact black people emotionally, socially, even physically; from the sense of community and emotional labor black women are expected to shoulder from the cradle to the grave on Lemonade, to the expulsion of toxic masculinity utilized as a protective shell on 4:44, to the micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation, crippling depression and, later, black joy explored on A Seat At The Table. In a society that has caged black people in various ways, collectively these albums represent a leap into freedom through expression.
While there are no lead or obviously radio-friendly singles, several songs employ a deceptive lightness: “Caught Their Eyes,” “Bam” and “Smile” feature infectious hooks and breezy samples that are tailor-made for summer parties. But the catchiness of it all only enhances the denseness of the lyrics — a technique also used on Solange’s A Seat At The Table. And just as Lemonade fanned the spark of Beyoncé’s self-titled album full-force into fruition, 4:44 also seems to showcase a masterful artist finally getting off autopilot and becoming truly raw and vulnerable with the art. It is a culture-shifting album, which is appropriate as Jay-Z is from a generation of culture shifters: drug dealers that actually sold drugs and made it cool in the wittiest, most lyrically deft and arrogant way possible (and the forbearers of the current trap-hop subject matter).
When Jay and Kanye went Euro on Watch The Throne, the culture followed, Renaissance art and European designer labels suddenly becoming cool in hip-hop. And 4:44 represents another shift in culture, from the embracing of his mother coming out as a lesbian to the question of what is black excellence in terms of leaving a legacy behind for your families and communities — and not just a monetary legacy but an emotional legacy, as well. It is adult rap from an adult rapper in what has been a young man’s game up until this point, a monument of honesty and pure artistic expression. It is maturing the rap genre before our very eyes.
To quote Hov himself: Welcome back, Carter.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.