Four years is a big gap between albums by Jay Z standards. Last time Jay had a record out, the country was still reeling from the murder of Trayvon Martin—his killer George Zimmerman was acquitted a month after the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail—and music was still largely an mp3 game. But now, streaming has officially taken over the industry, with Jay launching Tidal to place his stake. And based on the other moves Jay has made within the past few years, it seems like 4:44 will be Jay’s most thoughtful record yet.
Jay has now had five years to enjoy fatherhood with his and Beyonce’s daughter Blue Ivy, and he just welcomed twins last week. On Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay spoke about his fears of messing up as a father because he grew up without one; but the first words we hear from 4:44’s song “Adnis” are setting up a letter to his father Adnis Reeves, who abandoned the family when he was a child; the two eventually reconciled, with Jay providing Reeves with comfortable accommodations before his death. It speaks volumes that the first words we hear from 4:44 aren’t from an apparent radio or club hit, as we’re used to hearing as album announcements from Jay, but from a personal, familial record with an understated backdrop. And the title 4:44 seems to be a play on Jay’s family life: Jay was born on December 4, Bey was born on September 4, and their daughter Blue Ivy’s name has the Roman numeral four, IV. Jay also caught heat as the believed offender of infidelity on Beyonce’s Lemonade; maybe he’ll present his side on this album. Most of Jay’s struggle old man raps seemed to be purged on Kingdom Come; now his transition into adulthood on wax may be a more natural, poignant one.
Fatherhood—more specifically, the reality of raising a child in a world where racism puts their lives at risk—may have also increased Jay Z’s interests in social justice. In the past, Jay has seemed hesitant to make public statements regarding causes, choosing to do most of his work like funding college costs and protesters’ fees in private. Harry Belafonte issued a challenge to him and Beyonce in 2013, and on Jay’s last album he actually dissed the actor/civil rights icon. But since then, it seems like Jay has taken his advice and stepped up to the plate in more substantial ways. He has particularly used his voice to speak out against the prison industrial complex, writing editorials for the likes of TIME magazine and New York Times. He executive-produced a documentary about Kalief Browder that may have helped lead to the closing of the notorious Rikers Island prison that Browder was wrongly imprisoned and tortured in. He also became friends with Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States; does 4:44 mean that this album is “for 44,” or for Barack? And last year, he endorsed Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign as well.
Jay has spoken about sociopolitical issues in his music before, but aside from specific songs like Kingdom Come’s “Minority Report” and Watch The Throne’s “Murder To Excellence,” his commentary has mostly come through explaining the ins and outs of the streets, and sharing the psychology of a drug dealer, instead of directly confronting the systems of white supremacy head-on. 4:44 seems like Jay’s biggest opportunity yet to use his music the same way that his idols KRS-One and Chuck D (both of whom he shouted out after being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame) did, with a bigger platform and level of trust than either of them ever had. Truthfully, he wanted to rhyme like Common Sense – and now, he just might.
Jay Z also used his Songwriters Hall of Fame acceptance tweets to dead decades worth of beef. Jay previously had feuds with his former mentor Jaz-O, who gave him his first shot in the rap game, and with Cam’ron, his former signee at Roc-A-Fella Records in the 2000s. Acknowledging them during that special moment seemed to be his way of formally resolving them. And with last year’s appearance on the remix to “All The Way Up,” he concluded a longstanding dispute with Fat Joe. A few more subliminals toward Drake for taking shots at the throne wouldn’t be too surprising, but it seems like Jay has realized that in adulthood, feuds aren’t worth the mental space anymore.
By most measures, Jay Z is already the greatest rapper of all time. But for many of his detractors, there have been two knocks against him: a limited amount of personal stories beyond a surface level, and a lack of awareness concerning the world as a whole. Arguably, the closest he’s gotten is The Blueprint: records like “Song Cry,” “Blueprint (Mama Loves Me)” and “Never Change” touchingly visit his interpersonal relationships, but despite its classic status, it doesn’t provide much direct social commentary. If 4:44 pans out the way it seems like it is, this can be an opportunity for Jay to cover new ground and deliver the type of album that he has never truly released before. Hip-hop is doing well with the ascension of artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake, but a pointedly personal, sociopolitical album from its elder statesman could provide further evidence of the potential that hip-hop can have in a Donald Trump presidency. It’s also a chance for Jay to continue to show that he hasn’t lost it and prove fans wrong who think he’s over the hill.
Of course, this is all speculation. We’ve only heard a few lines from 4:44. But if the last few years and our first impressions are any indications, this can be Jay Z’s most complete album yet.
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