By Will Hansberry
“Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be/No harm for them, no harm for me/But life is short, and it’s time to be free”. Just as, here, Gloria Carter speaks of winning freedom over her sexuality on Smile, her son Shawn demonstrates an equally powerful freedom throughout the entirety of 4:44: freedom of self. Here, we see Shawn Carter for who he is. No masks, no shadows. Pure vulnerability.
28 years into his career, there is little to say that hasn’t already been said about Jay-Z. He has 12 number one albums. He has three undeniable rap ‘classics’. He has money. He has fame. He has Beyonce. He brags different.
If one thing has been characteristic of Jay’s success, it’s been his braggadocios attitude. Bolstered by an inner call to defiance and a “lack of an inferiority complex” in his words, Jay has never shied away from reveling in his accolades or personal greatness. On 1999’s S.Carter, he announced that his competition was “nada” and 15 years later he declared a newly won Grammy award a “sippy cup” for his toddler Blue. This is and always has been regular for him. And he wouldn’t tell you otherwise.
For a man who finds the greatest of life’s accolades “regular”, hearing his inner conflict and present day struggles shines an endearing light. This is what makes 4:44 so liberating. In an era in which rappers say one thing and their tweets from 2012 say another, Jay’s vulnerability and honesty is refreshing.
Now, don’t get it confused. Jay’s had moments of vulnerability and honesty in the past.. As he talked about the death of his uncle, or father, or shooting his brother, or losing the love of his life, he tugged at your heartstrings. But still, there was almost always a silver lining to the pain. That these tragic events only made him stronger, only made him eventually the product we see today. With 4:44, there is no silver lining.
Instead, he tells us of his pain for just one reason: to tell us of his pain. We hear a nostalgic lens of his Marcy projects that he will never get back, we hear of missed financial opportunities that hurt his community, we hear of his religious uncertainty due to an abusive grandfather, and we hear of his infidelity in marriage. This last one, a pain so deep that it brings him to tears. A far cry from 2001’s Song Cry in which he raps “I can’t see them coming down my eyes, so I had to make the song cry”.
Despite this, just as much as this album is melancholic, it is uplifting. Here Jay seems to subscribe to the idea that after every storm there is a rainbow. 4:44’s rainbow is community. Whether it is community for Black Americans or artists globally, Jay has a unifying message: the sum of the parts are greater than the pieces.
This comes up frequently throughout the album. On Family Feud, he speaks of bridging the gap between the older and younger generations to build community and support financial success for those disadvantaged. This idea is build upon in Story of OJ and concluded in Legacy in which Jay instructs his children how he hopes that they will use his wealth for the betterment of blacks.
Although there has been a growing trend of black empowerment and personal weakness in rap in the past few years, nothing on this album feels like it’s riding a current trend or wave. Even down to the production, originality and authenticity are present. No I.D. reinvents sampling and mixing in the best of ways. Jay’s vocals often feel like a monologue being delivered over the most happening score imaginable. Samples of Nina Simone, Sister Nancy, and Stevie Wonder among others “make” the album in many ways.
Starting an album with the killing of your ego is something that most rappers wouldn’t be able to execute, but Jay executes himself to perfection. And that’s the story of this album, risk that works. And it’s because of that, many are considering this his best album in over a decade. Here is Hov’s return. This is Tom Brady’s fourth. Greatness redefined.
When you start to get older, the things that were once easy for you, aren’t so easy anymore. Like anyone else, Jay feels that.“That’s called the red queens race/You run this hard just to stay in place” he raps on Legacy. Staying consistent in your greatness is the hardest trick of them all. But Jay is running hard as ever, doing it.
Final rating: 5/5
First off shout out my boy Will Hansberry for analyzing this great body by Jay Z, Salute. Have thoughts on the album, leave a comment below! Benjy out!