There’s a moment on JAY-Z’s new album, 4:44 in which he blames himself for Beyonce’s miscarriages. “I apologize for all the stillborns / ‘Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it,” he raps on the album’s titular track. Any parent can empathize with the feeling of being at fault when something goes wrong with a child, and that feeling is only magnified when a child dies or faces a near-death experience. It’s a moment of pain, irrational self-blame and suffering. It’s as brutally honest as JAY-Z has ever been and his most relatable. And it’s a JAY-Z moment I never thought we’d see.
It was clear by the lead-in to 4:44 that there would be a different version of JAY-Z this time. But the JAY-Z I was expecting — based on promo videos showing a black boy running with a shirt that says “stay black,” Jay’s outspokenness about mass incarceration and his involvement with bringing the Kalief Browder story to life — was a more woke JAY-Z dropping an album about societal ills, Trump and Black Lives Matter. And we do get that: “Legacy” is a rumination on generational wealth that reads like a season of Queen Sugar compressed into three minutes. On “The Story Of O.J. Simpson,” he breaks down crime, identity issues and the links between violence and poverty. That’s a JAY-Z I’ve wanted to hear since his iconic debut in Reasonable Doubt in 1996. And those topics are going to be discussed and debated for days to come, but the headline-grabbing moments from the album come when JAY talks about his marriage.
JAY-Z has been notoriously tenebrous about his personal life, only giving morsels of details in his two decades as a rapper. He’s hinted at breakups with Beyoncé and past heartbreaks, keeping fans at an arm’s length the whole time. His audience has been waiting for that wall between him and his listeners to crumble a bit so he can let us in. A year ago, Beyonce did the work for him, destroying the prim and proper infallible JAY-Z outer skin. Beyoncé’s Lemonade showed an adulterous and sometimes insecure husband. Before then, security footage showed Solange, Beyonce’s sister, charging at JAY in an elevator. Suddenly, JAY is no longer rapping from an ivory tower. He could have probably kept rapping about the drug game and how rich he is and gotten praised by his loyal fan base, but he decided to address his demons head-on. That’s the true triumph of 4:44.
You almost went Eric Benét
Let the baddest girl in the world get away
I don’t even know what else to say
Nobody expected a self-deprecating JAY-Z to show up on this album, yet here we are. He approaches marriage hat in hand on the title track, admitting his faults in marriage. He frets over if he’s a good parent and what his damaging relationship practices will do to his kids and struggles with his spirituality and his relationship with his father (“I hated religion ‘cause here was this Christian / He was preachin’ Sundays, versus how he was livin’ Monday,” he raps on “Legacy”). He struggles with the concept of how much he’ll humble himself however, opening the album with “Kill JAY-Z,” a rumination over the rap alter-ego and the real person: “Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real / But you can’t heal what you never reveal.” So he has to break down 20 years of money talk and bravado to give us a real look into his worries and fears.
But let’s not get it twisted: if JAY-Z is going to break himself down, he wants to make it clear that he’s still reigning supreme over his competition. “Kill JAY-Z” is largely dedicated to putting the nail in the coffin of his friendship with Kanye West. He takes aim at at young rappers coughDrakecough who think JAY is ready to fade off at his age: “All this old talk left me confused/ You’d rather be old rich me or new you?” So don’t think JAY is a withered old man giving away his shortcomings without first asserting his dominance, because he’s still talking cash money.
Perhaps beyond all of JAY’s honesty and reclamation of his throne is the masterfully soulful production of producer extraordinaire No I.D. who tossed Nina Simone, Fugees and Stevie Wonder samples at the wall and stuck them with some of the best cinematic production you’ll hear all year. He rides shotgun, giving JAY Z space to pause, breathe and let the drama of his lyrics wash over the listener. 4:44 is as much a No I.D. championship run as it is JAY-Z’s.
4:44 is the album any JAY-Z fan has hoped that he’d drop. Where it ranks in his catalog is a debate for another day. But for now, it stands as another notch in his belt in his claim to greatest of all time status and proof that even someone as storied as JAY-Z is his best when he’s keeping it real.