Ok. Cue up the haters.
JAY-Z has a new album out, and like every other news event involving hip-hop’s longest-charting active rapper, it’s being met with mixed (including some predictably and prematurely negative) reaction…despite being one of his – and hip-hop’s – better albums to come out in a long time.
It’s been four years since JAY-Z (yes his new name is now in all caps and the hyphen has returned) released an album. His earlier release, 2013’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail became his thirteenth chart-topper (more than anyone but the Beatles). His new one, the just-released set entitled 4:44, will likely be his 14th Number One album when the next Billboard charts are released a week from now.
Okay, let me clear up a couple of things before I get deeper into 4:44.
For starters, the confusing math. He’s already had 13 prior No. 1 albums yet this is only his 13th “studio” release. That’s because his first thirteen No. 1 albums include ten of his previous 12 solo studio albums, plus three collaborations with R. Kelly, Linkin Park and Kanye West.
Also, maybe the JAY-Z name change is a bit trite and worthy of some extra scrutiny, just like when he deleted the hyphen several years ago. He’s becoming a modern-day Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy, except maybe more subtly. But the current name change is explained later, and please forgive me for digressing slightly…
Now back to 4:44.
On Friday, June 30, JAY-Z released his latest project, 4:44, exclusively to TIDAL, the still-fledgling music streaming service he revived two-plus years ago and co-owns with several other musicians, including his wife Beyoncé.
The new album is a concise, ten-cut self-reflection and confessional from the 47-year-old rapper who apparently is moving on from the trivial topics that used to fill his rhymes (and which still bog down others’), like fast money, faster women and fleeting material wealth. When he mentions those things now, they’re firmly placed in his rear-view mirror with a historical context of about $800 million ago, at least to hear JAY-Z tell it.
Now he’s rhyming about what you’d expect from a nearly 50-year-old black billionaire in America (not that there are many of those from whom to draw any expectations): topics such as holding on to that wealth, investing in growth options, fighting off predators (primarily those of white-owned corporations) and obtaining credit in the first place.
I know… all of that’s easier said than done, especially in a society where the odds are grossly stacked against his presumed target audience. It’s also dubious advice when coming from someone whose first money was apparently blood money… money that he bragged about to make even more money before having the common cents (pun intended) to begin the path to investment that led him to where he is now.
But even if you can’t relate to his hundreds of millions or how he obtained it, the ultimate confessional is something with which anyone who’s been on the wrong side of an adulterous relationship can identify.
That would be the long-anticipated response to his wife’s exposé about the rapper’s infidelity in the form of last year’s Lemonade album. JAY-Z’s comeback? Well, it’s indeed a confessional – and an apology – to his wife of nearly ten years and the mother of his now three children.
It’s mostly contained in the album’s title track, “4:44,” so named for a number of reasons, including that the song is 4:44 in length, was apparently inspired when Jay Z awoke at 4:44 one morning and both his and Bey’s birthdays fall on the 4th day of their respective birth months, September and December.
He alludes to his failings in other tracks too, including “Kill Jay Z,” the ego-busting opening track in which the rapper metaphorically puts an end to his huge ego by “killing” the old spelling of his name. It’s also the song where he alludes to the infamous elevator incident and half-apologizes to his sister-in-law, Solange.
In “Family Feud,” which features his wife’s vocals, the more introspective rapper spews the line: “a man that don’t take care of his family can’t be rich.” That song, however, is less about his internal family strife and more about the old-school-vs.-new-school squabbles that often engulf hip-hop’s past and present ambassadors. “Nobody wins when the family feuds,” he cautions, before reminding us that “ain’t no such thing as an ugly billionaire, I’m cute.” That line is likely a retort to the many hip-hop heads, young and old, that have mocked the rapper’s appearance over the years.
In other words, the older, middle-aged JAY-Z – whose unaffected if not conflicted ego, make no mistake, is still intact (a necessity to get to where he is now as he reminds us on the track “Bam”) – seems to now be on some grown-up sh*t; and hip-hop will be all the better for it. (Who else is in the rap game is teaching us lessons on how to earn, invest in and keep our wealth?)
Detractors will be quick to say that there’s nothing new under the sun and JAY-Z isn’t touching on any new subjects when he raps about racial inequity “The Story of O.J.” or his past life in “Marcy Me,” topics that have been even more eloquently captured by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole in recent years. But JAY-Z’s turn-of-phrase lyrical styling has always set him apart from other rappers, young and old.
Whether he’s reflecting on the late Prince and his battles with the “masters” (that is, “slave owners” in the music biz) about his “masters” (the tapes containing his music) in the song “Caught Their Eyes,” or poignantly answering his daughter’s question about a legal will (in the album’s last track, “Legacy”), JAY-Z is clearly coming from a different place than where he was in 1996 when he dropped Reasonable Doubt – the still-classic début album that saw a 26-year-old “Jay-Z” paired with the likes of then-peers like Foxy Brown and Biggie Smalls, the latter of whom he still references nostalgically in the song “Marcy Me.”
In that same tune, when he utters the line “Think I just popped up in this bitch like a fetus? Nah,” it’s easy to miss the fact that it’s the only time he uses the b-word in the entire album – and it’s not a reference to women – perhaps a sign of newfound respect for them (references to Bey are now “the baddest girl” and “soul mate”).
Soul mate? In hip-hop? Really?
Indeed, JAY-Z is coming from a place of newly displayed maturity, hard-learned life lessons, and 20-plus years of building an empire that has him back on top of the rap world once again in 2017.
One of these years – and maybe very soon – Hov will run out of things to rap about. One can only wax nostalgically about his drug-ridden past, brag about his new money or atone for past digressions for so long. Twenty-one years and 13 studio albums (plus four more collaborations) have culminated in the life lesson that is 4:44.
Surely, the difference between 26 and 47 will be far greater than the difference between, say 47 and 68, by which time we fully expect the long-tenured rapper to be long since retired and enjoying that legacy he so proudly raps about.
If his words are true in the album’s title track, he’ll likely be enjoying that legacy with Beyoncé, the woman with whom he’s built a $1.16B fortune according to Forbes magazine.
For the time being, and thankfully, the once-retired 47-year-old hip-hop mogul gives us music from the perspective of just that – a 47-year-old hip-hop mogul… with emphasis on the 47.
And because of that and maybe that alone, 4:44 and its ten short tracks are certainly worthy of praise, not the hate they’ve already received simply because of who and what – and how old – JAY-Z is.
July 16 Update: Click here to see this exclusive list of ALL the rap albums to ever top the Billboard 200 list.