PopMatters reviewed Jay-Z’s 2013 Magna Carta… Holy Grail not once, but twice. Both authors, Colin McGuire and David Amidon respectively, gave the album 6/10, but they reached the conclusion in different ways. McGuire called it “an off-day at the gym” and noted that “for once, Jay-Z’s ambitions ultimately got in the way of his artistic ability”. Amidon took a different tack: “Jay-Z probably just can’t carry an entire album anymore if you’re a lyrics head. But Jay was always custom built for a world where beats take precedence over rhymes.”
These two takes are important when considering the low-key masterpiece that is 4:44. It’s heavy on artistic ability and short on ambition outside of personal growth, and in the case of Amidon’s argument, well, Jay-Z proved him wrong. The beats on 4:44 play second fiddle to the lyrics, which carry the album with room to spare.
Despite some critics seeing Magna Carta…Holy Grail as Jay-Z’s attempt to shy away from pop sensibilities and find new artistic ground, three lines in he was already mining the same old vein, talking about being “caught up in all the lights and cameras”. 4:44 finds Jay actually digging deeper. The lights and cameras are stripped away, and three lines into “Kill Jay Z” (a bold statement in and of itself) he’s castigating himself over his failures as a husband and father.
“You know better, nigga, I know you do
But you gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue
You had no father, you had the armor
But you got a daughter, gotta get softer
Die Jay Z, this ain’t back in the days
You don’t need an alibi, Jay Z
Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real
But you can’t heal what you never reveal.”
That last line –“you can’t heal what you never reveal” — is the emotional core of the album, and over 36 minutes Jay goes on a search — not necessarily for redemption, but for truth and clarity and brutal honesty, as if reorienting his moral compass by force. “Kill Jay Z” is about wanting to reach into himself and tear that alter ego out — the one that protected his emotions and catapulted him to fame, but the one he’s outgrown and must move beyond. If Jay has ever been this poignant or precise, it was well over ten years ago. It’s a perfect entry point into the fertile grounds of 4:44.
A million lines of a million WordPress blogs by now are probably dedicated to the album’s connection to Lemonade: confessions of infidelity, calling out Becky, and an admission that he almost “let the baddest girl in the world get away”. But excavating and analyzing that pain is just a part of the mission statement, which runs both broad and deep throughout.
“Shine” is a celebration of his mother’s homosexuality. “The Story of O.J.” takes a brutal, visceral look at race in America. “Legacy”, a stunning three-minute closer, manages to cover black economic liberation, building generational wealth, and turns an excavation of Jay’s troubled relationship with his father into another milepost of his maturation: “See how the universe works? It takes my hurt and helps me find more of myself.” No corner of this album is untouched by a stunning level of pathos, way more than any Jay-Z album to date.
Great artists know when to draw and when to just sketch, realizing that the suggestion of form or movement can be more powerful than the real thing. Sure, reworking a line two dozen times yields incremental improvements, but it can also make a line feel overworked, like it’s trying too hard. Jay doesn’t make that mistake, preferring to leave his rhymes and wordplay loose — thoughtful but not rigid. There are lines flawless in composition and execution (“This was meant to be a haiku, but my story’s too wide to fit inside a line or two”), lines that could have been left on the cutting room floor (“Marie Antoinette, baby, let ‘em eat cake”), and lines that live in the glorious grey area between (“I’ve been to Paris at least two times — I’ve seen an Eiffel, I’ve seen an eyeful”). The lyrics of the excellent title track don’t read like a rap song — they read like lines cut from an anguished letter.
I said: “Don’t embarrass me,” instead of “Be mine”
That was my proposal for us to go steady
That was your 21st birthday
You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready
So I apologize
I seen the innocence leave your eyes
I still mourn this death and
I apologize for all the stillborns ‘cuz I wasn’t present
Your body wouldn’t accept it
I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions
‘Cause I was emotionless
And I apologize ’cause at your best you are love
And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about
Toward the end of the album, a more classic iteration of Jay returns with songs like “Moonlight”, but the tone is weary, the tracks short, the hooks virtually non-existent. They almost feel like a new iteration of Jay-Z, someone brushing off competitors with a wave of his hand rather than a cavalcade of threats — someone with more self-control and higher priorities. Even his boasts have matured. On “The Story of O.J.” he deadpans, “You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money in a strip club? Credit.”
The first couple of tracks are entirely boast-free, but when he does flash his wealth or status, it’s not really about himself. On “Picasso Baby” from Magna Carta…Holy Grail, Jay-Z invited his daughter to touch the Basquiat in their kitchen: “Lean on that shit, Blue, you own it.” In contrast, on 4:44 he raps, “I bought some artwork for one million / two years later that shit worth two million / a few years later that shit worth eight million / I can’t wait to give this shit to my children.” The tenor is entirely different, the focus on economic freedom and love for family rather than status.
Jay-Z staked his personal brand on realness, and here, this is as real as he gets. Yeah, the marketing gimmick was just that, a collaboration between Sprint and Tidal that was neither in service to the record nor particularly well-executed, but that’s easy to look past when the source content is so rich. Throughout, Jay-Z is imbued with fresh energy and passion. It masterfully melds his aesthetic to bare bones production and confessional, painfully self-critical lyrics — a near-180 creatively that has as much in common with Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Wanna Go Outside as The Black Album. There’s even a line, a talk-rapped throwaway about “being the tallest midget / that wasn’t politically correct / forget it” that could have been straight off a Kool A.D. mixtape, delivery and all.
Speaking of mixtapes, that’s a little bit of what 4:44 sounds like. The productions are quiet and generally sparse, shifting styles between tracks into a pastiche that’s beautiful and warm but intentionally not the focal point. It bounces back and forth between slinky horns, warm soul, and reggae-inflected beats, as though the whole point is that you can’t grasp on to the music. So the words are what you hold on to, turning them over in your hands, examining them in new ways as Jay examines his life. In this way, 4:44 isn’t a record — it’s a diary entry set to music.
That’s not to say the beats are afterthoughts. No I.D. sketched out 10 tracks that fit the aesthetic flawlessly. They pop in periodically to add needed depth (such as the Nina Simone sample on “The Story of O.J.”), but mostly they stay out of the way, providing the perfect backdrop for the vocals. The guests are few and fade away as well — Jay’s mom with a spoken word piece about coming out, Damian Marley with a forgettable chorus, and Frank Ocean with 2017’s best use of “solipsistic” in a rap song.
Already one of the greatest rappers in history, this is the kind of late career artistic push that will cement Jay-Z’s place on rap’s Mount Rushmore. This is Jay-Z walking onto the stage alone, standing contritely in front of the world, and speaking from the heart, revealing himself in order to heal. Heal on, Hov.