Hip Hop can be a beautiful thing when nurtured properly. Rap Music is a dominant component of the Hip Hop Culture that we love. The challenge in this love affair is fans within the genre can suffer from a short attention span. An artist can release a hot song or a hot album and the masses will eat it up with aggression. The Fans, Radio Stations, Clubs and other outlets will sing the praises of the "New" thing happening. This can come with a high price, unrealistic expectations and the pressure to sustain. As the great group Brand Nubian recited in a song, "Don't Let It Go To Your Head" because we all recognize you can quickly become a memory. Only the strong, gifted, dedicated, and focused artist can sustain the ever changing face of Rap Music and the Hip Hop Culture.
So, here comes Jay-Z again to share his story. This is a story unlike any in his past but we will get to that shortly. When the rumors started that Jay-Z was about to release a new album the internet exploded. Debates started immediately in regard to what direction he would go in making the album. Need I say, there were a lot of doubters in the atmosphere. There has been a segment of fans who truly feel that Jay-Z was finally washed up and didn't have the same hunger and ambition anymore. I must admit, I've been a little skeptical as well. I mean, if we're being totally honest, the 2013 Magna Carta LP wasn't the best version of Jay-Z. Fans have been waiting for the past 4 years to see if Jay had one more great project in him. I feel that he had previously condensed the complexity of his lyrics down to resemble the younger generation when it wasn't necessary. I say all of this to say that some of the doubt and backlash Jay-Z addressed on his new album was his own creation. The good thing is, many artist deliver great work when under pressure, doubted or when they feel disrespected. You can hear Jay-Z firing back at non believers on his more recent tracks with DJ Khaled, Pusha T and Jay Electronica.
On June 30, 2017 Jay-Z lit a match under the Hip Hop World for the fourteenth time. That alone is an accomplishment only shared by a few artist in music period, not just Rap. It's actually amazing to witness the level of excitement on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other Media Sources on the 30th when the albums was released. What is 4:44 about? What is so special about 4:44? Why should core fans, publications and critics be pleased with 4:44? Well, I have a simple answer to these questions. Since 1996's debut Reasonable Doubt we've been use to Jay-Z the rapper, not Shawn Carter the person. Jay-Z is known to give just enough about himself but always remained somewhat of a mystery, outside of sharing his experiences as an ex drug dealer. You know, the former employment (so called) of a lot of rappers but what about the man behind Jay-Z? We heard a few life experiences shared on "Momma Loves Me" off 2001's The Blueprint but it pretty much stopped there to me. On 4:44 we are introduced to Shawn Carter. We are granted a sneak peek into some deep layers in his life. Jay-Z finally became a true artist.
When I say "true artist", this is not to diminish the greatness of Jay-Z. The reality is people "feel" you more when you show your passion, emotions and vulnerabilities. The reason DMX, Eminem and Tupac have extreme dedication from their fans is because their fans feel like they actually "KNOW" them. I've seen Jay-Z and DMX both in concert. I loved Jay-Z on stage but I "FELT" DMX on stage. To become one with the people, you have to lose a little bit of yourself. Ray Charles, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and Johnny Cash each went through different stages in life, carrying you along for the ride. Shawn Carter has finally arrived. As I listened to the album, a few tracks caught my attention that I will speak on. I was pleasantly surprised at the honesty.
On 4:44, Jay-Z opened up about his marriage to Beyonce' and his infidelities. He vividly addressed his struggles with being a respectable husband on the title track 4:44, which is actually my favorite song on the album. The realness of the song backed by an amazing beat from NO I.D. created the perfect match. On a side note, NO I.D. produced the entire album which is a lost art in Hip Hop. When you think of cohesive projects, Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, EPMD and Pete Rock and CL Smooth come to mind because they generally had 1 MC and 1 Producer. Sorry about the rambling but I want this point to be clear to casual Rap fans. Ok, let me get back on track. On 4:44, Jay-Z talked about his children, family and friends more than ever. You should go back and listen to "Family Feud" and "Legacy". Now a song that is the subject for a lot of conversation is "Smile". To me this track is about finding happiness in life lessons and learning how to sustain your happiness. Jay-Z also talked about his mothers sexuality and her being a lesbian. He talked about how happy he was that she was finally in love. Ms. Gloria Carter also made an appearance at the end of the song talking about the importance of being happy with who you are. She talked about "Living in a Shadow" vs being truly free. This was a shock to many listeners but I respect it. By the way, Jay-Z rapped his behind off on this song. He flowed like he was starving and addressed being "Washed" as well. As a true "Battle MC", Jay-Z had to show some of his aggression on "Bam" featuring Damien Marley and the intro track "Kill Jay-Z" where Kanye West even received a few shots from HOV. I also enjoyed "Caught Their Eyes" and Marcy Me". Both songs are dope. The only song on the album that I wasn't crazy about was "Moonlight". It's not a bad song but in terms of production, it's a level beneath the rest of the album. The great thing about this album is some people will love this track. Jay-Z also talked about RACE. Did you hear me, Jay-Z talked deep about RACE on 4:44.
In comes "The Story of O.J." and man, I was a fan from the very start. The cool thing is a monumental video accompanied this song via the internet. (see Below) The lines that fans are buzzing over right now is...
Jay-Z said "O.J. like.........I'm not Black, I'm O.J." - Jay-Z says "OK" with sarcasm and humor....
Jay-Z said "Light Nigga, Dark Nigga, Faux Nigga, Real Nigga, Rich Nigga, Poor Nigga, House Nigga, Field Nigga...............Still Nigga"...
Race is touchy and many artist shy away from it. Hell, Jay-Z stayed away from it to a degree. Touchy subjects must be addressed and people with platforms have to be brave enough to share "truth". Jay-Z has never been shy talking about money but this time it was different. Jay-Z talked about black financial literacy that we must obtain and maintain. He talked about building a legacy and being self-sufficient. Jay-Z gave advice to up and coming artist as well. Jay-Z covered similar topics throughout the album and kicked knowledge that we had never heard from Jay-Z. Jay-Z finally became an elder statesman. Jigga has always been the "King Of Bling" but now we see Darth Vader with his mask off. 4:44 is like Return of The Jedi in a sense. The Jedi Master has decided to be human. The Jedi Master has decided to spill his heart in a way that fans will appreciate for years. The Jedi Master can now rest among the elite musicians who opened the entire book to their lives and allowed fans to read, dissect and appreciate each paragraph......flaws and all......Thank you Shawn Carter.
If this was The Source Magazine in the 90's, I would give this album a 4.5/5. It's a superior body of work in my humble opinion.