Over 20 years since his debut, and amid an ever-changing music game, Jay Z keeps on going. His first major release since the birth and (debatable) growth of Tidal is here in 4:44. After a number of difficult to love releases, stretching back into the last decade, and with very little fanfare surrounding the album’s release, I almost felt resigned to disappointment by Jay. How very wrong I was, as 4:44 easily slots itself into the upper echelons of Hov’s discography.
Kicking things off in order, Kill Jay Z is not your stereotypical opener to a rap album, perhaps systematic of the record to follow but actually one of the weakest songs on the whole thing. Jay Z sounds almost wheezy, and it’s a rare moment the mostly supreme No I.D. production and the artist don’t feel in harmony, and it doesn’t have that immediate attention grab many artists yearn for in longer bodies of work. In terms of the albums concept, it introduces it all well, scattergunning over topics with both forthright arrogance and subliminally telling Future he is a mug.
If you’re to focus on one storyline and take it away from this album, put aside all the Beyonce/Becky nonsense and study The Story of O.J. This is someone who has been there and near enough done it all giving you the best advice he can on (if you can in anyway relate, that is) how to kickstart yourself and the entire black community into something more prosperous and pure. Causes such as Black Lives Matter have been around for generations, but when somebody turns up with genuine, feasible suggestions it’s probably worth listening; particularly if they are as notable/successful as Jay Z. The song itself again fits the rather low-key vibe of 4:44, and while on this song in particular it would be nice to have a bit more bang for my Tidal buck, it helps the album as a whole feel as cohesive as it does.
It’s at the Smile point of the album that we start getting some real flesh to the musical bones of 4:44. Getting the bad out of the way early, the chorus is performed a little too off-kilt for me, but they are surrounded by some of the most structured and well-rounded verses Jay has produced in many a year. The stuff about his Mum is cute as fuck, to boot.
With slightly more hustle and bustle attached to it production wise, Caught Their Eyes is perhaps one of the most memorable songs on a skim through, particularly as it comes gift-wrapped with the biggest named feature on the album in Frank Ocean. Who, unfortunately, really shouldn’t have bothered. As well as his feature falling flat (sounds like a thrown away Watch The Throne recording reused to me) 4:44 is such a revelatory album, and very self-centred in it that it would have made a lot of sense for Hov to put this out completely featureless, samples and his wife apart.
The centrepiece, the title, Jay Z’s self-confessed magnum opus of this 2017 release is of course 4:44. A letter of apology seeped in gospel, peppered with a simplistic yet effective drumbeat, Jay Z is at his most open and sincere in years, possibly ever in this his 13th studio release. As structured as his production is, the vocal performance is a little more relaxed in its approach, and it only improves the song as a result.
It also switches seamlessly into what is the all-round best song on the album (although Marcy Me is my personal favourite) in Family Feud. Furthermore, this is Jay Z beginning the albums second half, which is a lot more music-orientated and has less to take from it that will fill gossip headlines, and as a result I love more than any stretch of an album I’ve heard in 2017. Hov has fun, bouncing off his beat and his wife’s backing vocals to create what to me is a song more deserving of the album title. Though a small gripe is quite how long the song lasts considering Jay Z stops contributing about a minute before the end.
The albums solid feature comes from Damian Marley, one of many songs to now add to the list of sampling Sister Nancy’s famous (pun intended) Bam Bam. The songs title, Bam, was your clus if you didn’t clock before. The energy provided from Marley allows Jay to take a subtle step up in energy, coasting along a vicious dancehall cut with subtle precision. If it sounds particularly fresh, the vocals were only recorded a bloody month ago. That this track exists in such a short space of time in the quality in which it does is a testament to the supreme production effort done on this album. No I.D., who helped produce every song on 4:44, deserves some form of award in recognition for the work done here to go with the doubtless stacks of cash this has landed him.
The shortest cut on the album and the beginning to a quickfire race to the finish of the album, Moonlight is an exciting (again, I can’t express enough my delight and surprise with just how fun this album is) extended interlude of a rap tune. The La La Land references are genius coated in the context in what is most of this albums message.
Marcy Me, 4:44 in a bitesize, easily consumable package is again my favourite on the record. A remininxient Jay Z (lest we forget how much of an elder statesman Jay Z is in terms of hip hop, the man has fucking lived) is an enjoyable Jay Z, and he even manages to crowbar in a Hamlet line in there, which like it or not, most rappers could not do so effortlessly. The-Dream nails the spot he is given on the outro, as well.
Perhaps the song on the second half of this album, Legacy is a slightly underwhelming finish (although not for long, with bonus tracks available to 4:44 across all platforms imminently) to the album. Jay Z sounds less secure and a little more freestyle-like on a song that was definitely not made with the purpose of fitting the title. Jay and the beat get in the way of each other like two chubby blokes on a narrow street in a not too dissimilar way to how they did on the intro track of the record.
It doesn’t leave a sour taste, but it helps you come to the realisation that this is an album that features no one standout song to take away from it, but rather a collection of incredibly solid and deep cuts that deserve time and patience to be understood. These are not the deepest songs you’ll ever hear in hip hop by any means but they do have enough to make the second, third fourth and beyond listens of the album bear more ripeness in your mind, rather than giving you something fresh to pick out each time.
One of the better rap albums of the year for sure, and a return to form for a man that has so little financial need to release music again that not a lot saw coming. Particularly not with this approach.