From word-of-mouth and other reviews, it can seem like 4:44 is just a response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Did Jay-Z cheat at some point(s) in their decade-plus long relationship? From his song lyrics, we finally know he did. Was he taking her for granted like she voiced in the up-tempo “Sorry?” Oh yes he did, taking a quick tongue-in-cheek type jab at the infamous Becky. And although these admittances are sprinkled throughout the album, the rest of it stands on its own as Jay’s most personal and introspective work with an unexpectedly liberated stance.
After the next-level works put forth from his wife (Lemonade) and sister-in-law (A Seat at the Table), Jay had no option but to rise to the occasion and revert back to his original days as a leading emcee ahead of his time. He did just that with a few notes from his family. What these three artists now have in common — besides infamous elevators — is the simplistic way they weaved their personal tales and woes into the larger message of community and cultural empowerment. At a time when Jay could have released just one song filled with regret and purport the rest of the album with singles containing euphemisms of contentment and weariness, Jay basically went all Nene Leakes about himself, his relationships, his money, and his family.
Jay reclaims his classic storytelling style and subtle wordplay that was missing from albums like Magna Carta and Kingdom Come. His double entendres make you second-guess if you really heard what he just said. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t giggle a few times as Jay took shots at himself, OJ Simpson, and the maintenance of wealth. He takes on these subjects in such a honest way that instead of coming off as a lecture, it feels like he’s providing cheat codes on life so others of his “same hue” can rise too.
“Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine / But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”
Complemented by the great production of one of the most underrated producers, No I.D., the album is filled with multiple samples from Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder, with Jay’s vocals always at the forefront. Their choice of underlining one of the more talked-about tracks “The Story of O.J.” with Simone’s “Four Women” provoked the imagery for me of the Black man’s struggle supported by the Black woman’s voice. I heard the same on the track “Family Feud,” when Jay summons the congregation and an ethereal echo of “Amen” is the solo voice of Bey.
Jay is now surrounded by more women than ever before and that has impacted his subtle musical embrace of equality. One of his most powerful tracks lies within “Smile,” including a feature from his mother, Gloria Carter. I’m not sure if the rap game will ever fully confront its historical essence of homophobia — it certainly still remains a problem within the Black community. So Jay’s openness about his realization and acceptance of his mother’s lesbian identity in such a public way holds more weight for me than opening up about his own infidelities. For a Black man to do this in one of the most misogynistic fields is the final note that differentiates Jay-Z from Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter.
“Welcome back Carter”
4:44 is a monumental feat and makes me proud to not only be a fan of Mr. Carter, but a fan of hip-hop. Among the “lit hits” and songs that make a night-out worthwhile, there still stands that distinction between those trying to stay in the game and those ahead of it.
Although Black women don’t get enough credit for raising the game of those around them, I won’t assume that Beyoncé and Solange’s work solely influenced the style Jay brought to this album. But, somehow, listening to 4:44 unexpectedly made me feel the same way I felt listening to Lemonade, and A Seat at the Table: I’m so happy to be a Black woman.