Album Review: Jay Z - 4:44
Four years ago, I spent a bulk of July 4th (my birthday, for those keeping track at home) listening to Jay Z’s maligned Magna Carta Holy Grail, an album that I downloaded onto my mobile phone—the only way you could listen to it at the time, as it was a Samsung exclusive release.
So it seems only fitting that, for what is shaping up to be Independence Day Weekend (July 4th is on a Tuesday this year), that I spend it with Shawn Carter once again, listening to his latest effort, 4:44, a TIDAL (and Sprint) exclusive.
I was less than ten seconds into the album’s first track, “Kill Jay Z,” when I realized that this wasn’t going to be fun; this was going to be a chore.
During his initial run, from 1996 to 2003, Jay Z made a lot of albums—many of which were heralded by both critics and fans, including his auspicious debut Reasonable Doubt, along with the In My Lifetime series, The Blueprint, and his false retirement record, The Black Album. His retirement only lasted around three years, when he returned with a few of poorly received efforts, only to find (as if he needed any more if it) commercial success with 2009’s The Blueprint 3 and the inescapable “Empire State of Mind.”
Jay Z really didn’t need to come out of his short-lived retirement. He probably could have continued coasting on wise investments and lucrative marketing deals by simply just being Jay Z—a brand name that people recognize, because at nearly 50 years old, what does Jigga Man have to rap about anymore?
A mercifully slim ten songs, 4:44 sounds like a collection of improperly mixed home demos, giving new meaning to the expression “phoned in.” And at times, especially in the first two songs, Jay raps with little to no energy, purpose, or urgency, as if he’s just woken up from a nap, and someone stuck a microphone in his face; and in his stupor, this was the best he could do.
For something this compact, and seemingly arriving with very little thought behind it, Jay does attempt to touch on a number of topics, or issues, on 4:44. Right out of the gate on “Kill Jay Z,” he addresses his very public falling out with Kanye West; it’s also one of many songs that allude to his marital discourse—both the infamous physical altercation with sister-in-law Solange Knowles in an elevator a number of years ago, as well as the implied infidelity that Beyonce wrote into her grand artistic statement, Lemonade. And when he references this on “Kill Jay Z,” he straight up bodies Eric Benet, which is the first of many head scratching, and laughable moments found within.
One important thing to note is that 4:44 should not be considered a “response” to Beyonce’s Lemonade. And if it is—shit. It’s not even in the same league. Lemonade arrived as a multi-page, handwritten letter; this album is barely a grocery list scribbled out on a Post-It Note.
On “The Story of O.J.,” Jay tackles race relations, as well as his love of fine art—“I bought some artwork for one million,” he lazily recounts. “Two years later that shit worth two million.” Fucking great, you know? Good for him, as a patron of the visual arts.
It’s also on this song that Jay utters something that could be (and possibly should be) seen as anti-Semitic. “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?” he asks before the second verse of the song.
And no, I haven’t wondered that.
On “Smile,” he discusses, for the first time, I guess, his mother’s sexual orientation while heavily (and unsuccessfully) sampling Stevie Wonder; on “Caught Their Eyes,” he talks TIDAL business and fires shots at Prince’s estate.
The album’s titular track, as well as “Family Feud,” finds Jay diving back into the topic of his infidelities. He approaches the topic with self-deprecation by saying he “sucks at love” in “4:44,” and spends the duration of the song, aptly 4:44, begging for forgiveness for everything he has done wrong.
On “Family Feud,” he offers up a response of sorts to Beyonce’s now infamous use of the expression “Becky with the good hair.” Jigga simply barks “Let me alone, Becky!”
Jay Z shows mercy in the album’s second half—as he touches again on race relations (“Moonlight”) while borrowing from The Fugees, his humble beginnings (“Marcy Me”), and his absentee father (“Legacy”), none of those songs crack the three-minute mark, making the latter portion of 4:44 sail by rather quickly.
However, while Jay occasionally drops a bar or two that makes you take note, or chuckle a little, overall, throughout 4:44, there is very little that impresses, or provokes thought. While Jay was never a brainy rapper, he at least used to have passion behind his flow, and could come up with something clever. That is no longer the case.
Produced in full by the legendary No I.D., sonically speaking, at least 4:44 has some cohesion—however reserved the production on these tracks may be. But when it comes to the lyrics, and the delivery of, Jay sounds either a) like he is so very tired, or b) like he is an actor in a community theatre production of something written by Shakespeare—where they don’t exactly understand what they are saying, so they’ll just shout or yell their lines, and speak really quickly just to get them out and over with.
Much like Magna Carta before it, 4:44 is inessential Jay Z, and continues to do minor damage to a once great artistic legacy. While it is moderately charming that Jay went ahead and “responded” to his wife’s album, he did wait, like, a year and a half to do so—and with all that time, this was the best he could do.
Many, many years ago, on In My Lifetime Vol. 3, Jay rapped “S dot Carter, Y’all must try harder.” At the time, he was rapping about his lack of competition; now, it’s the kind of thing he must mutter to himself, under his breath, as he stares at his reflection in the mirror.