At 47 years of age, and over two decades in the rap game, JAY-Z finally takes off his cool. He exposes himself at a level that is completely foreign compared to any of his past albums. He delivers his most honest and compelling album to date with 4:44. Some may consider this album to be JAY-Z’s response to Lemonade, and while Jay-Z addresses topics of betrayal and infidelity, this album is much more than that. 4:44 is an introspective trip into the mind of not just JAY-Z the rapper, but Shawn Carter, the man. It shows him at his most vulnerable points as he invites listeners to hear about his shortcomings, fears, triumphs, and acquired knowledge.
Clocking in at 36 minutes, 4:44 is not long, and that’s part of what makes the album great. There are no filler tracks or fluff on this project. JAY’s extremely focused with a surgeon level of precision on this album. Every word is calculated and exact with layers of meaning to be uncovered through each new listen of the project. This album comes at the perfect time for JAY-Z. As he closes in on the half-century mark of his life, Jigga really starts to reflect on just about everything. Covering topics such as generational wealth, infidelity, parenting, and the Drug War, among other things, 4:44 seems to have an overarching theme tying everything together: legacy.
Throughout the album JAY contemplates how he will be remembered in life, as a rapper, father, and husband. He evaluates each part of himself acknowledging all facets that have brought him to this point. At certain times he is quick to highlight his accomplishments evidenced on songs, like “Legacy” showing that he has already laid the groundwork with smart investments in hopes that his family is set financially. He even acknowledges the fact that, “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine/But I’m tryin to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99,” on “The Story of OJ.” Although said in gest, JAY-Z is showing his high level of business acumen and willingness to share it to those that will listen, further showing the legacy he has cemented.
Even with all of his successes as a rapper and entrepreneur, JAY-Z does not shy away from his missteps. The album is riddled with lines about personal failures, but the album’s title track “4:44” takes it to a different level. The entire song—even down to the title—is a personal apology from Jay-Z to his wife, Beyoncé. This song confirms the speculation of infidelity that was created from Beyoncé’s critically acclaimed album, Lemonade. As soon as the song starts, before a lyric is even recited, you can hear the pain stemming from a vocal sample by Hannah Williams. From there JAY-Z grieves over the pain he has brought his wife and not loving her the way he should, admitting, “I suck at love, I think I need a do-over.” This is by far the most thoughtful song on the album. Outside of his own marital issues, JAY-Z discusses his struggles with friendships and other relationships on“Kill Jay Z”. Jay-Z bares it all and turns off his cool persona for a moment to become Shawn Carter, the man. A man that is not quite as unblemished as some may think, a man who has pitfalls, and a man fearful of the day his children learn of his mistakes.
While the insightful lyricism is on full display and shines bright, it is No I.D.’s production that ties the album together. The album’s production is reliant on heavily chopped soul samples, yet it is not overbearing by any means. In fact, the beats have a simplistic feel to them allowing JAY to take center stage with his story telling and self-reflection. Vocal samples from artists like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and Lauryn Hill give the songs a down-to-earth tone and complementing JAY’s introspective state of mind.
4:44 is a classic example of the duality of man. On one hand, it recounts the story of a street hustler turned icon—highlighted in “Marcy Me— that has built an empire through music bringing along friends and family, while also creating a family of his own. Yet on the other hand, the same man has had his own missteps along the way making questionable financial decisions and agonizing the love of his life many times over. And when JAY does decide to take a break from these aspects of his life, he drops knowledge and provides commentary on the rap game—through not-so-subtle jabs. All of these elements are what make 4:44 great. After years of being cool and suave, it turns out the compelling album wasn’t delivered by JAY-Z, but Shawn Carter himself.
Thank God for granting Shawn, “This Moment of Clarity.”