Review: Jay-Z’s “4:44”

In his 13th studio album, Jay-Z is a master of language and a student of life.

by Gunthar Reising

After Beyonce’s visual album “Lemonade” delved into the depths of infidelity in the artist’s marriage to Jay-Z, many wondered where the rapper would go with his music — could he continue to be the closed and cool hustler, or would he open up about his marriage in response?

With “4:44,” we found an answer.

“4:44,” which was released Saturday on Tidal, is the most personally revealing album in Jay-Z’s canon; the artist raps candidly about his famous ego, his money-mania and, of course, his infidelity.

The album opens with the lines, “Kill Jay-Z, they’ll never love you / you’ll never be enough,” rapped over the sound of a wailing siren. Jay-Z is dismantling his ego, a signature of his career and what carried him through the tumultuous world of 90s hip-hop.

Now, Jay-Z has decided it’s time for it to go. His bars are straight to the point, dissecting his own ego with a cerebral accuracy that feels at once chilling and vulnerable. “You had no father, you had to armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer,” he explains in the first track.

After the self-immolating song, Jay-Z moves into an analysis of the facade he’s built around himself.

“The Story of O.J.,” which samples Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” delves into the mind of Jay-Z, the businessman. As the first billionaire rapper, Jay-Z’s wealth has become as indelible to his identity as his ego and flow. In the middle of the song, he stops rapping to ask: “You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money at a strip club? Credit.” Later he raps, “Financial freedom my only hope / Fuck living rich and dying broke.”

But despite hopes of finding freedom with money, the chorus of the song alludes to a darker reality.

“Rich n—–, poor n—–, house n—–, field n—– … still n—–,” is repeated over and over in-between Jay-Z’s talk of this wealth-bought freedom. His voice is tired and flat, as if all of his efforts to escape his circumstance have just reclassified the type of black man he is in a racist society.

The album takes a left turn with the third track, “Smile.” The song, in which Jay-Z shares the spotlight with his mom, Gloria Carter, is a light tribute to hard times. In the song, Carter comes out as a lesbian.

“Mama had four kids but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian,” Jay-Z explains.

“But life is short, and it’s time to be free,” Carter adds in the outro.

From here, the album moves out of memory and into perception. “Caught Their Eye” features Frank Ocean, who manages to use the word “solipsistic” in a rap. The song questions how Jay-Z can know the things around him aren’t just a creation of his mind. With an experience shaped by liars and back-stabbers, watching his back has created an insurmountable self-absorption.

Until a point, the album is Jay-Z explaining himself — why he is the way he is and how society shaped him. In “4:44”, the album’s middle point, Jay-Z rolls up his sleeves for what everyone’s been waiting for — an apology.

In the titular track, Jay-Z owns up to everything, without pushing off the blame.

“If my children knew … I’d probably die with all the shame,” Jay-Z says in broken voice. It’s easy to say that Jay-Z had nowhere to go so he had to apologize, but there’s no doubting the sincerity. His lyrics are inspired, as he dreams and laments: “We’re supposed to laugh until our hearts stop,” he raps. “And then meet in a space where the dark stops / And let love light the way.”

And the dreamlike nature of the album continues — Jay-Z looks at his life with the confusion of a man waking from a deep sleep, comprehending but not fully understanding the sound and the fury. In his last song, “Legacy,” the artist gazes upon his life from generations in the distance, comparing it all to “the red queen’s race,” and explaining, “you run this hard just to stay in place.”

“4:44” is a testament to the lyrical virtuosity of a master, and any attempt to fully unpack Jay-Z in 800 words is an insult to his artistry. The songs are loaded with sincerity, insincerity, veiled jabs at Kanye, heartfelt apologies, arrogant claims to the rap throne, homages to rap legends, crippling analyses of failures, financial speculations, musings on religion and philosophy.

After listening, it’s tempting to call Jay-Z a poet, but that’s not quite right. It’s different, with all the dignity and better dollars: Jay-Z is a rapper.

Grade: A