JAY-Z pens a gripping open letter on '4:44'
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Four-bar looped soul samples, oh how we’ve missed you.
4:44 opens with the dense, layered “Kill Jay-Z.” While a siren reminiscent of “Workinonit” recursively spaces in and out, Hov recounts shooting his brother, stabbing someone over album bootlegs and his intoxication with fame, among other things. Faint strings gently weep between his lines, swiveling around gentle piano and alternating, distorted vocals. “We know the pain is real / But you can’t heal what you never reveal.” The track is cleansing, and the admission of weakness and wrongdoing sets the album’s apologetic, confessional tone.
This is the leanest project of JAY-Z’s career. Nearly half the length of all his other records, at 36 minutes, every cut on 4:44 feels essential. Yet, the record’s length is misleading because the real richness and complexity only unpacks itself after many listens. The album pioneers a cohesive, distinct sound that is largely a callback to the sample-heavy hip hop of the early 2000s. Where looped vocals lay foundational points of contact, the drum arrangements are subtle, often sitting distant in the back behind piano segments or sections of brass. JAY-Z is innovating in his own creative vacuum rather than looking to compete with newcomers. He’s sold more records than all of them combined, at points mocking their contrived artistry, making flat-footed “skrrt” noises on “Moonlight,” for one.
In the era when artists trade and rip beats on the internet without ever meeting in person, the one-rapper-one-producer method of this LP is particularly curious. There is a chemistry here that some proclaimed duos never attain. The beats don’t just back Hov’s bars: they mesh and intermingle with them. JAY-Z’s verses don’t just fill out the track: they extend the possibilities of No I.D.’s canvases.
“The Story of O.J.” is the most politically charged track of the project; it’s no wonder that it’s one of the album’s two tracks to tout a Nina Simone sample. He chants almost meditatively: “Light ni**a, dark ni**a, faux ni**a, real ni**a / Rich ni**a, poor ni**a, house ni**a, field ni**a / Still n**a / Still ni**a.” Pitch-shifted vocals are thinly sliced, rounding out the percussive melody. Hov discusses black values in modern America and proposes investing in their own communities rather than blowing money at the club. He opens up on his own personal experience, recounting how he should’ve bought property in gentrifying Brooklyn. Brilliant piano arpeggios are tucked behind some of the best flows we’ve seen from him in a while: “I turn a two to a four, four to an eight / I turn my life into a nice first week release date.” With the dampened hi-hats sitting in the distance, the beat’s bread-and-butter (Read: kicks & snares) doesn’t beg for attention — instead the real brilliance of the track shines through in its tiny details: the meaty, trashcan-bashing couple-second drum break that pops up only a couple times between low, indistinct revving noises.
Even though the album’s cohesive sound revolves around soul, the aesthetic stretches into reggae/dancehall on two cuts: “Caught Their Eyes” and “Bam.” As Frank Ocean continues to make his case as an extremely versatile vocalist on the former, the latter sees Hov reprising his traditional braggadocious rap between Damian Marley choruses: “I was moving them kilos, help you move your peoples / Sometimes you need your ego, gotta remind these fools.” Rather than make the album lose focus, these aesthetic choices instead widen the scope of all 4:44 attempts to accomplish.
The only real weaknesses of this LP are those brief moments when he seems to imitate his protegé more than innovate. Although the album’s opener bears a Kanye diss — “But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinkin’ / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin?” — the track makes use of the same self-confrontational second person address that we saw on last year’s “I Love Kanye.” Also, although the sample is flipped much differently and its instrumentals bear much more substance on the newer cut, “Bam” chops up the same Sister Nancy track that popped up on The Life of Pablo’s “Famous.” Hell, there’s even a Steve Harvey reference.
While these elements are worth mentioning, on the whole these little blemishes don’t take much away away from the gem that is 4:44. What comes to mind instead are those brilliant triplicate hi-hats on “Smile” that might strike one as a vague salute to the dominant Atlanta sound. Although against the warm, almost windy vocals underneath the instrumentals, it sounds closer to the back half of Ocean’s “Nights” than it does to any Migos cut. Or maybe those couple seconds on “Family Feud” where Beyonce’s vocals are tempered with a cathartic echo. Or that flow on “Marcy Me” where Hov recounts the NBA narratives that defined his crack-cooking days. Or maybe that jubilant trumpet that keeps falling in and out of the album’s outro. The list could keep going.
Although 4:44 is largely a reflective open letter, it’s also political and instructive. Even in his newfound wealth, JAY-Z hasn’t forgotten the streets and the culture that comes with it, a point he reflects on in the penultimate dedication to his childhood projects “Marcy Me.” At some points in the album he offers practical advice — “Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood / That's how you rinse it” — and at others it’s more personal, reflecting on how he would’ve invested his money instead of spending it on fast cars. While it’s a little odd to hear moderation being championed from the same man that traded verses with Pimp C and Bun B on “Big Pimpin’,” it reflects the maturity that comes with parenthood: “My wife in a crib feeding the kids liquid gold / We in a whole different mode / Kid that used to pitch bricks can’t be pigeonholed.”
Even this far in his career, not just as a rapper, but as an entrepreneur, his lifestyle has been defined by the hustle. What we ultimately see in 4:44 are the values of his extravagant, mafioso youth come apart against the ideals of a family man. Whether it’s the calls to his past in his interpolation of Biggie’s “Unbelievable,” or those moments where he recalls his affiliates and reminds you that “before we had A&Rs we had AR’s too,” there’s a part of Hov that still identifies with the glorified rap image of lore. Yet, these recollections are largely for juxtaposition, their purpose to illuminate how these actions and beliefs have driven a rift in his family.
The title track and album centerpiece “4:44” is as remarkable on the 44th listen as it is the first; the sample work rivals the best of even Dilla or Madlib. Hannah Williams’s vocals blend and swirl into a magnificent cacophony while Hov sounds the most apologetic he ever gets over the 10 track tape. “And if my children knew, I don't even know what I would do / If they ain't look at me the same / I would prob'ly die with all the shame / ‘You did what with who?’”: Here, we see Hov own up to the infidelity Beyoncé called him out for on last year’s Lemonade. His voice is pained and inflections come across as broken, despondent. We’ve never heard Shawn Carter this humbled, this dismayed, and the sheer honesty bills “4:44” to be one of the best tracks not only on this record, but across his entire catalog. The dampened hi-hats drizzle like raindrops against a metal roof on a somber evening; the horns compound the emotional gravity. The drums sound closer to being pounded by a living, breathing drummer than edited on a soulless DAW. It’s all too real: “4:44” sounds closer to Hov rapping over a live jazz fusion at a high end restaurant than it does to being spit over a beat.
We’ve never seen Hov this raw, this split open. “All these people was gon' kill me, heh / Cause the more I reveal me, the more they 'fraid of the real me.” 4:44 sees Hov leave no rock unturned, championing black empowerment and diluting his emotional struggle into a soulful, 10 track masterpiece. The tracks are rich, diverse and speak both to the men pushing crack on the street corner and those in the 1% struggling to choose a Bentley model.
Hov has a history of alternating duds and heat (c’mon, no one still listens to The Blueprint 2 or Kingdom Come), and here we see that trend continue, making the disappointment that was Magna Carta Holy Grail almost worth it. Who knows how long it’ll be till the next JAY-Z album, if there will even be one? Whatever the case, this album stands out not just among recent projects, but his whole discography considered. When some unaware hipsters decades in the future find themselves cratedigging into early 2000s hip hop and stumble on JAY-Z, it’s hard to imagine 4:44 not being part of the essential catalog.