by Dom Jones
Hip-hop has grown up: purchased property, gotten married, had a couple of kids, and made sound business investments. In over 40 years since its birth, a genre that early critics called a passing phase of poor, rebel children of color has arguably become the dominant soundscape to popular culture. Shawn Carter, better known to many of us as JAY-Z, was one of those rebel children, disenfranchised by systems he didn’t build, yet was born into and adversely affected by. Jay was a rapper who came to prominence during what elder fans consider a golden era of hip-hop, rapping about his experiences as someone who had been poor, had a career in an occupation that could have left him incarcerated rather than incomparable. As a fan, I personally felt that he rapped about this part of his life for much longer than I would have liked. After all, he had the “baddest chick in the game wearing his chain,” married her in 2008, and she bore his first child, beautiful Blue Ivy, in 2012.
As I consider JAY-Z’s Black Album, the one that was supposed to be his retirement album (and one that is in many fans top 5 list), I wonder: what would have happened if he had actually stopped there? The Black Album was a banger, start to finish, and though Kingdom Come was solid, many maligned it as a follow-up simply because it didn’t have the gravitas of the Black Album. I mean, sure, it didn’t have the sparkle of some of his younger work, but he was over 40 still shooting over 40 in the game. American Gangster, which followed Kingdom Come, felt like an opus, and I’ve often argued, should/could have been his final album. I’m sitting here now, wondering… what would have happened if he had actually stopped there? Three of my least favorite JAY-Z albums would follow American Gangster: The Blueprint 3 (which felt like a heavyweight past his prime), 2011’s Watch The Throne with Kanye West (which, to me, was both of them struggling to remain relevant), and 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. I did respect the format of what was done with Picasso Baby from MCHG, but as an album, I still wasn’t rocking with it. ENOUGH WITH THE MISOGYNY, BRAGGADOCIO, AND MATERIALISM! Who are you as a man, JAY? We wanna know. After parting ways with Dame and seemingly distancing yourself from ‘Ye, who are you? After marrying Bey, becoming a father, becoming as prolific in business as you are in hip-hop, who the heck are you? Beyoncè dropping Lemonade only exacerbated my curiosity. As if my thought was a scribbled note on a paper plane, making its way onto the windowsill of The Carter’s manor, I got my answer… but not from JAY-Z. Shawn Carter began speaking. 4:44 was his answer to my inquiry.
Starting the album off with “Kill Jay Z” proves that Mr. Carter has been just as frustrated (probably more frustrated) with the direction of his evolution as I have… and I’ve only perceived from the outside, as someone who only “knows” him through his music and celebrity. With lines like “Cry, Jay-Z/We know the pain is real/But you can’t heal what you’ve never revealed,” he smartly takes himself to task first for his shortcomings, before we hear him begin to take his community to task for theirs (and oh, it’s coming). By the third song, his producer, No I.D. has sampled Alan Parsons, Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder, respectively, and you start to feel that this is Mr. Carter’s sankofa album: the moment where he reaches back into the past to propel himself (and hopefully the rest of us) into the future. While sample heavy albums have become rare and relegated to somewhere other than the mainstream, an interview in Rolling Stone with 4:44’s producer reveals the rationale behind primarily sampled production for this album.
Other standouts on the album include the title track, “4:44,” which serves as a love letter in the form of an apology to Mr. Carter’s wife, Beyoncè Knowles-Carter. This song might be my favorite, simply because every woman has had a “Lemonade” moment, but most are waiting to hear a “4:44” from the object of their affection, and many never will. Infidelity, loss, immaturity, and hopes for the future are all bundled into the song just shy of five minutes, but the reveal doesn’t stop there. Just after the title track, we hear “Family Feud,” addressing not only the damage that generational gaps in consciousness have done to the black community, but how the destruction of legacy reflects on everyone it touches (see: Bill Cosby and Al Sharpton). “What’s better than one billionare? Two/Especially if they’re from the same hue as you“ is Mr. Carter’s continuation of a theme of generational wealth building and cooperative economics that pervade the album as dominant topics of discussion.
There are two main schools of thought around the latest works from The Carters: one being that their vulnerability with their lives has endeared even more of us to their music and the other being that they are two of the most brilliant marketing gurus of all time, simply making us believe that we are getting a glimpse into their personal lives by magnifying the perception that the media has painted for us. I have one foot in each school of thought, and perhaps my nose in a third one. The third school of thought is this: who cares?! For me, it’s less about whether or not some of the more personal music is autobiographical and more about a legacy that isn’t stagnant, music that isn’t static, and a brand that isn’t bound to an era of music that has become inauthentic at best and psychologically destructive at worst. What’s more beneficial: telling the story of the boy on the corner or cellblock or the story of the man in the boardroom at the head of the table? Both are necessary, but only one is weaponized against the masses to create a false perception of blackness without calling into question the systems that create the dysfunction. And while many may choose to focus on the juicy relationship details sprinkled throughout the album, wanting them to be more fact than fiction, I’ve not been deterred from my initial question: who are you, Mr. Carter? 4:44 finally takes us from the block (and yes, also from the yacht) to the man who faced the dragon that America can be and often is for black men, with a little seed money and a lot of creativity, and lived to tell the tale.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SONG ON 4:44? SOUND OFF IN THE COMMENTS!