Solid! This is a better comeback album than Kingdom Come, and though JAY-Z (formerly Jay Z, and before that, Jay-Z, and before that Jaÿ-Z) hadn’t officially retired before 4:44, he might as well have. Excepting Watch the Throne, the best use of Jay-Z’s swagger since 2009’s The Blueprint 3 was on Pusha T’s “Numbers on the Boards.” By which I mean that a sample of Jay-Z from 1997, deployed like a cameo, was worth more than the entirety of Magna Carta… Holy Grail. To say nothing of his features around the same time; I have a hard time trying to pintpoint the exact moment of Jay-Z hitting rock bottom: the twerk outro in “Somewhere in America”? The Nirvana interpolation in “Holy Grail”? The laconic cake bullshit in Drake’s “Pound Cake”? The other cake bullshit in Beyonce’s “All Night?” And because The Blueprint 3 lost the plot halfway through (ie. “Venus vs. Mars”), that makes 4:44 the best solo Jay-Z album in a decade.
Because this one’s comparatively featureless (there’s no rap features, though some big names step in to help with additional vocals), one might be tempted to compare 4:44 to The Black Album (which only featured Pharrell). But that isn’t a good comparison: Jay-Z rapped his ass off on that one over a collection of a-list beats supplied by Kanye West, DJ Quik, Just Blaze, Timbaland and the Neptunes (let’s take a moment of silence to recall that album’s absolute greatness), which made sense because it was supposed to be a retirement album. (Which of course, it wasn’t, and regardless if it was a shrewd business move to move units and subsequently get people excited for the aforementioned comeback album, it did lead to the last great Jay-Z album.) A better comparison point for 4:44 is the Ghostface Killah’s (whom Jay references on “Legacy”) output of this decade: ie. the no-bullshit of Apollo Kids, practically an apology for any fans that he lost with the much-aligned Ghostdini. No time for bullshit either, 4:44clocks in at 36 minutes, which is about 20 minutes shorter than the next shortest Jay-Z album.
Already, others have noted the autobiographical lyrics: opener “Kill Jay Z” airs out all his dirty laundry with both Kanye West (“But you ain’t a Saint, this ain’t KumbaYe”) and Beyonce/Solange (“You egged Solange on / Knowing all along, all you had to say you was wrong”, in reference to the elevator fight between Solange and Jay-Z from a few years back). Even more touching is the title track, whose functions ranges from an apology to directly address Lemonade (“Look, I apologize, often womanize”) to a love-letter (“Took for my child to be born (to) see through a woman’s eyes / Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles / Took me too long for this song”), and tugging on some serious heartstring later on (“You mature faster than me / I wasn’t ready so I apologize / I’ve seen the innocence leave your eyes / I still mourn this death, I apologize for all the stillborns / Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it”). Couple all of this with references to Eric Benét and Future’s relationship with his son (both on “Kill Jay Z”) to his mother’s coming out (on “Smile”) to the underlying theme of “black excellency” throughout (to quote his chorus on “Legacy”), and it all culminates in his most emotionally informed album.
Long-time collaborator No I.D. produces the entirety of 4:44. Despite being capable of some really visceral production in recent years (ie. Big Sean’s “Control”, or Vince Staples’ “Jump Off the Roof”), he smartly pairs Jay-Z with stripped-down, mid-tempo, soulful beats that allows Jay-Z to shine but reveals plenty of beauty underneath. Take “Smile” for example: buried underneath Jay-Z’s verses and the loud smack of the drums is what sounds like two or three members of the gospel choir singing their hearts out behind closed doors. And the wafts of Nina Simone voice and a twilighty piano deployed on “The Story of O.J.” more than makes up for the bridge with the awkward business lesson (“You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money at a strip club? Credit / You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it”), to say nothing of when the drums pick up on the second verse. (Nina Simone’s Four Women” was also the sample and inspiration for Reflection Eternal’s “For Women” from Train of Thought, which was a top 10 album from 2000.) Plenty of other good beats to sink your ears into: another sample of Nina Simone is used on “Caught Their Eyes”; closer “Legacy” has a night-time horn melody that’s underpinned by the bleat of other horns (plus the occasional drum-roll); Beyonce’s vocals on “Family Feud”, combined with the percussion, adds a military-esque push to the track. (Plus, there’s the detail of how Jay-Z’s “Ain’t no such thing as an ugly billionaire, I’m cute” is immediately followed by an incredibly sexual sigh from Beyonce; it’s a silly line but they know it!)
All that being said, 4:44 is just about the safest way Jay-Z could have re-asserted his dominance: smarter raps over soulful beats over a very concise runtime. Whereas I actually heard a few people quote “Tom Ford” back when Magna Carta was released (before promptly forgetting about its existence a week later), I don’t foresee myself hearing 4:44 in my day-to-day. Frank Ocean and Beyonce are here, but neither Ocean’s distinctive fey voice nor Beyonce’s signature vocal strength are on display during their parts on “Caught Their Eyes” or “4:44.” Likewise, The-Dream gets delegated to an outro on “Marcy Me” (recalling Kanye West’s “Highlights”) instead of a proper chorus. Even a sample of Stevie Wonder (on the choruses of “Smile”) gets so downplayed to the point that you probably won’t recognize it is Stevie Wonder.
When 4:44 was first announced, I groaned, expecting another Magna Carta. And when people reported that it was actually a good album, I was wondering if Jay-Z went by way of De La Soul’s and the Anonymous Nobody… (a surprising genre-hopping exercise by veteran rappers) or A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (a slicker, louder version of a classic sound) or Dr. Dre’s Compton (filled with guest features more interesting than the name on the billing). He did none of those: he took no chances but made no mistakes. Welcome back Carter, indeed.