You’ve probably heard a little bit about the life and times of the one and only Jay-Z since that incident in the elevator a handful of years ago. Ever since the rap statesmen’s debut “Reasonable Doubt,” he’s talked up his game with the ladies and unfortunately this continued into his relationship with Beyoncé which of course inspired the earth-shattering Lemonade last year. 4:44 features Jay talking openly about all of it and more, even reaching back to the unhealthy start of the pair’s relationship.
Recorded seemingly within a stretch of a couple weeks leading into its release date—those Al Sharpton selfies that he references happened less than 2 weeks prior—the album is simple. No I.D. throws together a reliable collection of soul-sampling beats and Jay raps his ass off for a quick 37 minutes, yielding an impeccable change of pace from the not-so-effortless blemish of an album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Jay is a man with endless resources and to hear him just stick to his roots makes for a fantastic late-career highlight in a career full of victory.
The heart of the album lies in the title track—the fifth song in the track-listing. Jay supposedly woke up in the middle of the night and wrote out everything he needed to say to his wife and he really holds nothing back. Beyond divulging the threats he’s posed to his family and kids with his antics: “I apologize, often womanize,” Jay even dives into his immature mistakes throughout the relationship: “I said ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready.”
This is Jay-Z at his most mature and raw and real, there are no excuses, no half assed apologies, Jay takes a step back and admits the problems he’s caused and promises to make a change for the future. With the sample “Never gonna treat you like I should” from Hannah Williams sharply looming in the background, the track is truly a big emotional moment.
Surrounding the centerpiece are the album’s best standout tracks. In the four slot, Jay talks about seeing through the fakeness into one’s eyes with a catchy-as-hell Frank Ocean chorus. Sixth yields an empowering, forceful number with harmonized Beyoncé samples complementing Jay’s case for black people and culture being stronger together than apart. “And old ni**as stop actin’ brand new like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too,” is a personal favorite line.
Following that is likely the best feature on the project from Damien Marley as Jay reclaims his territory in the rap game. These songs aren’t necessarily as huge and radio friendly as “Empire State of Mind,” but between the killer bars and the fun hooks and sampling, they’re just as addicting.
Besides the string of killer tracks, Jay remains reliably solid. “Smile” talks up the life of Jay’s mom, who had kids living as a closeted lesbian. Again, Jay is divulging parts of his life that I don’t think he necessarily would’ve in the past, making for a deep emotional work. “The Story of OJ” talks about how no matter the circumstances black people in the United States, they’re still not treated equally: “Rich ni**a, poor ni**a, house ni**a, field ni**a/Still ni**a.” “Legacy” serves as a great send of as well, with Jay-Z talking about how he wants to combat the gatekeepers by setting his kids up with money to support their dreams. I’ve found myself singing back some of the choruses of the hits from the middle of the album, but the warm soul sound of the more laid back tracks, makes for a rewarding front to back experience.
Here and there Jay does show his age in a bad way: “That’s like sayin’ I’m the tallest midget/Wait, that ain’t politically correct.” Jokes about political correctness aren’t my cup of tea and this just feels a bit unnecessary. Also, the chorus of “Moonlight” is a bit puzzling. “We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose” is a great start and commentary about how even when black greatness occurs, something gets messed up in the reward process, but then he talks about the younger generation of rappers: “Y’all got the same fuckin’ flows/I don’t know who is who.” The proximity between the monotony of the whiteness of reward shows and the monotony of triplet flow runs a bit too close to comparison, especially for the guy who just said “nobody wins when the family feuds.”
Besides a few luke-warm lyrical moments, however, the album remains truly fantastic. Jay-Z never lost his ability to rap—obviously—but this is the most raw he’s felt in a while. It’s great to see an artist a bit past his prime still laying it all out on the line.