To be honest, I was avoiding this project. For no particular reason besides the fact that he produced an absolute dumpster fire with Magna Carta, Holy Grail, I refused to listen to something that sounded as pretentious as 4:44. Yet, my interest peaked when feuds with Kanye West and apparent references to Beyonce’s Lemonade surfaced on the album.
Listening to Jay Z’s 4:44 is, to say the least, shocking. Not because of it’s expensive samples, impressive features, or its bold and simplistic album art. What makes this Jay Z album so shocking, for the first time in a while, is the man himself.
Right off the bat the album blasts open with “Kill Jay Z” with no introduction and no hesitation. The second the listener presses play they are hit with clunky boom bap drums and a stuttering sample that plays like a fiery engine. Jay Z, armed with a mic that sounds like it was found at the bottom of a trash can, slices his way through the song by tearing his ego apart. He digs deep into his personal life as if he was in a therapy session, detailing the shooting of his brother and more. The overall sound of the song is a perfect basis of what the rest of the record is, with this somewhat lofi timbre to the vocals paired with a sleek and polished beat.
Directly after the opener, we have “The Story Of OJ”, which keeps up the consistency of great songs with a catchy flow, great sample and genius bars about the current state of black culture. Jay explains that no matter where you’re from, white people will still look down upon blacks. It’s done in a brilliant way with clever lyrics that aren’t pretentious while giving a great message. He also throws a shot at these SoundCloud rappers with a hilariously truthful bar about the money phone.
Moments like these are what make 4:44 so great. Jay Z went into this album with the intention to make a personal record, but also one that is short, concise, and bold. He uses every second on the record to his advantage and doesn’t put features in to fill space, rather to collaborate. Songs like “Family Feud” and “Caught Their Eyes” contain guest Vocal appearances from Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, but they’re looped and manipulated like samples, which adds an interesting dynamic. “Smile” features a moving monologue from HOV’s own mom, Gloria Carter, where she pleads the audience to be themselves, referencing her own story coming out as a Lesbian.
These collaborations work because Jay selected the most vital parts and strengths of each person and turned them up to eleven on the tracks their featured on. I think this is most evident with the production on the record by No I.D. Jay and No ID clearly are on the same wavelength and whether it’s the perfect sample or the right moment to add drums, the production on this album is near perfection. It’s so good that at times it reminds me of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Pinata, which I personally believe to be a future classic and an unstoppable masterpiece.
Finally, the most important part we need to discuss about this record is the lyrics. Personal, rugged, and brutal, Jay drags himself harder than ever before and deeply ruminates about popular culture better than ever before. He isn’t afraid to shed light on his wrong doings and even open heartedly admits them on the title track. On this song, over a sample that while good, can get tedious, he pens his response to cheating allegations. Although the entire song is brilliant, the final verse where he contemplates how his children will react to his past is where the tears should come pouring.
In brief, the fact that Jay Z’s new album is remotely good is remarkable. The record is short, bold and direct, leaving little to the imagination. The production goes for a more classic vibe rather than the luxurious presentation on his previous effort and the lyrics are his best since American Gangster. Beside from a few song topics that get tired after awhile (“Bam”), the album shows that if Jay Z needed to restart his career, he fucking did it.