During the month leading up to the 2016 presidential election, professor and writer Jelani Cobb gave a lecture titled "The Unsafe Spaces of Democracy" at Brown University in which he talked about how a governmental system can continue to function while simultaneously acting as a disservice to individuals living within it. During his talk, he made a metaphor about being oppressed in America that stuck. "The punch you're most vulnerable to is the one you'll be hit with most often," he began. "You calibrate your defenses so that you learn how to navigate. So if you're susceptible to left hooks, that's what you're gonna be hit with all the time." This idea continues to come to mind when listening to JAY-Z's stellar 13th studio album, 4:44.
In the album's first teaser to the public, actor Mahershala Ali coincidentally plays out Cobb's metaphor as he spars with a punching bag, noticeably winded, yet seemingly sharpening his skills for a forthcoming bout. The metaphor is also a constant topic of discussion on 4:44, Jay's most instructional body of work since he schooled hustlers on how to maximize their game and their pockets 21 years ago on his debut, Reasonable Doubt. On this album, he's sharing his methods for continuously dodging America's left hook. On apparent single "The Story of OJ," he uses personal missteps and life lessons as a means to educate, listing blown opportunities to dump money into developing Brooklyn neighborhoods and detailing how investing in million-dollar art will provide him with money to put up for his kids. It's also in this song that Jay proposes that the black community leave behind its differences and move as a collective to gain liberation, which, in his eyes, can only be reached with financial freedom. On the hook, he reminds: "Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga / Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga/ Still nigga." In one way or another, this is JAY-Z's driving point on 4:44. And while getting life tips from an elder statesman has seldom worked in rap, it's the kind of album that only a JAY-Z, given his background and otherworldly success, could deliver with such precision. But what makes this album special is his realization that emotional and mental well-being are elements needed in that liberation as well.
In 4:44's shedding-of-the-ego opener, "Kill Jay Z," Jay holds a mirror to himself and addresses personal demons as a way to properly set the tone for the remainder of the ten-track album. "You can't heal what you never reveal," he admits in the beginning of the song. With that proclamation, it makes sense that this album is his least materialistic yet. Instead, there are more mentions of crying than he's ever made before; in previous attempts at cleansing himself of wrongdoings, he tried his hand at making the song do the emoting for him. He admits to stabbing Lance "Un" Rivera over allegedly bootlegging his album, something that the hip-hop community has held as truth since 1999. He confesses his need to shed his hard exterior for his daughter. It's also in "Kill Jay Z," that he, without detail, alludes to nearly losing Beyonce due to infidelity, something that fans have speculated since Lemonade.
JAY-Z's work in properly shedding the exoskeleton of his emotionless former self cannot be separated from the musical choices made by his longtime collaborator, heavyweight Chicago producer NO ID. Stevie Wonder's harmonies lay the perfect foundation for "Smile," a track in which Jay pays tribute to his mother who, for the bulk of her life, couldn't live freely as a lesbian but has now finally found love. Nina Simone's version of "Baltimore" fits perfectly for the Frank Ocean-assisted "Caught Their Eyes," which, like Simone's rendition of that track, gives way to a survivor reckoning with witnessing more than what most would prefer. The piano strokes on "Marcy Me," help paint a vivid picture of longevity, with Jay reaching back to highlight the many stages he's gone through to get here and commemorating a fading Brooklyn of his day. 4:44's production is crucial in this story. If Jay had elected to go for the grandiose sound of 2013's Magna Carta, it would have been impossible for these songs to hit the same way.
There are moments of the album that don't lean heavily on Jay's ability to give sound advice too, though. He takes times to take jabs at a young rap playing field he's not feeling particularly moved by on "Moonlight": "I'm in the skrt with ya—yeah, right / I'm the skrt with ya—cool story." But to square off his assessment of the game's youth not delivering, he keeps it mostly about the music—something his peers seem to struggle with, giving him reason to remind them that 'Pac rocked a nose ring at the height of gangsta rap. On the Damian Marley-assisted "Bam," he lets his ego breathe for a second by rapping as Hov instead of Shawn Carter or JAY-Z. Kanye West doesn't dodge inevitable bullets on 4:44 either: "You ain't a saint, this ain't 'Kumbaya' / But you got hurt because you did cool by 'Ye," Jay raps on "Kill Jay Z," a sure response to Kanye's rants during the final days of his Saint Pablo Tour. Hs best rapping comes on "Marcy Me": "Marcy Me / Streets is my artery, the vein of my existence / I'm the Gotham City heartbeat / I started in lobbies, now parley with Saudis / I'm a Sufi to goofies, I could probably speak Farsi."
The primetime moment is the album's title track, "4:44." Not only is it in this apology that Jay finally gives detail to the infidelity that fans spent months trying to scour for details of after Beyonce's Lemonade dropped, it also serves as an apology for times where his ego got the best of him in their relationship. He remembers: "Said, 'Don't embarrass me,' instead of 'Be mine' / That was my proposal for us to go steady / That was your 21st birthday / You mature faster than me, I wasn't ready." And though he's apologizing for these infractions, he can't deal with the fact that someday he may have to explain them to his children, who will already be let down enough by the world outside of their family.
This personal direction adds an element to the album's aspirations of being a how-to on liberating black people. Sure, investing in art will give you a chance to multiply your money. If you're getting your money on the block, letting said block define your value instead of establishing a business in that neighborhood probably won't end well. Owning the masters to your own catalog will save you a lot of hassle and hardships as an artist, too. JAY-Z's story is an American fantasy to some more than it is the American Dream. He capes for capitalism so hard because, to him, that is the most accessible tool for obtaining freedom in America's current system. But maneuvering through that system in the way that he did happens for a fraction of a fraction of black people in this country. And even if one is to check off all of those steps, if they don't address their own emotional turbulence and shortcomings in the midst of gaining financial freedom, aren't they still in prison? Aren't you still getting hit by the left jab that society continues to throw at you? That's where Jay wins with 4:44: Yes, financial freedom will be paramount for black progress in this country, but that liberation won't be truly complete until the full self is worked on.
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