‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things.’
When the smoke cleared from the initial movie-trailer-esque advertisements and I realized that the Sprint and TIDAL collaboration 4:44 wasn’t going to be a motion picture, but a new project from JAY-Z, I didn’t know how to react.
Part of that was because of JAY-Z’s past two outings, Watch the Throne and Magna Carta Holy Grail (especially the latter). I had no doubt that JAY-Z could still rap: his features on back-to-back DJ Khaled songs were proof of that. But features were one thing. Having to endure another multitude of songs where Jay bragged on things he could afford that the rest of could not? I was good on that. The other part? The man born Shawn Corey Carter is five months away from turning 48. I wondered what his subject material could even be. Would he publicly address his wife’s project Lemonade, whose allegations of Jay’s infidelity had been jarring for many? Would he revert back to telling stories of his time dealing drugs as a youth in New York, like an oldhead speaking of his glory days? The initial trailer for 4:44 hinted to a song called “Adnis,” so-named after Jay’s belated father and whose lyrics suggested something personal.
But as someone who loves music and someone who is either a faithful JAY-Z stan or a glutton for punishment (because I still believe Lil’ Wayne has something in the tank, too), I checked out 4:44 when it released on Thursday night. And it, 4:44, proved every single one of my doubts wrong.
Shawn Corey Carter has a history of being private. He and Beyonce’s nuptials weren’t open to the public. When their first child, Blue Ivy, was born, they were extremely protective of sharing her first pictures with the world. (to date, Blue Ivy’s younger twin siblings still haven’t been shared with the public at large nearly two weeks after being born). But if you listen to JAY-Z’s music, every few albums or so, the rapper leaves a crack in the door and lets listeners a little into his personal life. Songs like “Lost One,” and “You Must Love Me” immediately come to mind. On 4:44, JAY-Z’s newest album, that door is wide open, and every single one of the ten tracks feels personal.
On 4:44’s second track, “The Story of OJ” (whose minstrel-referencing music video is a must-watch), JAY-Z tackles the Black community’s misplaced priorities. Using OJ Simpson – and his famous “I’m not Black, I’m OJ” commercial – as a muse, the rapper discusses how we can spend money on the wrong things. Most importantly, he emphasizes that, regardless of who you are or what you have (“rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga”), if you’re Black, the white majority will still see you as one thing only. It’s a definite shift in perspective from a man who, on his last album, bragged about “[spending] all my euros on tuxes and weird clothes.”
Tracks like “Smile,” and “4:44,” however, feel as though JAY-Z is walking side by side with listeners leading them through his own thought process. At 47, he is not the same person from a decade, or even a few years ago. On “Smile,” the rapper reflects on his relationship with old friends and also with his mother. That’s not a new subject for him by any means (on “December 4th”), but it’s the first on-wax admission of his mother’s sexuality – Jay embraces it and celebrates her.
The title track is extremely raw. On “4:44,” JAY-Z not only admits to his past indiscretions, but holds himself accountable for the wrongs he’s done to every woman in his life. The problem with apologies is anyone can say they’re sorry (us men especially) but many times, they lack sincerity. It’s moreso “I’m sorry I got caught,” as opposed to “I’m sorry for what I did/how it hurt you.” While there’s no guarantee the rapper won’t make the same mistakes again, on “4:44,” JAY-Z sounds like he has remorse and that makes the apology genuine. If it’s not sincere for Beyonce, it’s certainly sincere for their kids, when Jay admits, “My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes – and the mask goes away and Santa Claus is fake.” It’s like he’s realized the consequences reach further than just he and his wife; much easier to understand after the infidelity has occurred, than in the moment, it seems.
In the three tracks that follow, JAY-Z focuses his attention on the hip-hop industry itself: the artists within it, the culture, and the industry as a whole. On “Family Feud,” for example, he cites the importance of independence, recalling a conversation with the belated Prince. On “Bam,” he calls out rappers who project themselves as something they aren’t to fit an image, and the message is made even more pointed by Damian Marley insisting that “it’s hunting season” on the song’s outro. And on “Moonlight,” JAY-Z insists “even when we win we gon lose,” because he argues new artists are playing themselves. He even name-drops industry executives to prove his point.
So what is 4:44 about? Priorities. Your priorities change when you grow up.
Flossing, carrying guns, getting women – that may matter when you are younger and have something to prove. As a businessman, but most importantly, as a father and husband, JAY-Z seems to know now that the only people he has to prove something to, is his family.
He also prioritizes ownership – owning up to the things he has done in the past, as well as owning things. On two separate tracks, JAY-Z cites the importance of owning your masters: for musicians, this means retaining the rights to what you’ve recorded. It’s an investment in yourself, one that is bound to pay off if you see the value in it before anyone else does. Case in point? “I could’ve bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like, $2 million… that same building today, is worth $25 million.”
The ownership extends beyond himself, however – it’s about having something to pass on. That’s why “Legacy” makes sense as 4:44’s final song. For men, especially, we want to leave something behind. In essence, that’s exactly WHY we have children – to carry on the family name, at the most basic level. But it’s also about maintaining the empire. “Leave a piece for your siblings to keep for their children, too,” JAY-Z advises Blue on the track. Generational wealth is something all Black folks aspire to, especially since most of us never really have inheritances.
The album starts with “killing” JAY-Z and, shortly after, casting off the idea of “living rich and dying broke.” But even if you kill JAY-Z, if he’s passed on the lessons and wealth, his legacy and the empire remain intact. You can’t “die broke” if your empire lives on beyond you. It all falls apart if there’s nothing to pass down. That gives even more significance to the song’s sampling Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”
On “Smile,” JAY-Z says, “The more I reveal me, the more they afraid of the real me.” Black men tend to shy away from vulnerability because we fear we won’t be accepted – that the things we share, might cause people to back away from us for whatever reason. 4:44 is JAY-Z’s way of saying he doesn’t care how he’s seen, so long as he’s sharing his truth. But going further, he’s a Black businessman who knows what he’s doing, who knows how to play the game and is passing on the knowledge. And for certain people in power who are comfortable with the system functioning as it is and who might have assumed JAY-Z is just another “dumb rich rapper”… yeah, this album might make them afraid. Hopefully, we’ll all realize our worth and shun vulnerability in due time. I just hope the age of maturity and prioritizing, comes earlier than 47 for the rest of us.