Following on from what could easily be regarded as his weakest album, ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’, Jay-Z has burst back onto the scene with his new album 4:44, arguably his best work in 12 years.
4:44, feels as though Jay himself is now finally aware of his previous failings and has constructed this album almost entirely as a plea for redemption, both musically and personally. What makes 4:44 so impactful is the degree of vulnerability the seemingly impervious Jay-Z injects into his revival. The album opens with the overtly self-critical ‘Kill Jay-Z’ through which we are introduced to the current of self-loathing and introspection that runs through the record. From here on out the whole album seems to a metaphorical autopsy of the man that is Shawn Carter: Dissecting his very essence, analysing his vices and his drives, peeling back the hardened outer shell of his public persona and revealing his true emotions and most personal aspects of his life. The record revolves around the title track “4:44”, the self-described ‘crux’ of the album, named as such in reference to a moment of clarity at 4:44am, where Jay-Z claims to have had an epiphany and began writing. This epiphany could be very much be considered the end of Jay-Z’s Mid-Life Crisis, the moment of realisation and maturation which led to the introspection of this record. We see Jay come to terms with the effect of fatherhood and marriage upon him, the irresponsible actions he took as an attempt to preserve his youth and his own idea of himself as a ‘hustler’. 4:44 see’s the persona of Jay-Z discarded in order to confront the man behind the name and the impact this side of his life has had upon the real Shawn Carter.
This revival signifies a rebirth for Jay-Z, rendering himself a more complete and mindful individual. This newfound profundity and self-awareness naturally leads Jay to face the most serious subject matter surrounding him. A Jay-Z album has not been this polished or intelligent for over a decade, his observations are as astute as ever and his complexities have never been laid out so bare. In comparison to the past efforts of 'Watch the Throne', 'Blueprint 3' & 'Magna Carta Holy Grail', where Jay had exhausted his usual rags to riches narrative and seemed caught in a lyrical vacuum, unable to reinvent himself and only capable of gloating superficially about his riches, talent and success, Jay has finally been able to find a new struggle to comment upon. Jay-Z reflects upon his personal journey, inner-turmoil and redemption in the same slick and perceptive manner in which he used to rap about his success story. Much of the failure of his previous works saw Jay-Z move further and further away from his accessible lyricism. This reinvention, finds Jay-Z updating his old style to a modern audience. Truly impactful Rap is no longer centred around sex, money and self-praise. The truly groundbreaking and long lasting albums are ones that speak to the crisis of now and the plight of others. What Jay-Z provided when he was younger was a voice for the troubled youth, the strain of a hard knock life. Now with this epiphany Jay-Z dismounts his high horse, humbles himself and accepts that behind the fame, fortune and praise it’s the man that counts, and no matter your reputation and public persona it doesn’t necessarily protect you from immoral actions. This naturally finds Jay confronting everything from his past infidelitiesto shooting his brother in childhood, to his Mother recently coming out as a lesbian and of course, most importantly, the grander exploration of race.
Jay-Z is not the only person to be congratulated on 4:44's success, the production behind every track on the album is just as masterful as the lyrical content. Once again, Jay-Z seems to have learnt from his failings on Magna Carta, and perhaps recognised in retrospect that it has utterly no proficient or memorable aspects to it, leading him to discard the bland one dimensional club beats and put his complete faith in producer No I.D. Much of the album’s personality and charm can be directly credited, rather ironically, to No I.D’s production style. No I.D injects his unique and soulful Chicago style into all ten tracks on the album, however, perhaps the most impressive element of his production is the sample selection.
The samples are not only phenomenal in melody but profound in context. Every track has an instrumental that reiterates Jay’s primary concerns. They summarize Jay-Z’s thoughts and clarify his stance upon the issues he mediates on. On Jay’s powerful exploration of colour “The Story of O.J.,” No I.D implements a recurring Nina Simone sample that acts as a reminder that within society assumptions and stereotypes based upon skin colour are ever present. Then on “4:44”, Jay’s desperate apology track, once again the sample makes plain Jay’s shame and regret stating: “I’m never gonna treat you like I should!”. And perhaps most powerfully, on the closing track “Legacy,” Jay speaks up against the modern manifestations of black segregation, accented by Donny Hathaway’s empowering reminder that “Someday we’ll all be free”.
Legacy is the central theme to the album, Jay-Z is no longer looking back to his roots but instead looking forward towards the future, how will he be remembered by his friends, family and society? Where does he stand in the history of music and what was his contribution to culture? All these questions culminate in an album that not only allows us a deeper insight into the true Shawn Carter but one that offers us a deeper look at ourselves and the state of society in the process.