Jay-Z went from selling drugs to a multi-millionaire faster than any rapper had ever done before. It’s why they called him the King of Rap, especially since he lasted on the charts longer than his early-2000’s rival, Nas. His 2003 record, The Black Album, was meant to be a retirement record, as the Don of rap wanted to leave the game on top and focus on other business ventures and his relationship with Beyoncé, but of course Jay couldn’t stay away for too long.
As Jay-Z became JAY Z and released some of the biggest rap hits of the last decade, he still couldn’t compete with the fresh new voices, and his image became that of the old guard; not a businessman, but a business, man. He fell out of the spotlight and took up ventures with Roc Nation, various champagnes, and TIDAL music streaming, but after infidelity claims flew around the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, we all waited on the edge of our seats for Jay to address the rumors.
4:44 isn’t a Lemonade-response record—it’s a confession. Opening with the track “Kill Jay Z,” Jay calls for the death of his ego, puts the hyphen back in his name, and sets the cathartic tone of the record. “Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real,” he says, “but you can’t heal what you never reveal.” Not that controversies or braggadocio are completely absent from the project, as tracks such as “Bam” and “Marcy Me” stress how important the construct of “Jay Z” was to get him to this point, but it’s all in effect to stress the importance of where his mind is at now versus where it was when he first became rap’s newest sensation.
The majority of 4:44 is focused on seeking forgiveness, and discussing not just the kind of man he wants to be, but also the kind of world he envisions for his family. Working entirely with producer No I.D., the pair describe the record as a “labor of love,” with No I.D. calling the title track “the best song he’s ever written.” “Everything it covers about being a man, being in a relationship, being a father, how you affect your kids,” No I.D. said in an interview with The New York Times, “these things don’t really get touched on in music, especially in hip-hop.”
On “4:44,” Jay’s versus and No I.D.’s production come together to produce something quite beautiful, a word I would have never used in the past to describe one of Jay’s records. He creates a sound of his own, instead of imitating or trying to rival his younger contemporaries, and his lyrics come across highly sincere, as if he’s saying them to his wife for the first time.
The remainder of the record comments on colorism in the black community (“The Story of OJ”), the importance of being a good father to your children (“Legacy”), a celebration of his mother coming out as gay (“Smile”), and an end to the feud between the younger and older generations of rap (“Family Feud”). It’s a new voice for Jay-Z, as he throws aside most traditional rap-cliches to produce something truly from the heart with the wisdom that one would hope and expect to hear coming from one of the greatest rappers of all time.
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